- The Washington Times - Friday, January 23, 2009

(Corrected version:)


Surveying this ramshackle town in Australia’s Northern Territory, a three-hour drive from the largely desolate Stuart Highway, Asman Rory says he feels largely forgotten by his country.

“The community has been hearing that they’re going to be putting up infrastructure, new classrooms and such,” says Mr. Rory, a community health worker with kinship to the Garawa and Gurdanji clans of Aboriginal Australia.

“But I was waiting for a new school when I was a kid, and it’s been done only now, when I’m 26.”

The school to which Mr. Rory refers is not much to boast about; it is a drab structure with a zinc-sheet roof down a potholed road. But it may mark an improvement in the grim trajectory of a tortured relationship that white Australians have had with the country’s indigenous population.

One of the oldest continuous civilizations on earth, the Aborigines were slaughtered in large numbers after the first British settlers arrived in 1788 and ever since have been on the downside of advantage in the “lucky country,” as Australians likes to call their nation.

Now mostly living in rural and semi-rural communities, an endless litany of grim statistics belies Australia’s desire to portray itself as a multicultural and progressive democracy.

For example, the 39 percent high school graduation rate for Aborigines was barely half the national average of 75 percent, and Aborigines earned about 60 percent of the nonaboriginal average, according to 2002 figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

By 2008, the situation had grown so dire that Desert Knowledge Australia — a consortium of private-sector, indigenous, governmental and nongovernmental organizations — issued a report warning:

“The situation in remote Australia has reached crisis point, with clear evidence that there is a ‘failed state’ at the heart of our nation, and if this is not addressed, there will be dire economic, social, cultural, environmental and security consequences for Australia as a whole.”

Citing a failure of all levels of government to provide basic community services and infrastructure, a collapsing ecosystem and “severe” strain on indigenous culture and social structures, the organization advocated direct action to help stem a tide of hopelessness, abuse and neglect.

The government of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, whose center-left Labor party took power in late 2007, insists that it is doing what it can to aid Aborigines, who make up about 2.4 percent of the nation’s 21 million people.

“The Australian government is committed to closing the gap between indigenous and nonindigenous Australians,” said Barry Davies, a spokesman with Australia’s Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations.

Mr. Davies noted that $500 million in government funds have been allotted for the education of indigenous students and an additional $1.1 billion in new investment for disadvantaged schools.

Last year, Mr. Rudd apologized for Australia’s treatment of Aborigines, referring before the country’s parliament to “this blemished chapter in our nation’s history … the laws and policies of successive parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these, our fellow Australians.”

The 2007 publication of a report charging widespread sexual abuse of children in the Northern Territory prompted the center-right government of then-Prime Minister John Howard to launch an array of law-enforcement and social welfare initiatives popularly known as “the intervention.”

Formally known as the Northern Territory National Emergency Response, it included measures to restrict alcohol sales and limit access to pornography in indigenous communities. Successive Australian governments have struggled to cope with the plight of Aborigines.

In 1990, a Labor government established the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission to actively engage indigenous Australians in the political process.

Plagued by financial and personnel scandals, the commission was dissolved by Mr. Howard’s government in 2005.

The commission’s mandate now falls under the jurisdiction of Australia’s Department of Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs.

Aborigines were once well-represented in Australia’s agricultural and cattle industries. In 1966, a commission mandated equal pay for indigenous Australians. The measure backfired, resulting in aboriginal workers being fired from farms, in some cases where they had worked for decades.

Many farm owners opted to hire white workers rather than increase aboriginal pay, leaving a gaping hole in Australia’s regional employment structure.

“The main problem we have here today is people drinking a lot, because they have nothing there for them, nothing they can get up and say: ‘Let’s get up and do a bit of work,’ ” says Jack Green, 56, an elder of the Garawa clan near Borroloola.

Mr. Davies, the government spokesman, said, “The policy framework to increase indigenous educational attainment focuses on increased literacy and numeracy, improving the quality of teaching for indigenous students and engaging indigenous students and their families in the education system.”

Some indigenous Australians have praised Mr. Rudd’s public apology as a step in the right direction.

“That apology gave a tremendous feeling of relief to aboriginal Australians in particular, but all Australians, I think, because it was just important to have such symbolism at such an extraordinary high level in this country,” said Malarndirri McCarthy, a representative in the Northern Territory government.

“What we need to do now is act on that symbolism and make sure that it doesn’t go down in history as just another symbol,” she said.

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