Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Aboriginal Gap Prompts Call for New 'Paternalism' ; Australia's Health Minister Documents Poor Delivery of Health Services and Questions Policy of Self-Determination

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Aboriginal Gap Prompts Call for New 'Paternalism' ; Australia's Health Minister Documents Poor Delivery of Health Services and Questions Policy of Self-Determination

Article excerpt

It's boom time in Australia's northernmost city, Darwin, fueled by gas pipelines and mining. But an hour's flight by Cessna due south, over vast wetlands and floodplains, lies the aboriginal community of Wadeye, a shantytown of about 2,500 people.

Cut off from the rest of the state during the wet season, many families here live 17 to a three-bedroom house. Half the population is under 15 years old and can't speak English. The isolation and humidity exploded this May in gang warfare involving spears and makeshift weapons.

With residents facing third-world conditions within a continent of plenty, some officials are calling into question decades-old efforts to introduce self-determination in aboriginal communities. What's needed, they argue, is a return to a form of "paternalism" that would appoint more capable administrators and instill a wider sense of responsibility for aboriginal communities.

Prior to releasing a health report on the aboriginal communities in Australia, Health Minister Tony Abbott wrote recently that self- determination was unworkable and that "someone has to be in charge." He proposed an administrator with wide-ranging powers instead of the current local councils chosen with community input. Mr. Abbot wrote that self-determination had only encouraged officials to voice concern without backing it with responsible action.

Abbott's report revealed that indigenous life spans are, on average, 17 years shorter than those of the general population. He went on to write that the problem was not a lack of government spending but the "culture of directionlessness in which so many aboriginal people live."

Frustration with aboriginal policy has been building. Earlier this year, a member of Parliament said that if the problems on Palm Island couldn't be fixed, then perhaps the aboriginal community should be evacuated to the mainland.

"As far as aboriginal affairs are concerned, this country has taken a strong stance that self-determination has led down a blind alley," says David Martin, an expert on aboriginal affairs at the Australian National University in Canberra. Slowly, the government is attempting "a more practical reconciliation focusing on roads, power lines, and housing."

This means cutting development deals with communities. In the remote west Australian aboriginal town of Bidyadanga, with a population of 800 people, the government agreed to build a new swimming pool after children pledged to go to school under the "no school, no pool" rule. …

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