Australia's acting prime minister called yesterday for a police crackdown in Aboriginal communities as authorities consider evacuating a former showpiece township racked by gang violence.
While Aborigines have long been acknowledged as Australia's most disadvantaged group, the violence in the Northern Territory's Wadeye township and revelations of massive sexual abuse in indigenous communities has sparked a strong reaction in Canberra over the past two weeks.
At Wadeye, a large Aboriginal community 420km southwest of Darwin, hundreds of residents have camped on the outskirts of town to escape battles between rival gangs.
The town, selected three years ago as one of eight Aboriginal communities to showcase the conservative government's policy of "shared responsibility," was described in major newspapers yesterday as a war zone.
Local council chief executive Terry Bullemor has raised the prospect of evacuating 300 residents to Darwin as violence escalates between spear-wielding gangs of youths calling themselves the Evil Warriors and Judas Priests.
Treasurer Peter Costello, the acting prime minister while John Howard is on an overseas trip, rejected a suggestion the military should restore order and blamed police inaction for the problems.
"The law enforcement has been too soft and it's got to be toughened up considerably," Costello told commercial radio.
He denied the government had neglected Aboriginal issues, saying it was spending A$3.3 billion (US$2.5 billion) on indigenous policies in this year's budget.
But Bullemor said indigenous leaders in Wadeye had little faith in the shared responsibility policy which Howard hailed as a blueprint for improvement during a trip to the township in April last year.
"They're probably saying right now `No, we've actually got to get back on the job, we've got to look after ourselves,'" he told ABC radio.
Shared responsibility involves deals between indigenous communities and government agencies designed to overcome longstanding social problems.
An example in Wadeye was an agreement dubbed "no school, no pool" under which the government agreed to provide a town swimming pool if parents ensured their children attended school.
The government introduced the policy after declaring the previous approach of self-determination for indigenous people had failed because of entrenched corruption, nepotism and incompetence.
Costello said the government was also considering scrapping provisions allowing courts to take Aboriginal cultural considerations into account in sexual abuse cases.
"It doesn't matter what the color of your skin is, a rape is a rape, child abuse is child abuse," he said.
The move follows an outcry sparked by media reports detailing the drug and alcohol-fuelled murders, rapes and abuse of children as young as seven months in some Aboriginal communities.
One report cited a Queensland University of Technology study which showed Aboriginal boys in Queensland and the Northern Territory were 10 times more likely to be raped than other Australian males. Aborigines account for 2 percent of the population.