SYDNEY — A dirty little secret in Australian society has been exposed, and federal and state governments are maneuvering to clean up the mess or face international condemnation for allegedly allowing the violation of human rights.

Cruel cases of rape and murder reported in remote Aboriginal settlements have shocked the Australian public into demanding action. Sadly, it’s nothing new. Abuses have been going on for years.

What is new is that, at long last, a Canberra government minister has taken up the cause of abused women and children living in remote areas of northern Australia. But only after demands for the army to be sent in to quell riots among drink-sodden Aboriginal men. A public outcry against “secret men’s business” has grown too shrill for blame-dodging politicians to ignore.

Folks living along the southern and eastern coastline, many luxuriating in the world’s highest living standards, have little idea of how a small minority of other Australians live in primitive outposts in the hot, dusty north, enjoying little of the fruits of Australia’s booming economy. But suddenly the world is watching. Abuses are being reported abroad and the reactions are embarrassing to Canberra.

Even Pope Benedict XVI has rebuked Australia. In Rome the pope told the new ambassador to the Vatican, Anne Plunkett, that Australians need to match their reputation as international peace-brokers with a determination to do justice on their own soil.

Back home from yet another mission to Washington, Prime Minister John Howard is quickly getting on top of a controversy that reignited during his absence. He will chair a national conference expected to turn obsolete Aboriginal administration, particularly a much-maligned legal system, on its head.

Much of the reawakened interest stems from the indignation of a few southerners who recently saw life in the raw and are speaking out.

In Alice Springs, a popular tourist town in the geographical heart of this continent, Dr. Nanette Rogers spoke on national radio of an 18-year-old gasoline sniffer — breathing in gas fumes is the drug of choice among local Aboriginal youths — who raped and strangled a 6-year-old girl. Court prosecutor Rogers described worse cases of baby victims as being “beyond most people’s comprehension and range of human experience.”

Since arriving 15 years ago from Redfern, an Aboriginal enclave in Sydney, Rogers has examined many horrific cases of alcohol-induced violence. She felt compelled to speak out against entrenched violence often put down to Aboriginal customs and perpetuated by a culture of silence and threats of “payback.”

Customary law was the excuse a 55-year-old man gave recently when arrested for raping a 14-year-old girl he claimed as a bride. A public outcry against his light jail sentence resulted in the High Court in Canberra refusing to grant his lawyers leave to appeal. This court ruling coincides with Canberra’s moves to change the Racial Discrimination Act to prevent customary law from being used to reduce sentences for convicted criminals.

All these well-intentioned reforms might have gone the way of past lost causes — if not for Canberra newcomer Mal Brough’s doing a find-out tour of the north with a media posse in tow. Arriving in Alice Springs, the newly appointed minister for indigenous affairs was hit by life in the raw. Aboriginal women, battered but determined, pleaded for help. Brough listened, and this time the message got out to a shocked nation.

Unhappily for the cause of reform, however, Brough used the words “pedophile rings” to refer to the long-standing hush-hush system that protects these predatory Aboriginal men. He was confusing the alarming rise in unrelated sex crimes with the organized pedophilia found in big cities. Instead of mounting an action campaign, critics pounced on that slip and the old blame game spewed forth a million useless words.

Back comes the interminable buck-passing between the conservative coalition government in Canberra and the Labor administrations in the states and territories. Claire Martin, the Labor Party’s chief minister in the Darwin-based Northern Territory government, pooh-pooed Brough’s grandstanding and declined to take part in a national “talkfest.” Her demand on Canberra: a $1 billion fix.

Jetting to Washington and Ottawa at the time, Prime Minister John Howard sent home calming words: “Women and children are entitled to protection. Holding back from the proper enforcement of the law is doing a grave disservice to indigenous communities.”

Those southerners with a longtime, closeup observation of this nagging problem agree the violence has worsened. Rosemary Neill blames “politicians, feminists, white progressives and indigenous organizations” for turning a blind eye. “It’s still unacceptable to say so,” the author of “White Out: How Politics is Killing Black Australia,” says, “but it’s clear some aspects of traditional Aboriginal culture are deeply inimical to women.”

Longtime Darwin-based journalist Nicholas Rothwell warns: “The abuse has been going on for years in the shadows. It is going on right now. It will continue unless action is taken.”

Rothwell suggests Canberra declare a state of emergency in the ghetto camps, then employ the army or a civic service of volunteer corps to provide viable settlements with proper facilities. The alternative to this “unpalatable prescription for those who fancy the ideals of Aboriginal self-determination,” he warns, is allowing the existing system to remain.

One of the few media to consistently hammer this issue is the national daily newspaper, The Australian. But when the paper’s reporter was locked out of the riotous town of Wadeye, in the Northern Territory, its editorial fulminated against “a form of apartheid.” The complaint is that Aboriginal land councils can keep out visitors. One council requires reporters wanting to visit Yuendumu to sign a document agreeing to submit their reports for oversight and possible censorship.

Clearly the upcoming reconciliation conference has a lot of tough nuts to crack. Hopefully the talkers will get beyond 200 years of recriminations and agree on workable solutions.

Why has Australia reached this impasse? One historian reckons he knows the reason behind one factor, the dead hand over Aboriginal society. “The root cause,” says Keith Windschuttle, “is that white Australia has deprived Aboriginal men of their manhood. The instrument we used was social welfare — giving handouts that did not require them to work.

“The human male is a creature biologically programmed, communally socialized and psychologically motivated to be a provider for women and children. In outback Aboriginal communities that role has been usurped by the state.”

Busy preparing the second volume of his controversial “The Fabrication of Aboriginal History,” Windschuttle says only 15 percent of Northern Territory Aborigines of working age are employed in real jobs, mostly in the public service. Another 16 percent are in make-work welfare schemes funded by governments. The rest are unemployed at a time when local mining industries are crying out for laborers.

Can Canberra change the mind-set that perpetuates this system? Windschuttle has his doubts: If minister Brough threatens the system, “he will generate resistance from those academics, Aboriginal activists and bureaucrats who created it. Some will even revive the myth that assimilation equals genocide.”

Stand by for the coming talkfest that is supposed to reconcile old and new Australians. Unhappily for Canberra, it’s gone beyond a local audience. The world wants answers.

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