Situation far from normal in communities

Opinion Article

2012 October, 6

If you hang around long enough in indigenous affairs not only will you think you are Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, recycling old policies every five years, you will experience a genuine repeat of history. One such episode is under way with the Newman government beginning a review of alcohol management plans in Queensland communities. 

During the April election campaign Campbell Newman announced the Liberal National Party's policy, saying: "Why is it that an Aboriginal worker cannot come home to a home they own and have a beer on their front porch and watch the TV news with their family? Why shouldn't they have that opportunity, sooner rather than later?" 

Though the then opposition leader had made the point at a doorstop interview that his vision was for the longer term, and there would be no rollback of AMPs in the immediate term, I must say I shivered with concern. 

This week Queensland Minister Glen Elmes started the review process with the mayors of Aboriginal shire councils in Cairns. The outcry from indigenous leaders across the country was immediate. University of Melbourne professor Marcia Langton told this newspaper, "It would be tragic to lose the momentum built up over 20 years in Aboriginal communities to tackle problems, such as violence inflamed and exacerbated by grog abuse." 

Langton should know; as a Queensland government official she worked with women of Aurukun 20 years ago when they sought to arrest a spiralling grog problem. 

Former ALP national president Warren Mundine said, "I've been up to some of these communities. If you look at the difference since before alcohol was banned to now, it is enormous they want to bring the nightmare back. It's a disgrace. We are on the threshold of actually starting to get commercial activity in some of these towns; we are on the cusp of moving ahead. This would be a retrograde step and a disaster for these communities, quite frankly. You would have to have a hole in your head to even consider it."

Perhaps most significant was the response of community leaders. Aurukun Mayor Derek Walpo was one of several who refused to join those seeking to lift the restrictions. He told this newspaper: "We don't want to uplift our AMP. If we have more people working then eventually the AMP will fall away. We want to implement our law and order." 

That there is now leadership by people such as Walpo is an important development. A decade ago there was none. While many supported restrictions, their voices were muted. It shows that ownership and responsibility for these problems has increased at the grassroots. 

There is now grave danger this progress will be jeopardised. An episode of Queensland's parlous political history concerning black fellas may be about to be repeated. 

When the Bjelke-Petersen government took over Aurukun and Mornington Island from the Uniting Church in 1978, they were transformed into shires under then local government minister Russ Hinze. Aurukun was dry, with male drinking of contraband limited, and hardly any women drank. The missionaries had bequeathed a socially and culturally vibrant community that was soon to be wrecked with the Queensland government takeover. 

Hinze used the new shire council to push for a canteen. Without a rate base he saw canteens as a source of revenue for local government. It was a way of converting social security payments from the commonwealth to individuals into operational funds for the shire. Aboriginal livers across Queensland became funding laundries. However, Aurukun people strongly resisted the canteen. Numerous petitions and community meetings consistently voted against it. But the push finally succeeded and a canteen opened in 1985. 

The ethnographer of the Wik peoples, Peter Sutton, laid out this miserable history in his book Politics of Suffering. 

David McKnight, the ethnographer of Mornington Island, told of similar tragedy in his book From Hunting to Drinking. 

Those proposing to unwind alcohol management should first be obliged to read these books. Sutton points out before 1985 there was only one suicide and one homicide at Aurukun. Following the establishment of the canteen scores of each of these tragedies started to happen. 

Within five years of the canteen opening, David Marr's classic Four Corners report Six Pack Politics on the grog chaos gripping Aurukun aired in 1990. Langton featured with the women of Aurukun in Marr's report.

The legacy of these two decades of degradation will take more than a generation to subside. Too many young people were damaged in this period, and too many traumatic cycles started turning. The problems of imprisonment, neglect and abuse of children, juvenile crime and detention, removal of children into state care, the wreckage of health and the scars of violence will reverberate for a long time. Aurukun and other like communities are far from normalised but have made progress in recent years. Alcohol management has been key. 

The editorial writers of this newspaper got the simple truth right: it is too early to relax alcohol bans. Harm levels are still off the charts compared with Queensland averages. The violence, the arrests, the convictions, the hospital injury presentations and the school absences are nowhere near normal. Compare Weipa north with Weipa south, Hope Vale with Cooktown, Yarrabah with Gordonvale. The gaps are gaping wide. 

Former Howard government minister Mal Brough endorsed the relaxation of alcohol plans on the basis that the situation has been normalised, and provided that restrictions are reinstated if violence levels increase. As if the tap can be turned off and on at will. Brough's position has more to do with LNP solidarity than any wisdom he has gained. He is either not on top of the data, which shows the situation is far from normalised, or he has an uninformed view the gains can be improved by turning the tap back on. 

My view is there are two drivers behind the strange thinking of too many conservative politicians on grog supply to black fellas. 

First is the malignant motivation. There are those pushing the agenda of the liquor outlets who just don't care about the obvious misery. This is most pronounced in the Northern Territory but is not absent in Queensland. 

Second is the benign but naive motivation, where people with no idea of indigenous culture and society think black fellas will suddenly adopt the mainstream culture of having a beer after a hard day's work. Yarrabah Mayor Errol Neal echoed Newman's vision but was honest about the problem when he told The Cairns Post, "We want to be able to have a beer, listen to music and go home to our family. But we accept alcohol is no good for our culture and, when a mayoral candidate ran on a platform of reopening the canteen and TAB, she got very few votes." 

The cultural dimension of Aboriginal people and alcohol - and by this I mean the way alcohol distorts the kinship system and vice versa - means it isn't as simple as envisioning the guy on the porch having a beer after a hard day's work. I have yet to see kinship and grog become friends anywhere in indigenous Australia.

The tragedy of what the Newman government is doing with its first indigenous policy initiative is to focus on grog instead of the real priorities. Walpo had this week's best line: "We need to wake up and go to work. Not wake up and think about where we are going to get our next drink."

Situation far from normal in communities