Vale hope in outback hellhole

Opinion Article

2007 February, 17

On a recent Friday night I walked out on to the lawn of my mother's house in my home town. It was after 2am and though my family lives a kilometre away, I could hear loud music booming from several stereos in various parts of what I would have called a village in my youth, but  which more accurately answers to the description of an outback ghetto  today. 

The music emanated from houses known as party houses, where numbers of  men and women congregate to binge drink, share marijuana, often out of  what are called bucket bongs, laughing, shouting, singing and dancing and  seeking sexual partners - consensual and otherwise. 

By midnight the bonhomie of the early evening descends into tension, as various bingers develop dark moods, vent anger, resentment and suspicions  at those to whom they earlier professed love. Arguments and fights ensue,  over the smallest slights and often over ownership of and access to the dwindling supplies of alcohol. 

While parties rage at a number of notorious locations throughout the town, with erstwhile hosts boosting their stereos with specially bought amplifiers,  often placed at windows facing outwards as if for the benefit of the rest of the  inmates of this sad place, it is hard to maintain the fiction that this place is a  community. 

It is a hellhole where whirring fans and airconditioners in the concrete block  houses drown out the noise, including the screams. 

This Friday night was the third night in a row of parties, beginning on Wednesday evening following the receipt of Family Tax Benefit payments, which continued at a lower gear over the next day and got back into top gear  on Thursday night following the receipt of CDEP work-for-the-dole payments. The number of people missing from work has led almost every community to declare Fridays as the unofficial start of the weekend. School  attendance collapses from already low levels earlier in the week. This has led  to many proposals over the years from educators to reduce school days in  Cape York Peninsula schools to four days, as if that would be a solution.

As I drove around the streets at 3am, I passed by drunks stumbling from one  party house to another. I passed groups of young teenage girls walking  around or sitting on the kerbside. For too many of them, sexual activity  begins young at Hope Vale, very young. Who knows the circumstances of  their first experience, but the incidences of abuse that come to light are only  the tip of the iceberg of sexual assault, unlawful intercourse with minors, and  incest. 

That older men should be able to have sexual relations with the young girls I  pass in the street in exchange for alcohol, marijuana or esteem, is water off  the moral backs of our people. Young men may jump through windows to  rendezvous with their paramours, but it is as likely they do so to interfere with women and children. 

My home town looks and feels like a ghetto. The mango trees, frangipanis and old wooden church still evoke the mission of my early youth, but the fibro and weatherboard cottages built by the hands of our own local carpenters have been replaced by welfare housing, increasingly built by outside contractors. The uniform rows of kit homes and Besser Block houses  are of course much more expensive and have better amenities (at least at first,  because they do not last for long), but they look squalid. The once lovingly  tended gardens with topiary, gardenias and fruit trees are scarce today, and  the plastic bags, VB cans, old motor cars and general rubbish spill out of the  homes and on to the streets. 

With the eyes of someone who returns to his home town for holidays and occasional weekends, I marvel that the people who live here do not see the  shit in front of their eyes. Despite vastly improved levels of funding and  infrastructure the place is a mess compared with the village of my childhood. 

I drove past the place where my parents brought up our family in a small fibro cottage with no hot water and a pit toilet out the back. We got electricity when I was in Year 4 but I did not see television until I went to college. Now they have Austar and adults carelessly expose children and young people to their pornographic videos and DVDs. 

Earlier in the afternoon at the roundabout I saw the shocking sight of a beautiful puppy that had been run over by a vehicle, in a pool of blood on the  bitumen. As we say in the language of this place, Ngathu wawu baathi, my  soul cried for this lost life. 

In my nocturnal drive I passed the puppy in the same place. The binge drinking will continue to daybreak, and on through Saturday. Bingers pass out and catch some sleep, before waking again to resume the fray.

The parties change gear during the course of the four days as participants come and go, supplies run out and fresh supplies are brought in from Cooktown. 

The beauty of electronic banking is that welfare and CDEP income is dropped into keycard accounts automatically, and Centrelink will assist recipients to stage the time at which payments are made to members of a household. So Jimmy can get his on Wednesday and Sally can get hers on Friday. There is money for drinking and drugs over a longer stretch of the week. 

Centrelink's intention of course with flexible payment plans is to assist people to manage their income to purchase food and pay their bills, but the  reality is that it makes more money available for binge drinking over a longer  period of time. 

As I drive down to the beach early on Saturday morning I see the young children emerging out of the houses, as if from a war zone. Yes, there are children and young girls in the homes of the hosts of the binge drinking parties. How they fare through these weekly episodes depends on whether  their often inebriated parent is nevertheless able to keep an eye on their welfare, because the chance that molesters are among the party people is very  high. Older children may run off and stay with sober relatives, particularly  grandparents, but what happens to the ones left behind? Some of the young  people sitting on the kerbside at 3am are simply scared to go back home. 

On Sunday things will be quiet. "They run out of grog," people explain to me. The town will be mostly quiet for the next two, and if you are lucky, three days. The bureaucrats from Peter Beattie's Government will do their business with the people and organisations of Hope Vale in the sane part of  the week. Certainly the communities of Cape York Peninsula during the quiet  days can give the impression of being pleasant if untidy "communities". You  can excuse the rubbish and the ubiquitous high barbed wire fences and iron  cages that have to be constructed around almost every public facility, because  after all this is an Aboriginal community. 

But the public servants and politicians only visit for the day and never sleep  in the town. They never have anything other than the official conversations  down in the administration offices, so they too easily have the view that "this  place is not too bad", "we just need to co-ordinate the programs" and "we  have a demand reduction plan" for the alcohol problem. The underbelly of  these so-called communities is not intriguing like a David Lynch movie, it is  Hobbesian.

Meanwhile in public policy land three relevant events take place. First, journalist Margaret Wenham reported in The Courier-Mail on February 8 as follows: "Hundreds of impoverished indigenous people in remote communities have been hit with fines totalling nearly $600,000 for breaking Queensland's controversial alcohol management laws. Figures, released this  week by the Justice Department, also show that seven people have been  jailed and six vehicles confiscated since December 2002 when AMPs were  phased into the state's 19 discrete indigenous communities. Reports of the penalty tally were greeted with dismay by Aboriginal leaders who said most  people could not pay the fines and the AMPs were not working to curb  violence." 

The problem with Wenham's argument and that of any Aboriginal leader to whom she refers, is that if you divide $600,000 worth of fines between 19 communities over 3 1/2 years, the average fine for each community is about  $9000 per annum, or less than $200 per week. 

The liquor licensing authorities in Queensland do not release liquor sales figures from each community, and no one tracks alcohol purchases from outside of the communities, but if you make a rough estimate of alcohol expenditure per week I would say an average of $10,000 per week would be  extremely conservative. 

So if an average community spends $520,000 on alcohol, how can you say  that $9000 worth of fines is causing or even compounding impoverishment?  Is it not the spending on alcohol that is causing poverty? 

Second, on Monday this week the National Drug Research Institute at Curtin  University released a study which showed that in the period from 2000 to  2004, an estimated 1145 indigenous Australians died from injury, disease or  suicide caused by drinking. 

The study found that many indigenous people died very young from diseases  that do not exist among young non-indigenous people. A third of the deaths  investigated were female. The second biggest alcohol-related killer of  indigenous women was haemorrhagic stroke, and the average age of the  deceased was only 25 years. Among non-indigenous people, stroke is a disease of the elderly. 

The worst alcohol-related killer of indigenous people, alcohol liver cirrhosis,  on average shortens indigenous sufferers' lives to 54 years. The other major  causes of death - suicide, road traffic injury, assault injury, stroke - mainly  kill indigenous people in their 20s and 30s.

Third, Premier Peter Beattie met the mayors of Queensland's indigenous shire councils to discuss the problems besetting indigenous communities. 

The Premier emerged saying his Government would be making various investments in the communities and he expected the community leaders to  take greater responsibility for alcohol. 

One problem with the Premier's hopes is that these councils are still the owners and operators of the canteens which sell alcohol to their people. The  councils are as addicted to the profits from the canteens as the Queensland  Government is to gambling revenues. Tony Fitzgerald recommended in his Justice Study report to Beattie in 2002 that the nexus between alcohol profits  and councils be broken, but the nexus remains. 

Typically it is the justice groups that want to maintain AMPs while shire councils want them to be watered down. In fact the Government is considering proposals from councils to allow weekend trading and  takeaways, against the opposition of local justice groups. 

Beattie's minister responsible for the issue, Warren Pitt, has already weakened restrictions in some communities. Beattie and Pitt need to spend an  anonymous night or two in at least one, preferably a couple, of these  communities. They need to be in the town on the binge-drinking nights, and  they need to take a quiet drive or walk around the town and hear and see the  nightmare that the sober people and children have to endure. 

Last year Hope Vale's Mayor Greg Mclean invited a delegation of children from the local primary school to present their views to a large roundtable of  assembled bureaucrats and community leaders. In plain English the children  pleaded to these black and white adults that they wanted the drinking and  violence in their community to stop. 

As I drove through my home town on the Sunday evening on my way back to  Cairns, I saw the dead puppy still in the street. I thought about the distance  between being inured to the fate of a puppy that didn't see the car coming,  and being inured to the fate of our own children.

Vale hope in outback hellhole