Committee inquiry into petrol sniffing – UPDATED

I’ve been in far north Queensland for the last few days, predominantly to participate in the Senate Committee Inquiry into petrol sniffing in remote indigenous communities, although I took the opportunity while I was in Cairns to also meet with some people about other issues. I also visited the aboriginal community of Yarrabah, predominantly to meet with people about the stolen wages issue. Although I have been to Cairns more times than I can recall, and been to many other towns in the surrounding region, I had never visited Yarrabah before, which is remiss of me, given that it is only 45 minutes drive away.

The petrol sniffing inquiry is producing some useful information, although it remains to be seen how much value will come from the inquiry at the end of the day. Chronic petrol sniffing is more of a symptom of wider problems rather than a self-contained problem in itself. However, identifying what approaches have had some success and why can help not just in reducing the harm from sniffing, but give guidance for processes than reduce other substance abuse and social problems in some of these communities.

A couple of weeks ago the Committee visited Yeundumu in Central Australia, where the local community has had a lot of success in tackling sniffing and other substance abuse. (unfortunately I had to drop out of this trip at the last minute).

On Tuesday this week we visited Mornington Island, which is a community of around 1200 people in the Gulf of Carpentaria. The wider challenges of getting better economic opportunities, especially for young people in this community, were fairly apparent. There is a high proportion of children in most aboriginal communities, including this one. Seeing so many of them running around the playing fields of the local school, looking healthy and happy, reinforced what can be lost if issues like this are not successfully tackled.

One relatvely recent initiative which is being tried is the rolling out of a new type of non-sniffable petrol called Opal. This will help in the more remote communities, and reducing the availability of a harmful substance can obviously help. However, it is unlikely to be able to solve the wider problems.

At the Committee’s public hearing in Cairns, we heard from a representative from Aurukun’s community justice group. Aurukun is a remote community on the western edge of Cape York. There was also some excellent evidence provided by the Cairns based WuChopperen Service – who I hope to meet with in the near future to get a wider understanding of their work – and also from the remote area mental health service.

They reinforced very strongly what seems to me to be a key point. Communities have to produce their own solutions, and assisting communities to be sufficiently functional (and resourced) to capable of undertaking the process of determining and implementing these solutions is the pivotal task. This should be the key responsibility of governments. Measures like non-sniffable petrol may help alleviate some of the pressure and make it a bit easier for them to do this, but until/unless they can, the problems will probably just keep manifesting themselves in other ways.

This article gives some details of some recent government announcements on the petrol sniffing issue.

It is good to see that the new indigenous affairs Minister, Mal Brough, has been getting out and trying to hear what issues indigenous people believe are important. I just hope that his government will take the important next step of acting on those issues, as this hasn’t occurred overly often in the past.

UPDATE: 14th March –
A report produced by Access Economics has attempted to measure the economic cost from petrol sniffing. It suggests that “Government would save $27 million a year in social and health costs if BP’s unsniffable Opal fuel was rolled out across the whole of Central Australia.” This transcript on ABC’s Lateline gives more detail.

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  1. Apparently in the NT there seems to be some contention re the availability of Opal.

    But it is good to see people like Noel Pearson and Warren Mundine say the same things Pauline Hanson used to and not being called racists for it.

  2. Are you making a bid to add yourself to the list of ‘obsessive, one-track posters’ Geoff?

    Regardless of the topic, you regularly seem to try to link other people’s (unspecified) comments with (unspecified) comments by One Nation figureheads, and then go on to say those unspecified comments were called racist without any evidence that they were.

    The fact that Pauline Hanson made racist comments does not mean every comment she made is racist. Nor does this fact link to the topic of this post.

    As with all obsessive politically correct types, all you are doing is derailing and stifling debate.

    You’ve shown in the past you’re capable of making reasoned and useful contributions. It would be a shame if you let your talents be wasted.

  3. Andrew: Is there any chance that we can be notified as to who exactly is on that “obsessive, one track posters list” that you refer to above, and why?

    It seems to me that acknowledging the existance of a list of that nature is just another form of vilification, victimisation and of course that always leads to discrimination.

    It’s offensive and so unfair and wrong.

  4. Jolanda

    I was alluding to the recent string of comments by others, including Geoff, about such a phenomenon. I don’t have any list.

    I assess each comment on its merits against the comment policy of this website, in conjunction with the overal aims of the site.

    As an aside, in general, long strings of off-topic comments or side arguments detract from the readibility of comments threads for everyone else, so I probably will need to exercise some more oversight all round in that regard.

  5. Settle down Evil dear – of course you can’t be on the ‘lits’ – you’re not focused enough – hating everyone and everything is just way to broad, maybe when you’re a little older ….

  6. I’d suggest enforcing an “on-topic” rule for a while, with occasional open threads.

    I actually have an on-topic thing to say, though of course it’s going to be provocative. In my opinion the Government has achieved a great deal by dismantling large parts of the opportunistic Aboriginal industry, which thrived on poverty and illness. It’s also abandoned the white-guilt-and-useless-symbolism strategy of the Keating government for a more pragmatic approach that may actually produce solutions rather than propaganda.

  7. Andrew. The reason that my comments are relevant to this thread is, that what is happening here to some on your blog is similar to what has happened and is happening to Aboriginal people.

    They have greivances, they have issues but when they stand up and/or speak out in order to have these issues acknowledged and addressed they are accused of having a victim mentality, they are discredited, they are blamed and they are treated with disdain. It’s part of the proces the system uses and it discredits and humiliates and it is very hard for people to effect change or to feel positive and happy when they are being treated unfairly and are constantly being kicked down.

    It seems that the system only wants people to behave and address issues in the manner that is beneficial to and protects the Government. Our priorities are all wrong. When people actually try to bring awareness in relation to inequities and injustices so as to change things – they are regarded as being the problem.

    Cant you see the connection?

  8. Andrew, I agree, solutions need to come from or at least be relevent to AND have the support of these communities.

    What I really hope is that the government commits enough resources for full evaluations to be conducted on possible solutions. I see that the government announcement that you linked to does reference evaluation. Is the committee looking into evaluation? What’s your sense of how much of the government’s $9.5million will go towards evaluation?

    I hope that they will be doing serious pre and post intervention evaluations. It would be good to hear about who is going to undertake the evaluations….but perhaps they haven’t worked that out yet??

  9. Well Andrew I’ve mentioned ON a couple of times and considering the number of posts on diverse topics I’ve made I hardly think that goes anywhere near matching the 99.99% of one topic posts by marilyn etc….

    I have mentioned them because your party and people like you vilified them needlessly. care to quote a few of those racist comments you claim she made? hmmmm.

    Your party shared more policy commonalities with ON than any other party… geee… does that make you racists too?

    So where is my comment (or any comment) off-topic Andrew?

  10. Seems a shame to bicker – I’d rather try to understand the real problem. We have to help these kids. Your words AB, ‘Communities have to produce their own solutions, and assisting communities to be sufficiently functional (and resourced) to be capable of undertaking the process of determining and implementing these solutions is the pivotal task,’ How best can this be done?

  11. In response to EP – #8 – I agree with part of what you’re saying, which is that a pragmatic, solutions focused approach is essential. However, I don’t agree that much of what people usually refer to as ‘symbolism’ is useless. Sure, some nice sounding statements or resolutions on their own won’t achieve much unless they are backed up with actions and programs of substance. However, much of what people deride as ‘symbolism’ is really about acknowledgement and respect.

    Making ourselves more aware of the history of what has been done to indigenous Australians isn’t about ‘white guilt’, it’s about acknowledging what happened and about getting a better understanding of how things got to where they are to day.

    To use the petrol sniffing example, we can get non-sniffable replacements, bring in tough-love programs and a bunch of support workers, but unless the commuity itself can be made to be functional, it is unlikely to work in the long term. If it’s not petrol, it will be something else.

    This is a big task in many communities, and much of it also involves fundamental things like economic and employment opportunity. But you cannot just dismiss the role that acknowledging history can play in helping commuities become more functional.

    Hopefully that partly answers Cath’s question (#12). However it is only partly, as I don’t know the answers on this question. I don’t think there is a bigger area of public policy failure, and the solutions are slow, gradual, long-term and will vary from area to area.

    To take it out of the context of racial politics which can sometimes distort the focus, one could point to some of the disfunctional suburbs and country towns around Australia – young people who are third generation unemployed, etc. Fixing up these situations is hard and slow too, even without the extra burdens of history and direct experiences with major injustice that so many indigenous people have to carry with them. Add on remoteness of communities, lack of services, English as a second or third language, and the challenges get harder.

    Ashley – #10 – the Committee is doing an overview, which will include some degree of evaluation, but it won’t be te sort of evaluation I think you are talking about – the full statistical, data crunching type of thing. Our work will be more on the qualitative side I think. However, you’re right, a proper costs and benefits assessment is important. Although one difficulty is that petrol sniffing can’t really be assessed in isolation from other substance abuse and social problems.

    (Jolanda #9 – off-topic, but anyway … I can’t see that you have actually made any comments to this thread, you just responded to my off-topic response as you presumably assumed I was referring to you, when I wasn’t really referring to anybody, I was (intending to) refer to a string of comments on a previous thread. Regardless, I can see the connection you have made, but it’s such an overarching connection that it would make every comment is ‘relevant’, regardless of the topic of the thread.)

    (re comment #11 – yes, whatever you reckon Geoff – I’ll stick with discussing things with the adults)

  12. Yet another topic bites the dust eh Andrew. I love the way you strawman then close things off so no one can refute.

    How many is that you’ve closed since I’ve been here? Do you do this to everyone who doesn’t always see eye to eye with you?

    I note yet again and as usual you fail to do anything but engage in debate… and as usual it’s ad hominem yet again.

  13. Always impressive when someone learns a couple of philosophical terms. Next time see if you can learn how to apply them properly as well, Geoff.

  14. Hey Anna, pity YOU don’t seem to understand them.

    I’ve been using these for years and I do use them properly regardless of Andrew’s continual attempts to discredit and belittle.

    He should try that ploy on someone who cares.

    Yet again you waste my time by eliciting a response to personal abuse. Instead of debating on-topic facts.

    BTW if Andrew didn’t keep closing topics and doing runners I would have the opportunity to apply them… in the correct TOPIC.

  15. Hi Andrew,

    Congratulations on taking an interest on another worthwhile issue that, unfortunately, won’t get you many votes.

    Mal Brough’s article states that there are only 600 petrol sniffers. If so the govt. will have spent $33,000 on each of these sniffers by 2008. Isn’t there a more targeted way of utilising this funding rather than the broad approach of unsniffable fuel? Some of the other approaches, such as alternative activities, education, would yield better value for money whilst providing benefits also to non-sniffers in these areas.

    It only takes a very small amount of petrol to give a high so it is possible that over 99% of the subsidy on Opal fuel will go to waste given the small percentage of fuel that is actually sniffed. Smuggling will certainly increase, the petrol tanks of visitors from afar will be a source, and substitutes will be found. Has prohibition has ever worked long-term?

  16. Geoff if you went of and started your own blog you’d have even more opportunity to apply them as much as you liked and you could keep all your topics open and say whatever you pleased and be as rude and obnoxious as you want.

    This however is Andrew’s blog, if he wants to close comments to topics that’s up to him. He’s done that twice for the perfectly vaild reason that the comments had degenerated into a slanging match and were no longer producing any kind of valid discussion.

    Please dont keep moving to another thread and posting more narky stuff. Its becoming tiresome and as you say itis a waste of time – everyones.

  17. Almost as tiresome as you it seems mollie… try to post stuff on topic eh.

    Andrew’s a big boy he can look after himself.

  18. Andrew: You said: (Jolanda #9 – off-topic, but anyway … I can’t see that you have actually made any comments to this thread, you just responded to my off-topic response as you presumably assumed I was referring to you, when I wasn’t really referring to anybody, I was (intending to) refer to a string of comments on a previous thread. Regardless, I can see the connection you have made, but it’s such an overarching connection that it would make every comment is ‘relevant’, regardless of the topic of the thread.)”

    What can I say to you except that if you cant see that I have actually made any comment to this thread and you can see the connection but dont seem to appreciate the significance and you make excuses and wont acknolwedge the problems in society and the causes, in that it is the way people are treated that has the most significant impact on thier life, mental health and behaviour, then just keep getting excited about and having enquiries and inquiries. Life should be good for you!

    Just for the record, since regardless what I do or say I am going to be discredited and treated as insignificant and told that I am not on topic, when I wrote to the Democrats asking for assistance with issues that involved serious breaches in Policy and Procedure that affected children and the failure of the Government to exercise procedural fairness the Democrats sent me a copy of the book “Senate report into the Education of Gifted children” with a with compliments slip. Of course the book that agreed with everything that I said but as far as the Democrats were concerend they had followed the process and did something!

    So now there will be an enquiry and produce a report on Aboriginal petrol sniffing, the Democrats will be so happy, and nothing will change because those in power cant seem to get their head around the connection or maybe they dont want to because if they admit what has caused the problem they will have to admit that they played a big part in creating it and they have to protect their reputation at any cost and the easiest way to do that is to discredit the other.

    We can all then discuss how much money was spent on the report, instead of helping the Aboriginal people, and how these Aboriginal people wont help themselves with the nothing that they have left. The cylcle and process continues.

    You can see it happening on this site all the time. Its the process the system uses and it works to destroy people.

  19. Jolanda

    The key point of useful inquiries is that they get to find out the way people are treated and what impact that has!

    I have never made a single comment in response to your views about education, but you have none the less determined that I dsiagree and don’t care. That being the case, it’s little wonder I see no worth in engaging on it.

    Every comment I have made in this thread about what is needed with aboriginal people and regarding petrol sniffing is the exact opposite of what you have accused, as is your slur that I “make excuses and wont acknolwedge the problems in society and the causes, in that it is the way people are treated that has the most significant impact on their life, mental health and behaviour.”

    If people are making statements that reinforce your views and your response is to misrepresent and attack them, then perhaps it isn’t surprising that you feel no one supports you.

    As to the response you got from the Democrats some time ago – this site isn’t a Democrat site, it’s my personal site. However, while I don’t know who you wrote to or what you asked for, if you believe that receiving material in response that agrees with your views is a negative that should be added to your list of rejections, it’s again no wonder you’ve formed the view that everybody is against you and no one will help.

  20. Andrew. Enquiries just tell us what we already know. They are a waste of time and money as there is no requirement or obligation that the recommendations and findings be acted upon. They are just used to stall and pass time until the next one and so that the Government can pretend they are doing something.

    That’s right Andrew, you have never made a single comment in response to my views on Education nor have you commented on what I allege has been done to my children and family, so yes I have come to the conclusion that you either don’t care or don’t want to get involved.

    My so called slur that you make excuses and wont acknowledge the problems in society and the causes, in that it is the way people are treated that has the most significant impact on their life, mental health and behaviour.” is reinforced by your comment to me that because you think that I have determined that you disagree and don’t care that you see no worth in engaging in the matter.

    You might care to explain to me who exactly has reinforced my views and where I attacked them for reinforcing my views as opposed to responding to them for trying to directly or indirectly discredit me.

    Andrew, you admit that you don’t know who or what I asked for when I wrote to the Democrats but in my latest comments I clearly said that I asked for assistance with issues but this seems to have not computed. Telling people what they already know doesn’t help with assistance with issues Andrew. When you realise that, then maybe you might be in a position to move forward and effect change.

    Oh I haven’t formed the view that ‘everybody is against me’ that is the view that you seemed to have formed. I just believe that there is a culture out there that isn’t limited to those in power and we are seeing it in action right here on your site.

  21. Re comment #22 – I haven’t made or responded to any comment about education or the specific situation in NSW schools, because I haven’t done any posts on it. It hasn’t been on the topic of any of the matters I’ve put up here except in a tangential way. Even if I was thinking of going off-topic to respond to it, there doesn’t really seem to be much point seeing you’ve already determined in advance that I don’t agree with you.

  22. Yolanda, you have your own blog. If you think Andrew is so unhelpful then why do you insist on commenting here every 5 minutes?

  23. I tell you what Anna. I wont bother posting here any more. My posts here were not so much so that Andrew can help because I realised a long time ago that Ministers and Senators only follow, they dont lead. I also realised from the outset when Andrew didn’t respond to my email or posts on issues of education that it was a waste of my time trying to get actual help from him. My aim was merely to bring awarness as to what is happening out there and to bring awareness to the fact that our Government and our representatives are a waste of resources and funding.

    It also became obvious to me that nothing in this blog referred to Education, not even in relation to the Aboriginal issue and Education is the most imporant factor. Whether you want to believe it or not.

    Andrew, I never said that you dont agree with me, that is the excuse that you are using to ignore me and to blame me, I said that the fact that you dont respond to my comments in relation to such an important issue such as Education just shows me that you either dont care or dont want to get involved. That doesn’t mean that I think that you dont “agree with me”. There is a difference you know but as per usual you turn it around and blame me. What else is new.

    Anyway, I have had enough for now.

  24. Jolanda

    I’m truly sorry you and your family have had to suffer so much distress.

    However as I’ve said to you on another discussion thread, education systems are state based and differ greatly from one state to another.

    Andrew is a Queensland Senator and a federal representative, the problems you have are with the NSW state education system.

    Your suggestion that Andrew and the Democrats are not interested in education because he hasn’t written a post on it (as yet) or responded specifically to your particular issue is simply not true. Both Senator Lyn Allison (schools) and Senator Natatsha Stott Despoja (higher education) have done huge amounts of work in this area and continue to do so. You should go to the Democrats website to see the evidence of that.

    You have a specific problem in wanting your children recognised as gifted within the NSW education system and all the other isues that have followed on from that.

    My experience is different. I also have a gifted child, as well as one who had learning difficulties. My children have been educated within the public systems across three different states (not including NSW.) Both were assessed within the system – and I was advised of the problems with one and the potential with the other.

    They were both given support, encouragement and special assistance tailored to their needs. Because of that the one with learning difficulties overcame them and has gone on to excellent employment.

    The gifted one attends a public senior high school achieving learning outcomes that leave his parents wondering where on earth he gets it from, particularly in maths but also literacy – and grateful to the schools and the wonderful teachers who have brought him this far and seem to take as much delight in his achievements as we do.

    I apologise for this comment being of topic but I think its important to put another perspective. Not everyone has negative experiences with public education.

  25. You have mentioned you believe that Jolanda.

    My children are of a mixed Europoean, aboriginal and south sea islander heritage – though I don’t think that’s given them any special priviledges.

    Anyway this is keeping on the of topic issue – perhaps I’ll stop by your blog and discuss it further there.

  26. Sure Mollie, this is off topic and I really dont want to post here anymore. I am sure that will please Andrew.

    The difference between your children and mine might be that my children are of Lebanese background and that we live, and they have been educated, in the Sutherland Shire and that some people here, whether they have reasons for it or not, have a much more hostile and negative attitude towards Lebanese than any other race or culture.

    It is something that we have noticed from the first day our children started school.

  27. As a further thought in response to Cath’s question (#12) about how best can communities be assisted to produce and implement their own solutions, I’d have to say doing better on education is an essential – though not sufficient – aspect. There’s still matters such as immediate ‘harm mitigation/minimisation’ and economic & employment opportunitiy, but if we can’t get the education side of it to work, the prospects are reduced many times over. (it’s probably also relevant to EP’s comment at #8 too).

    I’ve done a new post linking to some of these matters.

    In response O Ekiditis (#17) – I will check those figures, but you make an interesting point about whether this is the best use of such money on a per person basis, compared to other things that might be done with it.

    You are right that prohibition rarely works, but I think in some instances it can, at least on a locality basis. Certainly some remote communities are tackling this at the moment with alcohol bans, which are for harder to enforce. Substitute petrol should be far easier, at least for remote communities. Siffing of petrol is a ‘secondary’ use to petrol’s main purpose – people don’t produce petrol just for sniffing in the way that they produce alcohol, marijuana, etc.

  28. Andrew,

    You must consider that a miniscule amount of fuel is required for a high. Will cars driving in to remote areas be made to refuel? Will all cars be checked? I’m not sure about the policing aspects of these petrol bans.

    I’ve read that there are hundreds of commercial products that can be abused for their mood altering properties. eg ligher fuel, benzene which is a common dry cleaner, spray paints, liquid paper, thinners, glues etc etc. There are also the propelant gases in more inoccuous substances such as hair spray etc that can also produce a high. Surely not all these substances will be banned in these communities and its only a matter of time before users turn to these alternatives.

    I know, I’m a pessismist, or is that realist???

  29. Being a pessimist is being a realist in most circumstances – however, I still have to be willing to look at the evidence.

    When it’s 200 kilometres to the next petrol pump, there’s not really enough economic incentive to try to smuggle in sniffable petrol.

    It is true that other substances could well substitute in some circumstances, but reducing avalability of a key harmful substance can still be useful. As with other drug use amongst kids, it seems that social pressure and context is a key factor. And whilst there may be alternatives such as you mention, they aren’t always as readily stealable/sharable/locatable or provide as big a high.

    Well, that’s what some of the evidence to date suggests. However, the broader issue does remain that chronic substance abuse is usually a symptom of something deeper, and until the deeper issue is addressed, there will a lot of tail chasing going on trying to ‘solve’ each individual problem.

    Addressing Ashley’s point (from comment #10) again, we do need to assess what works and the most cost effective way to achieve it. As Labor’s Chris Evans said today (see my more recent post) “Too many programs are run with good intentions but are not assessed properly and millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money goes down the drain without helping Indigenous people overcome the Third World conditions they live in.”

  30. Just letting readers know that I have added an update at the bottom of the original post above. It gives details of an attempt to give a cost-benefit analysis of subsidising non-sniffable (Opal) petrol – the sort of issue which was raised in comments #17 and #33

  31. Are there any young and adult Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people on your committee?

    I tend to agree about the Opal fuel not neccesarily helping much, but if the local people think it helps then its worth a trial.

    Aboriginal people, in my experience, are pretty fed up with non-indigenous people telling them how to run their affairs and fed up with enquiries that don’t go anywhere. (They generally don’t go anywhere because there is not the political will to do it and because of the ideological point scoring that prevents proper debate).

    As with any destructive addiction, antisocial behaviour etc, its no good tinkering with the window-dressing – one needs to look at the fundamental social causes and address them. My guess is that the kids doing the sniffing basically don’t have anyone to love them or care about them and no prospects for the future – thats what needs to be addressed, in the way the communities see fit.
    Roger Callen

  32. Roger

    The Committee is made up of Senators, so by definition there aren’t any indigneous people on it, young or otherwise, as there aren’t any indigenous people in the Senate – which is a problem in itself.

    We have taken evidence from a range of indigenous groups and people.

  33. Hi Andrew
    I was alarmed by the 60 Minutes Wadeyre viewing on Sunday night. Lot’s of young kids walking around sniffing petrol with cans, bottles to their faces. It is such a tragedy to see. I hope your inquiry into petrol sniffing comes up with some solid solutions across a wide range of issues that can help change the lives of these young kids and the future generations. Indigenous people need good solid education, health, housing, governance and most of all jobs so that they can have a future. Don’t just come up with solutions to stop them sniffing because this is not the answer to 200 years of “problem-solving” the Indigenous issues in society today!

    Cheers Sandra

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