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.