Aboriginal victims of Tennant Creek's addiction


Main Street of Tennant CreekLast Monday as I passed through Tennant Creek on my way to Alice Springs, I tuned into ABC local radio and heard Jordan Jenkins, owner of the Tennant Creek Hotel, let the cat out of the bag: Tennant Creek is addicted. 'I mean, we are not going to go bankrupt so police can present stats to people,' he said. And so the liquor licensees of the town are pulling out of an alliance with police designed to reduce alcohol related harm.

The statistics Jenkins referred to are police records of deaths, injuries, assaults, domestic violence, break-ins, motor vehicle crashes, drink driver apprehensions etc. — all markers of alcohol abuse, all heavily concentrated in the Aboriginal population of the town. The police have been ordered by the commissioner to reduce them as quickly as possible. But Tennant Creek liquor retailers argue that they have no choice but to resist the measures.

Jenkins' concern about going bankrupt seems reasonable. In our free entreprise economy entrepreneurs are entitled to operate businesses as long as they are legal and safe. And operating any sort of retail business in the middle of the Australian desert is always marginal, given the huge transport costs and a flakey tourist industry. No-one wants to see any family forced into bankruptcy.

Founded as a 'repeater station' on the Overland Telegraph in the 1870s, Tennant Creek achieved brief brilliance in the late 1920s when the discovery of gold led to a rush of fortune hunters. Today there are both successful and prospective gold mining and other mineral operations, and the Commonwealth Government hopes controversially to establish a nuclear waste dump 100km to the north, which will provide some economic benefits. These provide a fragile economic base to the region. They are all marginal.

The main reason Tennant exists today is as home for the Warramunga and other Aboriginal people of the Barkly tablelands region. Aboriginal people make up about 40 per cent of the 3000-strong population. And many of them drink a lot of alcohol. Whitefellas drink a great deal too, but usually frequent the membership clubs rather than the local pub. Alcohol retailing has become a basic industry. 

For 30 years Aboriginal agencies, other non-Indigenous welfare bodies and the Northern Territory government have been trying to establish policies that will reduce the extreme levels of alcohol related injury and harm — which is also giving Tennant a bad name and so reducing the attractiveness of future business investment.

Numerous policies have been attempted over the years. The Aboriginal Controlled Health Centre campaigned effectively against topless barmaids and strip shows which were discontinued in the late 1980s and '90s. For many years Tennant operated a grog free day on Centrelink pay day to allow families to focus their weekly spending on food and other essentials before turning their attention to alcohol. This became less effective when Centrelink payments were freed from a set day each week.

In September 2013 Tennant's liquor licensees entered into a voluntary agreement to reduce harm by banning sales of wine for two hours each evening, and selling only mid-strength beer on Mondays. Police have been playing a complementary role by presenting a visible presence at local venues in an effort to deter antisocial behaviour. But the licensees are not happy. It seems the police are doing their job too well. Alcohol sales are declining. Profits are at risk. A high profile police presence is bad for business. Some retailers fear that their business is doomed.

In 1988 I began working in the Ntyarlke Unit, an Aboriginal education program at the Catholic high school in Alice Springs, with students from the local Town Camps — children from families very similar to those living in the Tennant Creek town camps. One of the events I remember best from those years was a ritualised grog-spilling down the drain on Gap Road organised by the Central Australian Aboriginal Health Centre. It was inspiring to watch Aboriginal, men, women and children tipping litres of beer, whiskey, wine and spirits down the drain.

In Tennant Creek the government has no alternative. If it wants to satisfy the needs of all of its constituents it must provide a viable 'out' for selected alcohol retailers, and purchase their licences (and symbolically tip them 'down the drain'), thus saving them from bankruptcy. It must simultaneously work to reduce the rivers of alcoholic ruin that threaten this marginal community at the heart of our nation.

Mike Bowden headshotMike Bowden has a Master of Aboriginal Education from Northern Territory University. He was founding coordinator of the Ntyarlke Unit at the Catholic high school in Alice Springs in 1988. From 1993 to 2001 he was manager of community development at Tangentyere Council. In 2005 and 2006 he was acting principal at Ngukurr School and Minyerri School in the Roper River district of the Top End.

Topic tags: Mike Bowden, Tennant Creek, Alice Springs, alcohol abuse, Indigenous affairs



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Existing comments

There is a great amount of violence, cruelty, abuse, pain and suffering in our world. Lives become distorted. We can do our best to remove temptation, to take due measures but the only way out of addiction is personal decision. 'Owning' the reliance. God enters into their suffering and, as Christians, we enter into their suffering too. Love is a powerful weapon. I think Dorothy Porter sums up the nature of addiction well in her poem "Exuberance with Bloody Hands": "it was just the wine/it was just the drugs/it's all over/I can't remember/nothing happened/no-one got hurt/but there was something/a wind, a bird, a sense/of being taken up and over."
Pam | 18 November 2013

They are only stores. They can stop selling liquor and start selling something else.
Jyo Aadarsh | 18 November 2013

I always find it interesting reading such quoted government and police stats on violence and alcohol abuse. They quite often forget to mention when these stats reflect the high percentage that they are, based on the population they refer to (per capita). There are many very famous towns and cities in the world that if you put the population of Tenant Creek into "per capita" that would be the most dangerous places in the world "per capita". Tenant Creek may have an alcohol problem however put it into perspective with population size, really the world has a problem!
Clinton Farley | 18 November 2013

Good points, but how about abolishing most Centrelink payments (not just for aborigines and Tennant Creek of course. Canberra itself is another obvious candidate for this policy). A key complaint of a number of aboriginal leaders is that "sit down" money contributes to low self esteem, and hence to alcohol and other dependencies. Very plausible: it may be news to some ivory-towered social engineers, but aborigines humans just like everyone else. If Tennant Creek is not economically sustainable, why are there so many people still there? Welfare. Yet, historically, from time immemorial, in all cultures, economically non-viable communities dissolve and their peoples go to where there is work, or choose to lower their standard of living and stay. Why should it be any different here, notwithstanding that Tennant Creek has been around for a hundred years or so? I daresay the pre-Western era aborigines themselves didn't dwell for long in regions or sites that were no longer viable in their own culture.
HH | 18 November 2013

Thank you Mike. Do you reckon there is any chance that the government will buy out the licences? Sometimes I despair at government policies with regard to alcohol/drugs. Yesterday I was talking to a DOCS officer and learned just how much "bottom line" talk and punitive action goes on with regard to individuals badly affected by drugs/alcohol. Government policy to punish individuals and families while government itself, through its failure to act at the level of legislation and public health policy, government itself is the "pusher". Well, I suppose, since government is us, we are the pushers.
Janet | 19 November 2013

Isn't it ironic that the article carries an ad for wine and later on the page an ad for Dan Murphy's.
Frank | 19 November 2013

HH I might have some sympathy for your point of view if the government stopped providing such gigantic subsidies to the mining industry, the car industry, sporting ventures etc. Why are some kept afloat and others expected to sink or swim (probably not an appropriate metaphor for Tennant Creek . . . )
Janet | 19 November 2013

As a frequent visitor to the Walgett, western NSW, region during the late 70s early 80s I was often stunned to watch publicans call on police to remove drunken (legless?) patrons from their premises. I was more stunned to notice the willingness of the police to perform this task and still more stunned again at the failure of the police to remove said publicans and their bar staff from the premises at the same time. As I understood it, it was, still is, illegal to serve alcohol to already inebriated persons but I never once saw a publican arrested for committing this crime. Why not? And why should anyone be concerned at some criminal's difficulties in turning a profit?
Paul | 19 November 2013

Alcohol is a particular Aboriginal problem, but so are tobacco smoking and cheap high calorie foods and drinks. These are all killing large numbers of people in Australia and causing huge suffering. To a greater or lesser extent the same issues are facing the general population. These "legal consumer goods" need to be made expensive, difficult to get hold of for young formative people, and the howls of the industries involved need to be bought off with tax-payer dollars (as you suggest), especially for the small retailers who might have bought in naively to this enormous killing machine.
Eugene | 19 November 2013

I find it rather inappropriate that the article on alcohol abuse in Tennant Creek should have an embedded ad for wine.
Kevin Sealey | 19 November 2013

IT's like talking about the "elephant in the room" while the elephant is sitting right there next to you. Rude - very rude and insensitive - not to mention hopeless.
AURELIUS | 19 November 2013

Janet, you're absolutely right. I agree on all points.
HH | 19 November 2013

It never ceases to amaze me that we can for the almightly dollar, or because of the claim of an individuals rights we excuse what we know to be wrong. Paul's comment was valid in the 80's but in the 90's and to date incremental change occured which means that alcohol is restricted to a degree. Mid strength is a saviour look at Broken Hill the Silver City Cup,The Deniliquin Ute Muster are examples where the manadation of mid strength alcohol has huge benefits. The Hotel Industry and others don't like it but it works. It has been tried at Wilcannia and there are benefits, perhaps it needs to be explored in Tennant Creek, Kings Cross and elsewhere the social benefits in the reduction of violence, abuse and suffering not only to the consumer of the alcohol but to their sufferers of it would be would be immense. Unfortunatley there is a lack of political leadership !!
Michael | 20 November 2013

To FRANK and his query about the alcohol ad appearing - I think the ads that appear are either random or an attempt to match our search interests with a product, I get an ad with a picture of Pat Rafter in his undies.
AURELIUS | 20 November 2013

Isn't is awful and instructive that we find ourselves in 2013 still talking about the same problem that was ravaging Tennant Creek and similar towns in the mid 1970s?
Martin Loney | 21 November 2013

Thanks Mike. I spent last week in TC working with local staff of the Aboriginal Controlled Health Service. This was a continuance of my long association with TC and remote areas generally in the NT. The title of the article ('Aboriginal victims of TC's addiction) might be misinterpreted as only Aboriginal residents are the victims of TC's addiction: all residents of TC are victims of TC's addiction. I am reminded of Bernard Sabella's statement: when you are liberated from being a victim you can go forward.
Xavier | 23 November 2013

yeah its so bad that the crime is down ,maybe we don't need as many pubs as there is in town and then they want have to worry about going broke ,cant believe that money is more important than the safety of people .you should hang your head in shame .from a tenant creek resident
michael | 26 November 2013

I lived in Tennant for 30 years. The issues regarding aboriginal people have got immeasurably worse over that time. Successive governments have pussyfooted around the problems for years. A radical approach is required to address the problem. This is mine. Introduce a drinking licence for the town and surrounding liquor outlets. My concept is that to purchase alcohol you have to provide the licence which has photo ID. Licences could be restricted or open. A restricted licence only allows you to purchase a single serve, open would mean take away purchases etc. Out of town, interstate and oversees visitors would be exempt with the sighting of a photo licence or similar. Harsh penalties to discourage grog running. Smart technology should be able to monitor suspect transactions. A lot of fine tuning required but the problem in Tennant is soul destroying not only for the alcoholics but the many great people trying to address the problem. Tennant is a disgrace and needs radical action. My dream would be rather than attracting constant negative press, this and other measures would see Tennant become a success story of how we licked this scurge and turned out a new generation of proud, healthy aboriginals.
Nunno | 19 December 2013

Chronic substance abuse in Tennant Creek is a symptom and Governments need to get fair dinkum and address the underlying issues such as providing meaningful employment with real wages and stop CDEP and dole for anyone between 16 and 60 once this has been done. Also more housing is required as there is chronic overcrowding here and the waiting time is over four years for public housing. I have worked here in the AOD sector for 2 years and how can a person who wants to stop drinking do so when they have to share a house with up to 15 people who all drink every day. The Governments both Federal and Territory talk about the problem but don't want to lose the revenue generated by alcohol tax the same as with tobacco. Solution declare Tennant creek a dry area and issue permits to responsible drinkers. But no government has the guts to do so
Eric Walker | 06 May 2014

whats new? lets focus on employment, health, economics in the community. why do people drink too much, 24/7/
Ken Williams | 02 February 2015

ANY population ANYWHERE on the Planet which is Colonised by Europe and then invaded, overthrown and re-settled by exiled Europeans has NEVER shown positive results. Robbed of every material resource once enjoyed by their Ancestors and now relegated to urban ghetto's by the new Colonial Imperial settlers ... THIS racist Owning Class disease is the inhumane problem. On the one hand it steals the material wealth of Indigenous Continents by gun and brutal force (ie. rabbit fences etc...) and then has the audacity to LIE about it ... e.g oh dear what happened to those people we now call the 'Aborigines'? Australia is a British Colony. Colonialism is by its very nature violent, cruel, dishonest and immoral. How can you expect beneficiaries of such a racist programming to suddenly 'snap out of it'? Well, many DO manage not to become the Colonising ethos and do remember to undertake historical and structural analyses to find out what the CAUSAL problems are rather than settling for the mind controlled 'superficial' explanations which define the casualties of empire building as 'lazy ... dumb ... over paid beneficiaries'. Remember, this is THEIR land ... STOLEN, RAPED, PILLAGED AND PLUNDERED ... by todays funders and bureaucrats, business people and settler descendants.
ngaronoataki1@gmail.com | 04 September 2016


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