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Sniffing at tragedy

  • 21 April 2006

Health Minister Tony Abbott visited Darwin in late September 2005 to launch ‘Sniffing and the Brain’, an education kit designed to warn indigenous Australians about the dangers of petrol sniffing. He began by describing Aboriginal people as ‘an asset to be cherished’. Then he put the boots in. He said there was a ‘crisis of authority’ in indigenous communities that created the preconditions for petrol sniffing. ‘Why don’t communities take it in to their own hands to do what they can to stop their young people engaging in this self-destructive behaviour?’ he asked. He concluded that communities had to ‘understand that in the end, it is to a great extent up to them’.

Two weeks later, the Northern Territory coroner, Greg Cavanagh, alluded to ‘Sniffing and the Brain’ when he handed down the findings of an inquest into three petrol sniffing deaths in the central desert area:

I note that a politician in Darwin last month launched a 40-page (English-language) education kit in an endeavour to address petrol-sniffing problems. In my view, such education kits are no answer to the pleas of persons such as Sarah Goodwin; people in her community are dying or becoming brain-damaged as we speak… Their problems are immediate, stark and urgent … Words of advice proffered thousands of kilometres away from the problem centres is what has been happening for many years without any apparent beneficial changes.   Sarah Goodwin is an indigenous woman who attended the coronial inquest in Mutitjulu with her adult son Steven, a chronic user. During the hearing, Steven was observed sniffing from a tin of petrol secreted in his jumper. A visibly upset coroner adjourned the hearing.

Cavanagh investigated the death of Kumanjayi Presley (as he is now known) who was just 14 when he died in the small remote community of Willowra, north-west of Alice Springs. His grandmother Molly found him dead in the back room of her house, lying with a clear bottle of petrol pressed to his nose.

Willowra is near the site of the 1928 Coniston Massacre in which at least 31 Aborigines were killed following the murder of a white man. This is an event within living memory of the people in this community. A submission to the coroner from the Tangentyere Council’s CAYLUS (Central Australian Youth Link-Up Service) notes that at the time of Presley’s death, the people of Willowra lived without adequate housing, health services,