Sniffing at tragedy

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, sanitation, policing, power, water or social security services. CAYLUS ventured that in these circumstances, it was unreasonable to expect the community to act to prevent sniffing.

Coroner Cavanagh also investigated the deaths of Kunmanara Brumby and Kunmanara Coulthard in Mutitjulu, a troubled community nestled in the shadow of Uluru. In examining these deaths, the coroner stated that he was ‘anxious that both mothers have conveyed to them in the clearest possible terms the fact that their sons’ deaths were not caused by some neglect that could have been remedied by them—such as being too cold or lacking food’.

 In his report, Cavanagh quoted extensively from an earlier coronial inquiry conducted by South Australian coroner Wayne Chivell in 2002. Chivell found that three indigenous men lost their lives in spite of ‘parents and family who did their best to stop them sniffing, and who have endured much suffering and grief as a result of their inability to do so, and the consequent death of a loved family member’.

Chivell further noted that Anangu communities should ‘continue to try and care for sniffers even when they continue to sniff–and even after they are violent and disruptive to their families and the community. (This was a statement of fact rather than a recommendation.) They look to the broader community to help them deal with a problem which has no precedent in traditional culture.’

This earlier inquest also heard evidence from Kawaki Thompson: ‘Who is responsible?’ he asked. ‘The petrol doesn’t belong to us. It is not part of Anangu law. It was introduced to the lands by white people. The problem with petrol comes from the outside, like the Maralinga bomb tests. The solution should come from outside too.’

In October 2004, the Northern Territory Parliament’s Select Committee on Substance Abuse in the Community produced a report, Petrol Sniffing in Remote Northern Territory Communities. The committee concluded: ‘Too often the opinion is expressed that remote communities should take responsibility for their own drug problems and deal with them on their own. Remote communities are often called on to take ownership of problems to an extent that would never be expected of urban communities.’

Comgas is a federally funded scheme that subsidises the sale of ‘non-sniffable’ fuel in selected bush locations. It initially subsidised aviation fuel but now covers BP’s Opal, an unleaded petrol that has low levels of the aromatic hydrocarbons that give sniffers their high.

A 2004 evaluation of the Comgas scheme, commissioned by the Department of Health and Ageing, found that it was a ‘safe, popular and effective’ strategy to reduce petrol sniffing in Australia. However, the report readily conceded that non-sniffable fuel was not a panacea for the problems of remote communities.
It urged the provision of skilled youth workers, diversionary activities and rehabilitation centres.

The critical finding of the report was that the Comgas scheme is far more effective in locations where sniffable fuel cannot be obtained. Tragically, Opal is available only in some selected communities. Sniffable fuel can be readily obtained in Alice Springs and finds its way to remote ‘Comgas’ communities, where a soft-drink bottle full of petrol might sell for $50.

CAYLUS has identified an area bounded roughly by Coober Pedy, Mt Isa, Tennant Creek and Laverton (350km north-east of Kalgoorlie) as having Australia’s largest cluster of petrol sniffers. Coroner Greg Cavanagh and CAYLUS have both called for the roll-out of Opal fuel right across the central desert. This action will remove the immediate danger and give communities time to consider the issues confronting them. (This was implied rather than stated.)

Experts agree that sniffing may never be completely eliminated, and that a percentage of sniffers will move on to other solvents, cannabis or alcohol—depending on cost and availability. Yet opponents of the roll-out intimate perversely that because it will not cure all the ills of affected communities, broader distribution should be delayed.

There is dispute about the additional cost of a comprehensive roll-out. Whether it is $5 million or $25 million, the cost would be a tiny fraction of the $13 billion the Federal Government collected in fuel excise last year. Sadly, it will also pale in comparison to the costs of caring for the wheel-chair bound sufferers of acquired brain injury, the living legacy of the scourge.

The Select Committee on Substance Abuse found that the cost of full-time institutional care for a person mentally debilitated through sniffing was $160,000 a year in an urban centre, more than twice that if the care is provided in remote communities. Simple arithmetic underscores the economic value of a roll-out.

Many Australians are uncomfortable with the knowledge that a significant number of Aboriginal people are living in Third World squalor, and so are relieved when someone in authority points the finger at communities and says: ‘It’s all their fault.’ This might salve middle-class consciences, but it isn’t true.

The Comgas evaluation team visited one community where both sniffers and non-sniffers supported the decision to introduce Opal fuel. ‘Everyone was informed of the decision at a community meeting,’ the report said. ‘Following the meeting, the petrol sniffers went “out bush”, lit a big fire and burnt all their cans and supplies of food. This gave the community members a sense of power, and showed that they did not accept petrol sniffing.’

The evaluation team spoke to night patrols—where community members display the courage required to take petrol off the sniffers. ‘We talk to them, tell them it will kill them. They might stop then.’ The team also documented the widespread practice of taking kids ‘out bush’ and teaching them to hunt, fish and live off the land using traps and snares. There is ample evidence, often overlooked, that indigenous communities care deeply about the devastation of petrol-sniffing and are taking action to eradicate it.
Recently, Tony Abbott was reported as saying the Government was considering whether ‘a limited supply of the (Opal) petrol could be made available in Alice Springs’. This would be an extraordinarily ineffectual response, tantamount to fencing three sides of a cattle yard. The roll-out of Opal must be comprehensive to achieve significant, durable results.

In a telling conclusion to his inquest, Coroner Cavanagh said: ‘It is simplistic in the extreme to suggest that the answer to the problems of petrol sniffing is for the addicts and their communities to help themselves. That is to say, the horrors of present day Mutitjulu (and other remote communities) are not sensibly addressed by peddling the myth that such disadvantaged citizens might simply help themselves and solve the problem. They and their families are not able to do so by themselves.’

Are you listening, Minister?

Graham Ring is a Melbourne-based writer who specialises in issues of indigenous justice.


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