tip off

No room at the inn for Aboriginal customers in Borroloola

Many Aboriginal people support booze bans in local communities. But a raid on Chrisco hampers in the Northern Territory left a bad taste. Sean Kerins of ANU’s Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy reports from Borroloola.

Local kids from the Borroloola community in the Northern Territory

The role of ‘punishing the blacks’ was usually done by the police,” says historian Tony Roberts in his gruelling Blackheath History lecture of 2009. He was talking about policing the frontier of the south-west Gulf of Carpentaria in the late 19th century. He could have been talking about today, in Borroloola, the main township in the south-west Gulf. They’re still punishing.

Borroloola sits on the banks of the McArthur River about 1000 kilometres south-east of Darwin. It’s isolated, population 2400, with a violent colonial history. About 90% of the population is Aboriginal, predominantly of Garawa, Gudanji, Mara, Waanyi and Yanyuwa peoples. Borroloola is an open town where most of the small white population live in the subdivision behind the school, on higher ground and in superior housing. On the edges of the township are the “camps” of the Aboriginal groups. All the businesses except one are managed by the white population.

The town is sweltering. It was still 35 degrees at 7pm when I arrived on December 10. Like most Australians, the people are looking forward to the Christmas break. Many families have been putting away a bit of money each week on Chrisco Christmas hampers.

Chrisco: Helping everyone save for a magical Christmas!” the company’s website proclaims. There are different hampers on offer, targeted to various tastes and budgets.

Several family-oriented hampers don’t have alcohol listed in their contents, but the website shows a bottle of sparkling wine. If it’s alcohol that you want for Christmas, Chrisco will also do a variety of hampers from Bundaberg, Jack Daniels, mixed spirits or the Happy Hour Mix, all of which can be paid off over 52 weeks, making them accessible to people on low incomes. There is a small warning down at the bottom of the website on the Liquor Act 2007 and the Liquor Control Reform Act 1998, but there’s nothing about the laws imposed through Northern Territory Emergency Intervention (NTER), or what’s now politely called Stronger Futures, and the dangers of taking grog into what have been defined, until recently, as “prescribed areas”.

Perhaps, given what unfolded in Borroloola when Chrisco’s hampers arrived two week before Christmas, there should be.

As people headed to the Pandion Haulage depot in Borroloola, where the hampers had been delivered, police were “tipped off” that some hampers contained alcohol. It’s not illegal to bring alcohol into the open town of Borroloola, but it is illegal to take it into the “prescribed areas” — the Aboriginal camps. The police — in their designation as community police officers — could have informed Aboriginal people at the Pandion depot that they couldn’t take any hamper containing grog back to their homes, but instead reinforcements were called in from Katherine 670 kilometres away. Police then conducted, as described on the NT police Facebook page, a “detection and seizure operation” that resulted in the seizure of “18 bottles of assorted spirits and 106 assorted spirits cans, and three vehicles”.

Yes, you can lose your vehicle for transporting alcohol into prescribed areas, regardless of whether you were doing so intentionally or — as happened to at least one unfortunate vehicle owner — were merely giving a lift to someone who couldn’t carry their Christmas hamper.

This type of activity has the look of entrapment. It reeks of punishment. Aboriginal people see it as deeply unfair.”

This type of activity has the look of entrapment. It reeks of punishment. Aboriginal people see it as deeply unfair.

On December 11, in response to the heavy-handed police tactics, and in the middle of a significant initiation ceremony, Garawa, Gudanji, Mara, Waanyi and Yanyuwa leaders and community members met with the police. It was a hot day and a hot meeting. Senior Aboriginal people were dismayed that they hadn’t been spoken to about the problem that was about to unfold.

They were particularly aggrieved because they have been trying for years to manage alcohol — especially the management practices of the local pub, operating at one time under the licence “Cash Cow” — while getting little support from government agencies.

What was most offensive to Aboriginal leaders was that both the NT and the Commonwealth governments are currently trying to draft an Alcohol Management Plan, and are apparently seeking the involvement of the Aboriginal community — some cynically say so the community consultation box can be ticked. Getting representative Aboriginal input is proving difficult.

Aboriginal leaders say there’s no point developing a plan that has no involvement from the people who drink. They also say the heavy-handed tactics are pushing grog consumption to the fringes of the township. It sends young men and women to their deaths as they drive outback roads dotted with wallabies and stock to the nearest roadhouse where they can buy the hot stuff. The carnage from these trips is leaving deep scars.

In response to the meeting, the police didn’t invite senior Aboriginal representatives to sit down with them and work things out. Instead, they erected a road-block outside one of the Aboriginal camps; the place where the most articulate and vocal critics of top-down policing live. One community leader, on his way to an initiation ceremony with old men, was punished for not carrying his drivers’ licence.

Who is accountable for this debacle? Perhaps it’s the Aboriginal drinkers, on the lookout for grog to feed that constant desire, to numb the pain of existence. But we know that Borroloola has no dry-out place, no counselling services. Money pours into the local medical centre to deal predominantly with the after-effects of grog abuse.

Perhaps it’s the wider Aboriginal community, tired of trying to make themselves heard in the whirlwind of top-down government programs to improve their lives. Perhaps it’s Chrisco. Maybe they need to develop polices about sending alcohol to remote areas where Aboriginal populations live in areas prescribed as alcohol-free. Perhaps the family-owned and operated Pandion could have contacted senior Aboriginal people and raised the issue that they were delivering grog that in all likelihood would end up in the prescribed areas.

Perhaps it’s the NT police, who had ample opportunity to work with Aboriginal leaders to nip the problem in the bud. They could have been at the Pandion depot, with Aboriginal leaders, and asked people to check their hampers to remind people not to take grog into prescribed areas.

Community policing is about identifying and solving community problems together. The police are not the sole guardians of law and order; all members of the community become active collaborators in the effort to enhance the safety of “their community”. Community policing can have far-reaching implications, bringing about change, improving people’s circumstances and saving taxpayers’ funds.

The essential ingredient of community policing is community members actively participating in the process of problem-solving. This is not always easy to achieve as it requires profound changes within the police organisation and culture, and this is where NT authorities need to reflect and change their practices so that they don’t slip back into the old role of “punishing the blacks”.

30
  • 1
    Arty
    Posted Monday, 24 December 2012 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    No matter how much things change, they still stay the same.

    Maybe it would be more effective if everyone in the town was subject to the same anti-alcohol laws.

  • 2
    POV 888
    Posted Monday, 24 December 2012 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

    This article brings tears to my eyes.
    I feel there is a culture of bias among some law enforcement officers.
    What happens to the confiscated alcohol in this situation?
    Is there a drinking culture among law enforcement officers too?

  • 3
    Hamis Hill
    Posted Monday, 24 December 2012 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

    Some effort to overcome the isolation might help.
    What if the sister city arrngement that exists between Australian Towns and those overseas was to become the basis for a sister school arrangment between the children of remote communities and those in suburbia.
    It is bound to enhance education and as a side benefit any heavy-handedness on the part of “Authority” would never, ever escape detection and denouncement.
    The NBN will enhance such fraternal connections between Australians, (is this why the conservatives wish to demolish the NBN?).

  • 4
    Arty
    Posted Monday, 24 December 2012 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

    Hamis Hill: I like it. It is one of those crazy ideas that just might work.

    But tell me why many Australians can discuss the indigenous cum alcohol problem over a glass or three of a good red.

    But getting back to your beaut idea should it included an exchange of policemen?

    Just imagine Vaucluse as sister city to Borroloola!

  • 5
    paddy
    Posted Monday, 24 December 2012 at 8:39 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps the saddest piece I’ve read all week. (And there were plenty of tragic contenders.)
    Maybe one day, the people with the power and the money, will have the decency to consult with those who they’re supposedly, trying to empower.
    But I’m not holding my breath.
    Merry Xmas indeed. :(

  • 6
    Christopher Nagle
    Posted Monday, 24 December 2012 at 8:57 pm | Permalink

    It is clear to me that the writer simply cannot distinguish between compassion and indulgence.

    My measure of that is to simply apply the same standard of conduct to indigenous communities as one would to any other; East African, Chinese, Middle Eastern or European. We are a multi-cultural society and indigenous communities are just another part of the mix.

    Indigenous societies have suffered. Well so have a lot of our new arrivals; particularly the refugees. Their experience puts indigenous history into some sort of perspective. But they don’t make excuses for themselves, because they are too busy taking advantage of the opportunities that Australia offers to anyone prepared to make the effort.

    All our indigenous brothers and sisters need to do is make the same decisions as their Sudanese and Somali neighbors. Perhaps they should get to know each other. Swap some massacre stories.

    Personally, I don’t think the relationship would last long. Getting drunk together only takes you so far…

  • 7
    Bird Kenneth
    Posted Tuesday, 25 December 2012 at 12:01 am | Permalink

    Yes, Christopher we are a multi cultural society, but even new arrivals learn very quickly that they can metaphorically kick aborigines and TIs with impunity.

    There are 2 laws in the Territory, one for white fellas, including the Sudanese and Somali and another for the Black fellas.

    Your place will never have ‘Shame’ signs put out on the verge just for your ‘protection’. You can have a picnic in a park in Darwin and not have a ‘paddy wagon’ drive up to make sure you’re not drinking grog. In fact the white fellas up here have a beer can regatta; if that’s not a double standard, I don’t know what is. White fellas can walk anywhere in town and not get questioned about what they’re doing.

    Sean is neither showing compassion or being indulgent. He is stating what is.

  • 8
    Arty
    Posted Tuesday, 25 December 2012 at 9:11 am | Permalink

    Bird Kenneth: your post reads as though you are suggesting that the subjects of of your advice should become refugees in their own land.

  • 9
    baabaablacksheep
    Posted Tuesday, 25 December 2012 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    So were they better in the 30 or 40 years before the “shame” signs were around?

    Do you people even know how disappointed foreign tourists feel when they travel to the outbacks and see all Aboriginal do is drinking all day, totally shattered after being so excited with anticipation?

    The alcohol causing brain damage to the babies and repeat more cycle of poverty. Family in Africa, Asia have nothing and getting nothing from the government, they put their children to school and try to get an education to get a better life. So many of them are so desperate to get to Australia for an opportunity to get a better life, they risk their lives at sea for the chance, and many of them find success in Australia and in many other countries around the world. Stop blaming the system for everything and do some self examination.

    There may need to be more consultation, and better policy to prevent people from driving to other towns to drink and risk their lives. More social counselling, mental health services, possibly allow for a pub to be open but the locals (white or black) have to register for a drink card and there is a limit on how many drink they can be served on the day. Yes, the attitude of the cops should be changed and the way they handle the problem, but if the Aborigines don’t change themselves, don’t expect others to be able to change either. You fight back by taking initiative and be in charge of your own lives through all odds and obstacles, the refugees do it and they start from having nothing except the will and determination.

  • 10
    Arty
    Posted Tuesday, 25 December 2012 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    Every Australian has the right, sometimes exercised, to destroy his/her life and the life of those close through the use of alcohol.

    Why single-out the people of Borroloola?

  • 11
    baabaablacksheep
    Posted Tuesday, 25 December 2012 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

    I’m not sure why you say people of Borroloola are single-out.

    Many towns have alcohol ban, and many of them were requested by the locals themselves due to the cycle of violent abuse against women and children which continue the cycle of poverty and severely stop any chance for the community to improve their conditions. There is evidence of gradual improvements in some towns.

    It’s best if you read “Is it racist to ban alcohol from some Aboriginal communities?” by Elizabeth Watt on the ABC website. She explain the case quite well.

    The ban is to do with geographical where the problems are endemic and apply to all races within the area. Some police may have prejudicial attitude and treatment of Aborigines but that is outside the prescription of the law. They do need to change their attitude, but many Aborigines to to change too and stop making up excuses and blaming everything on other people, take responsibility for their own actions and how they affect their relatives and community and be responsible for their own lives. Sure, the law ain’t perfect at the moment, it needs more consultations and refinement but nothing will change when people don’t take responsibility for their actions and their own lives. And I think if any non-Indigenous people have history with violence due to alcohol, they should be banned from drinking, so too the long term welfare recipients who are alcoholic, and they also need to undergo compulsory treatments to get back on their feet or just give them food stamp, I think they’re call basics card in Australia.

  • 12
    baabaablacksheep
    Posted Tuesday, 25 December 2012 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

    That’s strange, I did not get moderated before but now I do even though I don’t use rude words. May be it’s because my comment mentions the name of an author on the ABC, moderation might be due to the legality of naming people.

    I’ll leave out that paragraph and re-post my comment.

    I’m not sure why you say people of Borroloola are single-out.

    Many towns have alcohol ban, and many of them were requested by the locals themselves due to the cycle of violent abuse against women and children which continue the cycle of poverty and severely stop any chance for the community to improve their conditions. There is evidence of gradual improvements in some towns.

    The ban is to do with geographical where the problems are endemic and apply to ‘all races’ within the area. Some police may have prejudicial attitude and treatment of Aborigines but that is outside the prescription of the law. They do need to change their attitude, but many Aborigines to to change too and stop making up excuses and blaming everything on other people, take responsibility for their own actions and how they affect their relatives and community and be responsible for their own lives. Sure, the law ain’t perfect at the moment, it needs more consultations and refinement but nothing will change when people don’t take responsibility for their actions and their own lives. And I think if any non-Indigenous people have history with violence due to alcohol, they should be banned from drinking, so too the long term welfare recipients who are alcoholic, and they also need to undergo compulsory treatments to get back on their feet or just give them food stamp, I think they’re call basics card in Australia.

  • 13
    baabaablacksheep
    Posted Tuesday, 25 December 2012 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

    Typing mistake-Aborigines need to change too.

  • 14
    baabaablacksheep
    Posted Tuesday, 25 December 2012 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

    Merry Christmas to all.

  • 15
    Bird Kenneth
    Posted Tuesday, 25 December 2012 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

    @baabaablacksheep, you are correct in suggesting that many communities were self organised dry areas, before the intervention. ‘Prescribed areas’, meaning no alcohol, the exemption from the Human Rights act, amongst other things, were imposed across all aboriginal lands and leases, whether they wanted them or not…no consultation, no discussion.

    We now have a Territory government that wants to remove all the dry areas, whether or not they were self organised before or were imposed as a result of the intervention. Again no discussion, little consultation, other than to tell people this is what is going to happen to your community, so as to tick ‘community consultation’ boxes.

    It is more common to come across a non drinking aboriginal per capita than in the general population.

    Aborigines also have to deal with the ingrained fact that many of us white fellas are scared of and repulsed by aboriginal people and that is before they even meet them. The only time any immigrant group has to put up with this fear is when 1 of their number commits a particularly grotesque offence. This soon blows over. My experience, from living in Perth, the Pilbara and now in Darwin, people of Aboriginal decent and appearance have to put up with this fear and loathing on a day to day basis.

  • 16
    Bird Kenneth
    Posted Tuesday, 25 December 2012 at 6:41 pm | Permalink

    I suggest that this YouTube by Franky Jackson is another stereotype many people have of Aborigines.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dbkvoj6SC0w&feature=youtu.be

  • 17
    baabaablacksheep
    Posted Tuesday, 25 December 2012 at 7:11 pm | Permalink

    I know that prejudice does exist in Australia and I feel revulsion when I hear people make jokes or derogatory remarks about our Aboriginal brothers and sisters. Prejudices also occur against Muslims and other races too, might be not as extreme as to Aboriginal people but they do occur.

    You are risking the same mistake that people make when they did a ban across the board without consulting, and see what areas are at risk and the right policy for it, when you speak about non drinking aboriginal per capita. The problem is ‘geographical’. And many communities do need the ban, the problem with some aboriginal advocates is that they complain about a few deaths of irresponsible drinkers on the highway and prefer to have the whole community continued to be screwed up with even more deaths and destruction because I don’t see them offering any solution but only complaints.

    Just issue an electronic card, put into a machine, it allows dispensation of 4 drinks per day, 3 days per week, non take way drinks.

    In case anyone wonders how we can impose ban of people with violent alcohol history, use ancient method, put a tattoo on their forehead. If you want be be nice, use more expensive method, implant a micro-chip and every liquor outlet needs to install a detector.

  • 18
    Bird Kenneth
    Posted Tuesday, 25 December 2012 at 11:02 pm | Permalink

    Many of the people with alcohol problems are ‘pushed’ off their communities and end up on the streets of the towns up and down the ‘track’ paticularly Darwin, Alice Spring and Katerine. Ironically even though they convey a negative impression for tourists and others, these towns are the best places for these people, as that is where the minimal alcohol and other drug services and resources that are available, are.

  • 19
    Bird Kenneth
    Posted Tuesday, 25 December 2012 at 11:04 pm | Permalink

    While we are talking of ironies, let us also remember the positive as well. The Northern Territory and northern Western Australia would fall apart if it were not for Aboriginal work force, working at all levels in private, public organisations and small business, from managers, senior admin to the most menial, it is just that it could be and should be a lot better.

  • 20
    baabaablacksheep
    Posted Wednesday, 26 December 2012 at 11:54 am | Permalink

    People with long term alcohol problem need to get treatment or they have to lose their dole payments and get food stamps whether they’re white or black. In other countries people don’t get anything from the government, they just have to pick themselves up and get work. It’s not good policy to keep supporting people to waste their lives, and waste other people’s hard earned money, think about the low income earners or single parents who pay taxes and struggle to keep a roof over their heads and put foods on the table for their kids.

    I’m a bit onfused about your comment. You seem to be saying that there’s more alcohol available in the communities where the alcoholics are pushed off. If that was the case why were they pushed off? What problem did they cause to their family and communities that make the communities push them off? Because from your statement, it appears that there are lesser alcohol availability in the towns that they are pushed out to. Could it be that was because they committed crimes on their family or relatives, but the communities don’t want to report to the police, or don’t want to let the crimes to continue or spread out in their communities like a contagion so they push them off?

    I don’t know the situations of these communities which you talk about but I know for sure that there are some communities which have been ravaged by alcohol abuse, women abuse and child molestations, so bad that the social workers who used to work in those communities were traumatised and choked up in tears when they spoke about it and said that ‘change’ can only come from ‘within’, the people have to change themselves.

    Yes, we should remember the positives and there are so many positives, many Aboriginal people have achieved great success whether becoming doctors or athletes, or overcome bad experience or circumtances and get their lives in order even if they work minimum wage, they all make us proud. But, people also need to be honest with the situations in some communities and find effective measures to improve them, I don’t like government enforcing a blanket ban without doing proper study and consultations, nor do I like people keep blaming everything else under the sun except looking at themselves to see what defects there are and the power and strength they have to overcome and make a positive difference in life. Like those social workers said ‘change has to come from within’.

  • 21
    Paul Barry
    Posted Wednesday, 26 December 2012 at 8:54 pm | Permalink

    The alcohol ban should be lifted for Christmas, new year and Australia day.

    I can also see difficulty in consulting the local communities and problem in not imposing ban across the land also. If the ban is targeted at certain communities, it pushes the problems to the adjacent communities where grog is allowed. Furthermore, if consultation occur with self-interest groups it may not produce the best outcome, you can see what happened to the MRRT.

    Great idea with the NBN, if they are too far out in the bush they might have to settle for satellite broadband. 90% of population is Indigenous but only 1 business is run by Aboriginal, it will be a great idea if some Indigenous business organisation from the city come to the community to identify business opportunities, and help guiding and inspiring the local people to seize or create the opportunities for themselves.

  • 22
    Paul Barry
    Posted Wednesday, 26 December 2012 at 9:05 pm | Permalink

    Speaking of alcohol, I’m a bit drunk at the moment and I’m not sure if what I wrote makes sense.

    Happy boxing day and new year!

  • 23
    Arty
    Posted Thursday, 27 December 2012 at 9:25 am | Permalink

    So people who are allowed to drink as much alcohol as they wish have the job of taking all the alcohol from the people who are not allowed to drink any alcohol.

    Doesn’t seem to add up.

    Doesn’t happen in the big city.

  • 24
    baabaablacksheep
    Posted Thursday, 27 December 2012 at 11:03 am | Permalink

    That’s not true. Those people are allowed to drink as well, but they are not allowed to drink within those “prescribed” areas. This is because alcohol has cause so much destruction to many of those communities, they have to take drastic action. There are non-alcohol zones in the city, especially public places but each state may have different laws.

  • 25
    baabaablacksheep
    Posted Thursday, 27 December 2012 at 11:07 am | Permalink

    It is constitutional for government to prescribe which area is alcohol free.

  • 26
    POV 888
    Posted Thursday, 27 December 2012 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    baabaablacksheep, do you think Aboriginal Elders are working to capacity to impart wisdom to younger generation in NT?
    In suburbia I think more Aboriginal Elders need to be out in their community(where health permits),yarning and engaging with youth on the streets for example. How many Elders put their hands up to be involved in ‘white’ ceremonies - jumping at any opportunity to welcome groups to country, get a free feast and leave with an inflated sense of self importance? What might help is if more Elders set an example for younger generations and earn the respect they have inherited as Elders. Give something back to the community and aim for a win win situation.

  • 27
    baabaablacksheep
    Posted Thursday, 27 December 2012 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    POV888

    We would all love that be the solution for the problem, but be realistic and don’t romanticize.

    The problem in those communities existed of started for some 30 or 40 years ago. Where were the elders? What impacts have they on the communities?

    I don’t discount the value of having guidance of the elders in the communities, but some communities have gone beyond their abilities to fix it. Moreover, I heard that in some communities some of the elders are the problem themselves, and they are resistance to change which weakens their power and makes the women more equal to them and have more say.

  • 28
    baabaablacksheep
    Posted Thursday, 27 December 2012 at 11:49 am | Permalink

    or started

    all these Christmas drinks, I hope I sound coherent

  • 29
    kirsty mclaren
    Posted Thursday, 27 December 2012 at 8:34 pm | Permalink

    Great article - thankyou Sean. It’s really great to read articles like this, written by people who have a long-term, genuine relationship with the local people - in this case of Borroloola.

  • 30
    John Smith
    Posted Sunday, 20 January 2013 at 11:07 pm | Permalink

    I used to work in a Supermarket in the NT and no one would believe the stories I can tell about the drinking problem. So when I read this story I think. I bet their is another side to it. It is always great to hear both side and then judge for yourself.

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