On Saturday night two Indigenous teenagers in the Arnhemland community of Oenpelli – 220 kilometres east of Darwin – lost their lives. The youths had broken into a shipping container to inhale petrol which had been stored inside. Autopsies will be carried out in Darwin.
The ABC news report on the incident concluded with the line that “Opal fuel was not available in the community” but did not sheet home the negligence of the federal government in its tragically slow roll-out of non-sniffable Opal fuel across remote Indigenous communities.
Standard unleaded petrol is comprised 25% by the aromatics that produce a sniffer’s high. However, BP’s Opal fuel contains only 5 per cent, rendering it “unsniffable”. A government subsidy of less that 30 cents per litre allows the fuel to be sold at the pump for the same price as standard petrol.
Late last year in Darwin, Health Minister Tony Abbott spoke of a “crisis of authority” in Indigenous communities that allowed their children to sniff petrol. “Why don’t communities take it into their own hands to do what they can to stop their young people engaging in this self-destructive behaviour?” he asked.
However, the 2004 “Comgas Evaluation” commissioned by the Minister’s own department told a different story. It rigorously documented a range of measures – including “night patrols” of community leaders confiscating petrol from sniffers – conceived and implemented by communities to try and rid themselves of the scourge of sniffing.
Two weeks prior to Abbott’s Darwin statement, Northern Territory Coroner Greg Cavanagh, completed an inquest into three petrol sniffing deaths in the central desert area. In a telling conclusion to his inquest, Coroner Cavanagh found that “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.”
An Access Economics report released in March this year demonstrated the economic imperative for a universal roll-out of Opal across remote Indigenous communities. A 2004 Northern Territory Parliamentary Committee found that it cost $160,000 a year to care for a brain-damaged sniffer in an urban setting, and more than twice that amount if the care was provided in a remote community.
Tony Abbott’s failure to promptly engineer a universal roll out of Opal has resulted in untold human misery in remote communities, and continues to cost Australian taxpayers money.
Get Crikey FREE to your inbox every weekday morning with the Crikey Worm.