The Weekend Oz front-page headline “Petrol sniffing scourge defeated” was a bit overcooked. Certainly the signs are good, and in the Northern Territory at least, the crisis has been averted. But much remains to be done to ensure that this hard-won ground in the war against sniffing can be held.

Happily, the situation north of the Northern Territory border has greatly improved, not least through the tireless efforts of the Aboriginal community-controlled Tangentyere Council. The Central Australian Youth Link Up Service (CAYLUS), which is auspiced by Tangentyere Council, has long been in the front line of the fight against sniffing in the central desert area.

I spoke this morning to Blair McFarland at CAYLUS. He told me that he had just taken a call from a grandmother here in Alice Springs, worried that one of her grandchildren is sniffing, and seeking assistance. “There are still sniffers here in town,” McFarland told Crikey.

The indefatigable CAYLUS crew – who fight this battle where the rubber hits the road, in the remote Indigenous communities around Alice Springs which have been devastated by petrol sniffing – are undoubtedly winning the race. But McFarland warns against complacency.

The roll-out of BP’s non-sniffable Opal fuel is a key plank in the federal government’s Eight Point Plan to combat petrol sniffing.

However, the plan also identifies crucial complementary strategies such as ensuring that there are sufficient rehabilitation and treatment facilities available, adequate policing, and well-designed activity programs for young people.

The government has recently expanded the area in which it will subsidise the sale of Opal fuel so that it can be sold at the same price as regular unleaded fuel, but there has been no increase in the budget for these critical ancillary activities.

On the Pit Lands in the northernmost reaches of South Australia, there are larger numbers of active sniffers, though trends here are also encouraging.

“We are winning the war,” says McFarland, “but it’s not over yet.”

Get Crikey for $1 a week.

Lockdowns are over and BBQs are back! At last, we get to talk to people in real life. But conversation topics outside COVID are so thin on the ground.

Join Crikey and we’ll give you something to talk about. Get your first 12 weeks for $12 to get stories, analysis and BBQ stoppers you won’t see anywhere else.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
12 weeks for just $12.