The Yolngu people of Yirrkala, the largest Aboriginal town in north east Arnhem Land, have always had an ambivalent experience with missionaries. On the one hand it could be argued that the Methodists were best of a bad lot in that they didn’t ride rough shod over local languages and the general thrust of cultural practices. They have been generally supportive of land rights, and the revanchist Yolngu political leadership of the 1960s.
Then again, it was the missionaries—or at least a bunch of lay workers from the south Pacific—that brought in kava.
Kava, used in ceremonial practices in places like Fiji was introduced in the mid 1980s as the silver bullet to counter the threat to community life posed by grog, not to mention the growing use of pot.
And it sort of worked. The soporific effects of kava have been a lot less damaging than dope or alcohol—though the jury is still out on the down side health effects of what has become the recreational drug of choice for hundreds of people stretching west to Ramingining along the “kava coast” of Arnhem Land.
But, since the regulation of the market through a licensing system, the real addiction to kava is being experienced by the organisations licensed to sell the stuff. Sales of the drug have reaped millions of dollars to cash-starved community organisations along the kava coast in ways not dissimilar to the addiction state governments have to gambling revenue.
But the Brough Intervention has imposed cold turkey on kava drinkers, and its licensed sellers. All further imports of kava, other than for religious purposes by south sea islanders, were banned on 25 June—and stocks have run out.
Now, one of the biggest sellers—the Laynhapuy Homelands Association—has put in a claim for compensation, presumably on the “just terms” principle of the Australian constitution which dictates compensation for the removal of property rights. The compensation bill, sent in by Laynhapuy chairman, Barayuwa Mununggurr, comes in at around $1.8 million, and encompasses:
Losses to the Association arising from recent investment and contractual liabilities directly related to the operation of the kava wholesaling business.
Loss of trading income to the Association that was to be utilized for the completion of community projects that were committed and planned for prior to the Australian Government’s ban.
Loss of income to our … homelands that operated as outlets under the Laynhapuy Kava Retail license.
The claim includes substantial community infrastructure projects and assistance to groups such as the night patrols in Yirrkala and Nhulunbuy, as well as a co-contribution to the construction of a women’s centre being sponsored by a Sydney branch of Rotary.
Whether a licence to sell kava is a right in property or not, the claim has been dismissed outright by federal Health Minister Tony Abbott.
Perhaps he should have spoken to his cabinet colleague, Senator George Brandis. He was in Yirrkala in early August. Cold fish that he is, even Brandis was enthusiastic in his praise for the new Bukkuy-Larrngay Mulka Multimedia centre he helped open. Around half the construction costs—$300,000—came from kava profits.
Or perhaps his mate Malcolm Turnbull: the federal environment department had a deal to co-fund a ranger station under their jointly signed Indigenous Protected Area program.