The Politics of Petrol Sniffing


‘All three died as a result of the inhalation of petrol fumes. Each person had marks on their face indicating that their head was resting on a tin – which had been shaped to fit the contours of the face and achieve a seal.’
Coroners Inquest, Anangu Pitjantjara Lands 2001

Mutitjulu is not Melbourne. If it were, the faces in the pictures might be White and middle class. Something would be done. But Mutitjulu has no marginal seats – nor medical facilities of the kind we take for granted on the eastern seaboard.

This community shelters in the shadows of Uluru, and suffers the misery of petrol sniffing. In early August, Northern Territory Coroner, Greg Cavanagh, visited Mutitjulu to undertake an inquest into sniffing deaths. Cavanagh abruptly adjourned the hearing after it was interrupted by a man sniffing petrol from a tin secreted under his jumper. The Coroner later spoke of his ‘impotence to stop what was going on’.

Thanks to Peter Nicholson at <i>The Australian</i>”  ></p>
<p><span><small>Thanks to <a href=Peter Nicholson at The Australian

It is devastating to contemplate the fact that in wealthy, complacent Australia, there are wretched souls – Black and White – so disenchanted and disempowered that they will inhale toxins to escape from the world.

Enter BP and their new brand of petrol, ‘Opal’.

Standard unleaded petrol contains 25 per cent of the aromatics that produce a sniffer’s high. Opal contains only 5 per cent, rendering it ‘unsniffable’. While it can be difficult to warm to transnational oil companies, all evidence suggests that BP is producing the new fuel primarily as an act of social good.

The production and distribution of Opal fuel is hopelessly uneconomic. Massive duplication of infrastructure is required to refine and store the fuel. The cost of trucking it thousands of miles into isolated communities where there are very few people to buy the stuff is prohibitive. But they do it anyway.

The Federal Government’s subsidy scheme allows Opal to be sold at the pump for the same price as standard unleaded petrol. Tragically, the subsidised fuel is only available at selected locations across the central desert. Sniffable fuel can be obtained in large centres like Alice Springs, and finds its way all too easily into surrounding communities where it is not otherwise available. Thus a potentially life-saving scheme runs the risk of being reduced to mere ‘gesture politics’.

Opal won’t solve all the problems of remote communities. Petrol sniffing is a symptom of deep-seated social problems. But the ugliness of sniffing is immediate and concrete. An effective policy response is urgently needed.

The Government is stumbling in the right direction. The Health Minister, Tony Abbott, recently announced an extension of the subsidised distribution of Opal to Yulara and points south. But the Minister has stated that it is ‘simply not realistic’ to have a full roll-out of Opal fuel. He must explain why.

Tangentyre Council Central Australian Youth Link-Up Service (CAYLUS) is a lot closer to the action than those sheltering in the parliamentary trenches of Canberra. The CAYLUS submission to the recent coronial inquiry into petrol sniffing deaths at Multijulu does not mince words: ‘Young people in Central Australia sniff petrol because it is the best thing on offer. They sniff because their friends do, because their family is drinking or dead, because petrol is readily available, and because they are hungry. They sniff to get away from pain.’

Kawaki Thompson gave evidence to an earlier coronial inquiry: ‘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.’

CAYLUS has called on the Commonwealth Government to subsidise the comprehensive roll-out of Opal fuel in the Central Australian Cross-Border Region. The submission identifies an area bounded roughly by Coober Pedy, Mt Isa, Tennant Creek and Laverton as containing the largest cluster of petrol sniffers in the country.

The Howard Cabinet has no time for the namby-pamby language of social justice. ‘Where is your business case?’ they’ll ask.

Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation (ANTaR) estimates that it will cost taxpayers a staggering $24 million a year to care for the additional 120 people who will succumb to sniffing in the next few years in the Northern Territory alone. Expanding the Opal subsidy right through the central desert area is likely to cost less than half this amount. There is your business case.

Meanwhile, BP is clocking up corporate-citizenship brownie points at a rate of knots. It may even be that they deserve to. The chemical recipe to bake the Opal cake is freely available, but BP hasn’t been rushed by other oil companies prepared to help shoulder the load.

Patrick Dodson, ‘father of reconciliation’ and voice of reason, has warned that many remote communities are running out of time. The problems that beset Black Australia are not solely of Black Australian origin. Their solutions should not be either.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.