Disaster in the Desert


Late September sees Darwin heading into the ‘build up’ a time of brutal humidity and heavy cloud cover, without any rain to bring relief.

It was during this period last year that Federal Health Minister Tony Abbott hit town on one of the fly-in/fly-out visits that so fail to impress Top Enders with their Canberra-based guardians. The Minister was in Darwin to launch Sniffing and the Brain, an education kit designed to warn Indigenous communities of the dangers of petrol sniffing.

During the formalities, Abbott was kind enough to describe Aboriginal people as ‘an asset to be cherished.’ He then launched into an attack remarkable for its callousness. The Minister said there was a ‘crisis of authority’ in 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.

A 2004 evaluation of the Comgas Scheme a Federal Government initiative that provided subsidies on ‘unsniffable’ Avgas to a small number of communities tells a different story. (In 2005 Avgas was replaced by Opal, and the initiative renamed the Petrol Sniffing Prevention Program.)

The Comgas evaluation team visited a remote community where sniffers and non-sniffers alike supported the decision to introduce BP’s unleaded Opal fuel, which has such a low aromatic content that it cannot produce a sniffer’s ‘high’.

‘Everyone was informed of the decision at a community meeting,’ the evaluation noted. ‘Following the meeting, the petrol sniffers went out bush, lit a big fire and burnt all their cans and supplies of fuel. This gave the community members a sense of power, and showed that they did not accept petrol-sniffing.’

At a second community, the team talked to members of the night patrols where community members do display the courage to take petrol off the sniffers. ‘We talk to them, tell them it will kill them. They might stop then.’ The team also documented the widespread practice of taking kids ‘out bush’ and teaching them to hunt, fish and live off the land using traps and snares.

These are surely examples of communities doing what Abbott was asking for.

Under the Petrol Sniffing Prevention Program, the Federal Government subsidises the sale of Opal fuel to the tune of 27 cents per litre but only in select remote communities, and a single service station in Alice Springs.

In a 2005 inquiry into petrol sniffing deaths, Northern Territory Coroner Greg Cavanagh said: ‘Words of advice [have been]proffered [from]thousands of kilometres away from the problem centres for many years, without any apparent beneficial changes.’ Cavanagh called on the Federal Government to ‘support the universal roll-out of Opal fuel across the entire Central Desert region’, and concluded 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.’

The economic advantages of a comprehensive roll-out of the unsniffable fuel were highlighted by a detailed cost-benefit analysis released in Sydney last week. The Access Economics study was commissioned by the Opal Alliance a group comprising Vicki Gillick from the Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (NPY) Women’s Council, Blair McFarland and Tristan Ray from the Alice Springs-based CAYLUS youth service, and Bruce Morris from the GPT property group.

The rigorously compiled report reveals that an additional $1.5 million annually will cover the cost of a comprehensive roll-out of Opal fuel across central Australia. This measure will save the community $27 million dollars every year by reducing the cost of health care, lowering the impact on the justice system, and mitigating the ‘disease burden’ the cost of lives lost and injuries sustained.

The report confirms that Opal is not a stand-alone solution to petrol sniffing, and the cost of sorely needed support and rehabilitation programs is factored into the analysis. Great emphasis is placed on the critical need to get Opal into urban centres like Alice Springs. Kids in remote communities will not be safe while traffickers can obtain sniffable fuel from ‘nearby’ regional centres like Alice Springs, Coober Pedy and Tennant Creek. Ironically, it is now these centres where subsidised Opal would be of most benefit to the wider community.

The importance of a comprehensive roll-out cannot be overstated. Vicki Gillick, from the NPY Women’s Council, observed that a piecemeal roll-out could make the problem worse, creating a black market where traffickers could charge up to $70 for a 1.5 litre bottle of petrol.

‘Not a single Indigenous community that has applied for unsniffable petrol has been denied it,’ observed a po-faced Tony Abbott. Technically, he is correct. But Central Desert communities are in crisis and the Minister for Health has prescribed a submission-based funding regime of the ‘fill in a form and my department will consider your application in due course’ variety.

He says that the Government will not ‘impose’ the fuel on communities. Stumbling into the kind of patronising patois that causes the alarm bells of insincerity to jangle, the Minister ventured that ‘this is not whitefella telling blackfella what to do.’

What he failed to make clear was that ‘imposing’ unsniffable fuel on communities is like imposing medical supplies on hospitals. There is no down-side to Opal. The cars run just as well, but the kids can’t sniff the petrol.

The Minister’s statement that Opal is available at only one service station in Alice Springs because BP can’t supply any more is lame. Transnational oil companies are notoriously good at responding to changes in demand. If Abbott gave blanket approval for subsidised Opal, BP might surprise him.

In the meantime, his colleague the Treasurer might be persuaded to dip into the $13 billion budget surplus and help avert disaster in the desert.

Following the release of the Access Economics report, Nura Ward from the NPY Women’s council issued an invitation on the ABC’s Lateline program, asking Abbott to visit some of the remote communities affected by sniffing. ‘He can come and sit with us and he can help us old women with diabetes, with asthma. He can help us lift all those disabled petrol-sniffers into their wheelchairs, he can help us push them to the store, fight off all the other petrol-sniffers that are begging for money or crying for food. And he will realise that we don’t want anymore of our descendants to grow up in this kind of life.’

Lateline reports that Abbott will spend four days in the Pitjantjatjara lands this June.

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.