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A simple solution not to be sniffed at

By Graham Ring - posted Friday, 30 September 2005

There’s nothing funny about inhaling petrol fumes. It’s devastating to think that in wealthy, complacent Australia, there are wretched souls - black and white - who resort to petrol sniffing to block out their misery. I suspect that if the pictures were coming from Melbourne rather that Mutitjulu - and the faces were white rather than black - the matter would be addressed with great alacrity.

The lead petrol that we used for so many years contributed to 90 per cent of the airborne lead in Australia’s urban areas. Children were particularly vulnerable to this poison. Thankfully, good sense prevailed and government intervention ensured the almost universal use of unleaded petrol.

However, this fuel still contains the aromatics which make it attractive to a relatively small group of young people who are so disenchanted and disempowered that they are prepared to inhale toxins to escape from the world.


Enter Opal.

It’s difficult to warm to trans-national oil companies. But all the evidence is that BP is producing this unleaded, non-sniffable fuel as an act of social good. It’s hopelessly uneconomic for the company to make the fuel in small quantities. It’s prohibitively expensive to duplicate all the equipment needed to store and transport the fuel. But they do it anyway.

The subsidised Comgas scheme allows Opal to be sold at the pump for the same price as standard unleaded petrol. The snag is that it can only be bought at selected locations. You don’t have to be Barry Jones to recognise that removing sniffable fuel from a community is pointless if it can be obtained at another location 50kms away.

Now there are some particularly sagacious characters around the place offering the staggering insight that the introduction of Opal fuel will not solve all the problems of remote communities. This “symptom not disease” advice has a “bleeding obvious” quotient of 100.

It’s like telling people to put their headlights on when they drive at night or to avoid spitting into the wind.

So it’s true. Opal won’t solve all the problems of remote communities. But the ugliness of sniffing is immediate and concrete. “Steven”, who attended a recent coronial hearing in Mutijulu while sniffing from a tin of petrol tucked into his jumper, is a real person. So is “Sarah”, who said in evidence that her son had been sniffing since he was a child. They need assistance now.


By all means gather together the experts with the capacity to identify and address the root cause of this misery. Set them straight to work and listen carefully to what they have to say. But first, act decisively to remove the immediate danger: Take the knife from the baby. For the Opal scheme to be effective, sniffable petrol must be banished entirely from the whole of the central desert region.

The cost? Well it depends on who you ask, but the good judges are saying that an extra $10 million a year will do the trick. In federal budget terms, $10 million dollars is the kind of loose change you find down the back of the couch with the fluff and the Butter Menthols. By way of perspective, the government raised $13 billion from fuel excise last year.

The Howard Government long ago ditched the tired terminology of social justice. They’re a bleeding-heart free zone. This mob is into efficiency. So they may well care to consider the overwhelming economic good sense of subsidising Opal more widely. It’s likely to cost us long-suffering taxpayers $24 million a year to care for those who will succumb to sniffing in the Northern Territory alone. The cost of extending the subsidy of Opal across the whole central desert region will be less than half this amount.

So if we won’t introduce Opal to end the suffering of the sniffers, and the misery visited on their families and communities, then let’s just do it because it’s cheaper.

The prime minister has never been slow to align himself with the sporting triumphs of Australian representative teams. Now it’s time for him to kick a big goal and put Opal right through the Centre.

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First published in the National Indigenous Times in issue 89, September 2005.

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About the Author

Graham Ring is an award-winning writer and a fortnightly National Indigenous Times columnist. He is based in Alice Springs.

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