I'd called youth worker Tristan Ray at the Central Australian Youth Link-Up Service (CAYLUS) in Alice Springs to ask him about Opal fuel , and the Northern Territory’s Volatile Substance Abuse legislation (pdf file 279KB). He told me instead of his colleague, who the previous day had helped cut down an attempted suicide in one of the surrounding communities.
This poor soul, brain-damaged by petrol sniffing had apparently decided that death was his best option. As they cut the man down they noticed a faint heart-beat and agonised over whether the victim would live or die - and which would be the better outcome.
Only a small minority of Aboriginal kids sniff petrol and there are fewer sniffing now than there were 20 years ago. Indeed, there is ample evidence that marijuana and grog do more damage in many communities. The excessive use of recreational drugs will continue to be a problem for some remote communities - just as it will remain a plague on Sydney and New York.
But there is something truly chilling about people using an alien substance like petrol to blanket out the misery. Particularly when BP's non-sniffable Opal fuel could be rolled out right through the central desert region, removing at one fell swoop the chief cause of the immediate problem.
Opal won't cure cancer. Nor will it solve all the problems of remote communities. This is going to take skilled youth workers, treatment and rehabilitation centres, diversionary activities, employment, education, and policing, just for starters. So it's remarkable to see people leaping to their feet to shout that Opal is not a silver bullet: This fact is freely conceded and widely agreed. The shouters ought to give this straw man a rest.
Health Minister Tony Abbott made a hit and run attack on Darwin on September 23, 2005 to launch “Petrol and the Brain” - an education kit designed to warn people living in remote communities of the dangers of sniffing. Hopefully it will do some good - though it seems that my optimism is not necessarily contagious. Two weeks after the Top End shindig, the Northern Territory coroner Greg Cavanagh alluded to the kit as he delivered the findings (pdf file 122KB) of a coronial inquest into three petrol-sniffing deaths: "Words of advice proffered thousands of kilometres away from the problem centres is what has been happening for many years without any apparent beneficial changes."
Not that the Minister was particularly up-beat about the launch. He took it upon himself to deliver a few “home truths”. He didn't actually say “this will hurt me more than it hurts you” - but the Oxford boxing blue wasn't pulling any punches. The assault commenced with a jab about the “crisis of authority” in Indigenous communities that created the preconditions for petrol sniffing. This was followed up by the low rhetorical blow of inquiring, "Why communities don't take it into their own hands to do what they can to stop their young people engaging in this self-destructive behaviour?" The king-hit came in the form of a declaration that communities had to "... understand that in the end, it is to a great extent up to them".
The Minister's remarkable lack of compassion is matched only by his apparent ignorance of the efforts communities have made to rid themselves of this scourge. If only it had been left "to a great extent up to them" to decide whether alcohol, drugs and the rest of the whiteman's magic were welcome additions to a society which had been ticking over quite nicely for 40,000 years.
In any case, not everyone agrees with the way the Minister is playing the blame game. In October 2004, the Northern Territory Parliamentary Committee into Substance Abuse shone the torch on sniffing. They noted that: "Too often the opinion is expressed that remote communities should take responsibility for their own drug problems and deal with them on their own. Remote communities are often called on to take ownership of problems to an extent that would never be expected of urban communities."
Coroner Cavanagh concurred, saying, "It is simplistic in the extreme to suggest that the answer to the problem of petrol sniffing is for the addicts and their communities to help themselves. That is to say, the horrors of present day Mutitjulu are not sensibly addressed by peddling the myth that such disadvantaged citizens might simply help themselves and solve the problem. They and their families are not able to do so by themselves."
The NT parliamentary committee identified the cost of caring for a severely debilitated sniffer as being $160,000 annually and more than double this if the care is provided in a remote community. There are over 700 sniffers in the central desert region. Put aside for a minute the fundamental virtue of human compassion and just do the maths. Opal is a cheap way out.
I don't often get all warm and gooey about trans-national oil companies. In fact, my predisposition is one of deep suspicion. But I can't avoid the tentative conclusion that BP is doing a Good Thing. Let me sully this polemic with a few facts. Contrary to the suggestion that appeared in a certain tacky tabloid last fortnight, Opal is no cash-cow. The Comgas subsidy allows BP to make roughly the same margin as it does on standard unleaded fuel. But it costs them plenty to duplicate the infrastructure necessary to store and transport the stuff.
Far from cultivating a monopoly, BP has agreed to make Opal available to Shell, Mobil and Caltex for the same price as it sells the fuel to its own distributors. More to the point, the recipe to bake the Opal cake is freely available to all the oil companies.
I like a good conspiracy theory as much as the next bloke - but it's gotta have legs. And I'm notoriously flirty with my corporates. If one of the bogeymen mentioned in the last paragraph can make the stuff and get it to the pump for two cents a litre less, then my fling with BP is over.
It's about saving lives.