Countless inquiries into petrol sniffing in Aboriginal communities over the past 20 years have usually been triggered by the reporting in mainstream media of a series of petrol-sniffing-related deaths. The senate inquiry which visited Adelaide last month continues this morbid tradition.
Each inquiry has followed a similar pattern of uncovering heart-breaking stories, exposing gaps in our collective understanding, chastising governments for inactivity, and celebrating a program as a local success story, before a series of recommendations is unveiled.
A few months later, the relevant department or minister announces how the government proposes to respond to the recommendations. Typically, the issue then fades from public view and precious little happens. Time and more lives pass. Eventually concern builds again until another inquiry is announced and the pain and grief of Aboriginal people is trawled through again.
For the government of the day, these cycles only cause headaches when inquiries are conducted in short succession. In 1986 (yes, 20 years ago), after revelations by the opposition that 26 young sniffers had been admitted to hospital the previous week, the headlines screamed: “Government acts on petrol sniffing emergency”. The South Australian Government announced that it would immediately set up mobile treatment facilities and, within 12 months, there would be a permanent rehabilitation centre. Anangu breathed a sigh of relief, money was allocated, a committee of government agencies was announced - but nothing happened.
In 2002, the then-state coroner, Wayne Chivell, said:
Petrol sniffing is endemic on the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Lands. It has caused and continues to cause devastating harm to the community, including approximately 35 deaths in the last 20 years in a population of between 2,000 and 2,500. Serious disability, crime, cultural breakdown and general grief and misery are also consequences … Clearly, socio-economic factors play a part in the general aetiology of petrol sniffing.
Poverty, hunger, illness, low education, almost total unemployment, boredom and general feelings of hopelessness form the environment in which such self-destructive behaviour takes place. That such conditions should exist among a group of people defined by race in the 21st century in a developed nation like Australia is a disgrace and should shame us all … What is missing is prompt, forthright, properly planned, properly funded action.
In 2004, he announced a second inquest into petrol-sniffing deaths. On March 15, the daily paper carried a big photo of a young Aboriginal person sniffing petrol and the headline screamed: “Disgrace”. South Australians learned that more than $1.5 million for programs had never reached the Lands. That same day the deputy premier blamed four deaths from petrol sniffing and eight attempted suicides within a month on inaction by the APY Lands Council and pronounced self-rule as “dead”. The government had decided on “drastic and dramatic action”.
In November that year, government representatives told the coroner that a facility would be up and running by May 2006. New money was allocated. Questions were asked about why the previous funds had not left the government’s coffers. But more than two years after a fresh generation of young South Australians was shocked into acknowledging that their remote peers were in dire trouble a site still has not been decided: not a single brick has been laid; lives are still being lost. All this shows how pressure can successfully be applied to an unresponsive government but also, sadly, how, once that pressure is removed, everything grinds to a halt.
As a privileged white middle-class mother, I returned from visits to the APY Lands stirred by rage and admiration - rage about the decades of inaction, admiration for those Anangu who battle against frightening odds to address substance abuse, neglect and violence. I was left in no doubt that the Anangu want to preserve their culture and their land, and they want a future for their children and grandchildren which allows at least some lofty claims by governments of housing, education and employment to become a reality.
I applied what pressure I could in parliament. My federal colleagues did the same. All to little avail. The far voices of Aboriginal people don’t echo loudly enough in the ballot box to disturb city power brokers.
Last month, headlines around the nation screamed messages of shock and horror about the abuse of children in Aboriginal communities and called for “dramatic and drastic action”. Where have we heard that before? The SA minister admitted that there was substantial abuse and violence in SA's northern Aboriginal communities. So why was the government agency responsible for child protection on the Lands refused the priority funding it asked for in 2004?
In SA alone, over the past two years, the federal Liberal and state Labor governments have announced more money and at least seven “hands-on” co-ordinator positions for services on the Lands. Plenty of spin has been applied. But there is a danger that these positions will end up being nothing more than a buffer - diluting or reconfiguring the priorities identified by Aboriginal people.
I have urged the senate community affairs committee to identify ways in which the vicious cycle of inquiries and inaction might be broken. Mechanisms must be established for long-term, close, regular and independent scrutiny - both of the progress of its own recommendations and of the effectiveness of government-funded programs.
Australia must overcome its dependence on screeching headlines and distressing television footage shocking us into action. Short-term fixes which simply plaster over the ever-widening cracks of communities suffering shameful neglect by our own governments are not enough. Health and police services are the responsibilities of governments. Instead of blame-shifting and further weakening the spirit of our first people, we must put as much energy and attention into protecting their human rights and working for their future as we do for the citizens of other nations.