Remote communities thriving in new `dry'

By: Tony Koch

MERVINA Henry is the shy face of change in Queensland's remote indigenous communities, where alcohol consumption has been curtailed and children are staying in school.
Five years after alcohol restrictions were imposed on the state's 19 communities, and two years after Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson won government and indigenous support for a trial of a welfare-linked school attendance scheme, the benefits are becoming manifest.
Hospitals and police report that assaults and domestic violence have decreased markedly, and more children are going to school across north Queensland.
In the large community of Aurukun on western Cape York, school attendances increased 10 per cent last year, and almost as much again this year.
The emerging success owes to the reforms being increasingly embraced by the leaders and residents of the communities.
In the tiny Aboriginal community of Mossman Gorge, an hour's drive from Cairns, 11 families this year chose to have their homes declared ``dry houses''. This means that no alcohol is allowed to be brought into the premises.
Ms Henry is one who elected to ``nominate'' her home. She did it because she wants her daughter Shayeema, 9, to be able to study and become a doctor.
``I want to be safe and I want my little girl to grow up without seeing drunk people around her and hearing arguments and not being able to get a good sleep, because she has to go to school every day and learn,'' Ms Henry said.
``That is why my home is a dry house now. We have seen too much of alcohol and people fighting and drinking until dawn and keeping everybody up.
``Shayeema loves going to school, where she has sport and lots of friends, and she does not have to put up with that humbug.''
Yesterday in Queensland parliament, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Partnerships Minister Desley Boyle tabled a quarterly report that sets out the most encouraging statistics in decades regarding closing the gap on indigenous disadvantage.
Ms Boyle said schools at several communities including Hope Vale, Mapoon and Wujal Wujal
now had school attendance rates approaching the state average of 90.7.
It would be difficult for any community to better those numbers because tradition demanded that when there was a funeral in the community, all businesses and schools shut down for a period of mourning, sometimes more than a week.
In 2007, the Queensland government budgeted $10 million over four years to create support networks for indigenous students throughout Queensland, and from that start came the establishment this year of the Cape York Academy -- a brainchild of Mr Pearson, who was frustrated that so few Aboriginal children were able to cope with the mainstream education system.
The academy and State Education established in the Aurukun and Coen communities the new holistic syllabus -- the Class, Club and Culture curriculum program -- that keeps children at school longer each day and ensures that they know and understand aspects of their particular studies before moving on to new material.
The welfare-linked trial operates at Aurukun, Coen, Mossman Gorge and Hope Vale communities. The quarterly report shows that at Aurukun, under the leadership of progressive Mayor Neville Pootchemunka, assaults in the past year were almost half the number reported in 2008-09.
School attendance has gone up from 46 per cent in 2008 to 65.9 per cent this year, a 10 per cent increase in 2009 and a further 9.8 percent this year.
Another positive aspect of the new community life outlined in the report is the big fall in the number of children being taken into care because of neglect or abuse -- a situation attributed to parents being better able to cope with stress because of the support services now available and because alcohol consumption has been curtailed so much.