Urgent need to curtail canteen counter culture

By: Tony Koch

IN THE wake of the release, late last year, of the report by retired Justice Tony Fitzgerald QC into Cape York Aboriginal communities, Aboriginal Affairs Minister Judy Spence has been busily consulting with those people the investigation affects -- residents in remote communities.
Her message has been blunt -- that unless the alcohol-related violence ceases, the canteens (bars) will be closed or, at the very least, given over to some other authority to run. The level of violence and the constant misappropriation and endemic corruption of the councils which run the facilities leave authorities with little choice but to act decisively.
As Spence will outline to Parliament next week, the genesis of alcohol supply on the communities was corrupt in itself. The Bjelke-Petersen government insisted in the early 1970s that the then church-run ``missions'' establish canteens, with the main aim being to raise profits that could be directed to providing services to the community.
This meant the government did not have to fund services in the manner it does for other townships. The social costs were paid scant regard, despite warnings at the time that dreadful violence and family breakdown would result.
For example, on August 25, 1971, the Aurukun Aborigines Mission wrote to the Aboriginal Affairs Department head, Pat Killoran, stating they did not want liquor sold at Aurukun, but instead would like a milk bar.
A month later, Killoran wrote back and directed them to hold an opinion poll. Two weeks later the mission replied: ``The councillors and people of Aurukun would like to stress the fact that over the years their answer to this question has always been `No' and feel that you are now trying to push liquor on to this community. They are asking why the subject of whether liquor should be sold here or not is being asked so often. The need for money to build (houses) and for water and power is by far more important and we would still prefer to have a milk bar or similar precede a liquor bar.''
By the mid-1970s, most communities had canteens forced on them, and the problems were obvious.
On January 9, 1981, Killoran wrote to Bamaga, Edward River, Kowanyama, Lockhart, Palm Island, Thursday Island, Weipa, Woorabinda, Yarrabah and Cherbourg communities expressing concern at the operation of the canteens ``and the detrimental effects resulting from the abuse of alcohol at your community''.
His letter said the problems included: Beer sessions turning into a ``swill''; beer is supplied in jugs with no glasses; jugs of beer only supplied, then tipped into buckets and drunk.
Most ominously, he added: ``Mothers and fathers are leaving children unattended and uncared for, within the general environs of the canteen.''
The ridiculous situation was best described by visiting Magistrate Hamilton Spicer, a north Queensland rugby league halfback who reported on December 18, 1978 after a visit to Kowanyama and Edward River (now Pormporaaw) communities that the same old topic in discussions with councillors was grog. ``The quota being consumed at Edward River is three kegs per day now three days a week. Unfortunately, at these communities, the consumption of liquor appears to be the paramount consideration of all concerned, and the more the supplies that are made available, the bigger becomes the thirst of the drinkers, so much so that it is quite apparent that everyone who attends at the canteen thinks he or she has a duty to get stoned out of their brains in as short a time as possible.
``Each person is entitled to two jugs of beer per night, which are bought simultaneously and placed on a table to become hot before consumption.
``The most drastic aspect of the whole affair is the importance placed upon the liquor supply in every community.''
That was not written on a spur of the moment judgment. Spicer wrote to the department on April 17, 1973 after a visit to Edward River: ``I feel that a further inspection of Edward River is necessary at an early date, as if the liquor position does not improve then I feel the canteen may have to be closed and liquor be forbidden altogether.''
On March 8, 1979, Killoran wrote to then police commissioner Terry Lewis complaining about police inaction against charter pilots who were flying sly grog into communities, particularly Palm Island off Townsville. He pointed out that in the preceding two months the crimes reported were: Numerous assaults, seven charges of attempting to kill, three rapes, one murder, five burglaries of the retail store and five burglaries of the beer canteen.
Much of the early correspondence to and from the remote communities spells out the incidence of sly-grogging, and how little was being done about it and that much of it was being done by black leaders in the communities -- later the elected councillors.
As can be seen -- and verified by the reports done by responsible people such as Boni Robertson, Noel Pearson and Tony Fitzgerald, nothing has changed.
There can be no argument that the greatest inhibitor to advancement is alcohol. Without the drunkenness, the violence against the women and children ceases. The Queensland Government is addressing just what to do about the canteens, and the most desirable result would be for them to be closed altogether, at least for a time until the communities pulled themselves together.
But another serious issue to be addressed is the election system of councillors. Too often they not only fail to provided leadership but, in fact, are the perpetrators of much of the crime and trouble.