ALICE SPRINGS NEWS,
September 27, 2000

TANAMI DESERT ABLAZE. Report by ERWIN CHLANDA.

Bushfires now raging in the Tanami Desert are causing massive pollution contributing to the greenhouse effect and are a threat to rare wildlife.This is the view of renowned Central Australian botanist Peter Latz, author of several books including "Bushfires and Bushtucker".He says the blaze some 400 km north-west of Alice Springs follows the failure of government authorities and the desert's Aboriginal owners to create fire breaks when conditions were suitable.Mr Latz says it has been clear for some time that heavy rains at the start of the year would produce the biggest fuel load in a quarter of a century.The fires, which have already burned an estimated 20,000 square kilometers, are believed to have been lit by Aborigines in a bid to lower the fire risk. "It's really a bit late now," says Mr Latz. "It should have been done earlier in the year."The fuel is now too dry for controlled corridor-type burning of fire breaks because any blaze will "get away".Says Mr Latz: "The big effect these fires, and those likely to occur in the next six months, are having is producing a hell of a lot of carbon dioxide, contributing to the greenhouse effect."It's something that's being overlooked by the powers that be. "There is always talk that we have to reduce our carbon dioxide production, there are world wide treaties. "If we really did something to control our bushfires we'd probably have a much greater effect on the carbon dioxide that gets poured into the atmosphere than controlling emissions from our motorcars and industries burning fossil fuels."We're talking about a situation that occurs, roughly on average, four times a century."The last time was in 1975."We had really good rains in 1974, and more summer rains, which brought up more grass that all dried off in mid February. "There were a whole lot of dry lightning storms around. One third of Central Australia burned."Although the one predictable thing about the climate of Central Australia is that it is unpredictable, we could be seeing the same thing this summer, a quarter to a half of the region going up in flames."In the olden days these sort of rains would have allowed Aborigines – being nomads – access to every little corner of the country, because there would have been water around everywhere."As they traveled around they lit the spinifex that was ready to burn, and created fire breaks wherever their paths were, like a spider web of fire breaks."This breaks the country up so if lightning strikes a patch of spinifex it's only going to burn a fairly small area before it comes to one of the Aboriginal travelling routes."So you only ever had minimal fires."Aborigines burned five per cent to save the 95 per cent."But since the Aborigines came in from the bush, to live in communities, that sort of practice has fallen back and the spinifex is getting really old and thick."Mr Latz says in the non-spinifex country, as soon as a grass dries up, the termites "chop it up but spinifex isn't eaten by termites until it is very old, and so it just keeps growing up, an accumulating fuel."Eventually, when it goes it goes a glory, and it is very dangerous stuff."He says spinifex is full of resins, oils which stop the termites from eating it early in its life but which burn fiercely."Spinifex is a fire machine."Because of the good rains there is sill quite a bit of moisture in the ground, and anything that's burning now "is not going to be as bad"."If it doesn't rain we're going to have fairly nasty fires this summer, but if we get another rain, the grasses will reshoot and then dry off, and it'll be even worse.""The only way you can deal with these huge areas of Central Australia is by aerial burning, trying to get back to that same system of burning a little to save the rest."You'll never stop fires entirely but you can stop their intensity."Mr Latz says Aborigines, who became owners of the Tanami through landrights, are realising that there is "a problem coming up and they're probably burning off along the roads."But there are not a lot of roads in the Tanami so there are big blocks of country they don't get to."Rare wildlife such as bilbies will suffer: "The problem with these widespread fires is that they create hundreds of kilometers of bared ground, blowing dust and ashes."The little patches of unburned land is where the animals congregate but these areas are invaded by cats, foxes and dingoes, and they pick on the animals which escaped."It can have a disastrous effect on wildlife."These big, nasty fires bare the ground, and every thunderstorm after that you get massive water erosion."You get wind erosion, too."A quarter of a century ago, the Tanami Road was just a little track."We drove there six months later and there was sand banked up across the road."The sand just blows around, there is nothing to hold it."A lot of the nutrients, unfortunately, will get blown as far as New Zealand."In those 1974 fires they were getting ash from here on the snow peaks of New Zealand."Smoke haze from the Tanami fires – some 400 km north-west of Alice Springs – can frequently be seen over the town.Meanwhile the Bushfires Council is burning off around Alice Springs where buffel grass is proliferating.This grass was introduced by government authorities in the ‘ seventies as cattle fodder and a dust suppressant but has proven to be a problem for native species because it burns very hot, damaging other plants including shrubs and trees.

GROG REPORT JUST A 'WAKE UP CALL'. Report by ERWIN CHLANDA.

The town council-commissioned Hauritz report on alcohol abuse, with contributions from hundreds of locals, one year in the making and costing more than $80,000, is useful merely as a "catalyst" and a "wake up call", according to Mayor Fran Erlich.She told a press conference last week that the council had adopted just a handful of the report's 80 recommendations.Only one of the raft of controversial trading restrictions survived – the proposed ban on wine in casks greater than two litres.In addition, the council is calling for stricter enforcement of existing licencing regulations, and a crack-down on public drinking prohibited under the Two Kilometre Law, both the cornerstones of the joint statement released by the local Country Liberal Party MLAs a week earlier.Mrs Erlich says the council wants an Indigenous member appointed to the Licencing Commission.The remaining measures put forward by the council are reminiscent of the largely fruitless initiatives favoured by DASA – when it was the key organisation dealing with alcohol problems – for several years: public education and awareness, and more money for organisations dealing with the aftermath of alcohol abuse.DASA too was opposed to trading restrictionsIn the council's first major statement on the report since its release more than two months ago, Mrs Erlich said the aldermen had done a "very good job" reaching a "consensus decision" on the issue.She said this was the council's "initial position, not the end of our activities, but merely a step along the way".The council is now seeking comment from some 30 community organisations, by the end of this month, and will be making a submission to the Licencing Commission as well as to the NT Government.Although under the Liquor Act "determining the conditions of a licence" is a job for the commission, Chief Minister Denis Burke has said that in this case his Cabinet will be taking charge.Speaking in the Legislative Assembly last month, Mr Burke described the Hauritz report as "emotive" and said: "I find the recommendations quite unbalanced, quite unscientific." Mr Burke said he wants Minister for Central Australia Loraine Braham "to take carriage of the issue for government and to coordinate the departmental response through a cabinet submission in due course to government". "From that we will provide a holistic response to all of the recommendations," said Mr Burke. The ALP has said this approach "seriously compromised" the Liquor Commission.Mrs Erlich said last week: "We will accede to the government's request for information to flow through the Minister for Central Australia and we're quite happy to direct the information we gather through her."But we will also direct the same information to the Licencing Commission."It's up to both, really, there are areas where the Licencing Commission has direct responsibilities, such as the licencing, obviously, and there are areas where the government has to do things, such as [funding] sobering up shelters and awareness campaigns."Asked whether she expected the Licencing Commissioner to take charge of those matters over which he has power, Mrs Erlich replied: "Yes."She said the council agreed with criticisms of the report: " Like the rest of the community, the council had some problems with some aspects of the report, the language and perhaps the lack of objectivity that some people felt."Mrs Erlich said the purpose of the report was "to ascertain the community view but if you're looking realistically where this issue is going, the Government has said, the Licensing Commission has said, that they require more community consultation, and that's what we're doing". In making decisions the Act requires the commission to "have regard to ... the needs and wishes of the community".Determining the needs and wishes of the community was precisely the reason for the community survey and other consultations undertaken by the Hauritz team.Now, the commission – if the Government allows it to make the decisions about alcohol management in the town – will be faced with the task of deciding which of the many players, with broadly diverging views, represent the community: the recently revived Alice Alcohol Representative Committee (AARC), the town council, CLP, ALP, Aboriginal interests, the liquor industry, CATIA, the Chamber of Commerce – and a string of others.The liquor industry, with support from the chamber, has slammed the Hauritz Report.Mrs Erlich declined to say which of the organisations invited to comment so far had expressed support for or opposition to the report.She told the press conference: "We decided to treat [the report] as a catalyst and, I suppose, as a wake-up call, but [decided] to try and get away from the conflict that was inherent in some people's attitude to that report, and to attack the issues themselves, rather than directly address the report."It has been a clarion call to the people in the town. The statistics in the report have been utilised by this council in preparing our response."Many other community groups are responding directly to that report. "But for ourselves we found that it was more effective to go another way."We did not directly address the recommendations of the report."Some [of our positions] are similar to what's in the report, more representation of the Licencing Commission in Alice Springs, and Indigenous representation, and some restrictions that we've decided to agree with."But in general, what you see here, is our own work, our own decisions."Although the council had asked the government for money for the survey, received $57,000 from Living With Alcohol, plus $5000 from Tangentyere, and contributed $20,000 from its own resources, Mrs Erlich gave no clear answers about who was responsible for the management of the Hauritz report.Mr Burke has referred to the document as having been " commissioned" by the council, but senior council staff have earlier denied this was a "council report".When asked whether the council had responsibility for spending the $82,000 for the report, Mrs Erlich said: "No, I don't think that is correct to say. Council did provide $20,000 but the money went to AARC, not to council at all."This was not a report of council but a report of this representative committee."Council didn't decide to pass on that money, we had the administrative running, I suppose, but it's not true to say the money came to council."It went to the consultants for that report."So who paid for the consultants?"Well, because we had the administrative running of it, I don't know the exact economics of it, perhaps the money did come through council, but it wasn't council money."I agree that here was a lot of money spent but I don't agree the report has been put to one side."It's still there, we used it as a catalyst, but because of the flaws which we perceived, we decided that rather than getting bogged down in argument about the report itself, we'd go straight to the issues."In that sense the report has been an invaluable contribution to our debate, and perhaps a debate we wouldn't have been having had that report not been commissioned."The report has been used by the whole community to initiate this discussion."There is a wide polarity of opinion about that report."If we wanted to go forward with this issue and not get bogged down in the credibility of the report, we had to go another way, and that's the way we chose to go."There may be some delay in getting all the community representation back, but we're very firm on the idea that there will be action."The press conference was attended by aldermen Jenny Mostran, Raelene Beale, Samih Habib, Russell Naismith, Michael Jones, Bob Corby and Geoff Bell.Aldermen Annette Smith, Sue Jefford and David Koch were not present. Ald Mostran said the council position outlined "was a consensus of all aldermen."Deputy Mayor Naismith said: "It's rather disheartening to see that funding has been cut to the extent that the Central Australian Aboriginal Alcohol Program Unit (CAAAPU), for instance, [are] closing now three months of the year."That is a horrible thing to happen in a place like Alice Springs."DASA had to cut back on a staff member because of lack of funding," Ald Naismith said."Money should be pouring in to these institutions."Ald Smith has since contacted the Alice Springs News with the following comment:"In my personal view, the Hauritz report is not only long overdue, it builds on and supports the ATSIC and CAAC document commissioned in 1998, "Dealing with Alcohol in Alice Springs; an assessment of Policy Options & recommendations for Action". "The Hauritz report reflects a qualitative view of the community's feelings towards the abuse of alcohol in Central Australia. I believe that the town council has capacity to support the weight of the document in order to see some of the recommendations accepted. The multi faceted distribution of responsibility to undertake the recommendations gives council the opportunity to have a broader role than it has previously undertaken. "Both in my role as an alderman and in the capacity of my employment in the health arena for many years in Central Australia, I believe that council has a role in supporting and assisting services and organisations that work to reduce harm and social issues that result from alcohol abuse."Meanwhile AARC chairman Richard Preece says the best way to deal with the alcohol problems faced by Alice Springs is "to develop a strategy which over time will be politically acceptable to the people of the town, maximising the impact on the abuse of alcohol, whilst minimising any inconvenience to moderate drinkers".Mr Preece says AARC, which represents interests ranging from the liquor industry, the town council, government agencies, business, Aboriginal groups, religious leaders and other community organisations, is working in a "collaborative way" to this end."Organisations such as DASA and CAAAPU are vitally important," he says, "but AARC is more interested in minimising the number of crimes we will be dealing with in future years."He says AARC has not yet reached any conclusions about alcohol supply restrictions, but will "speed up" its deliberation process in the next few weeks.

CALL FOR CHANGE TO DOLE REGIME IN BOOZE BATTLE.

The system of welfare payments must be changed before there can be any meaningful progress in the war against the effect of alcohol abuse.That's the view of MacDonnell MLA John Elferink (CLP), who is widely tipped to be seeking preselection for the seat of Araluen."We should have an effective work for the dole scheme," he says."If you are receiving welfare and you're young and healthy, you should be be putting something back into the community."He says he doesn't advocate replacing cash with food vouchers because they "become a commodity in their own right and they are condescending."Welfare payments need to represent a certain amount of effort."It may only be two days of work."CDEP in some communities have brought about excellent results," says Mr Elferink."Finke (Aputula) is one example."I don't know how often I hear in communities sit down money is killing people," he says."This is true for so many people regardless of race. There is no dignity in being dependent on the dole."Nevertheless, we are condemned, in one fashion or another, to argue this out while welfare payments are made in the way they are. "We have entered an age where responsibilities can be abandoned while we rally exclusively around rights. "The problem is that rights without responsibilities represents nothing more than licence to act without consequence. "If any person is not answerable for their actions in any meaningful way then the product will be irresponsible behaviour and we see that so often in this otherwise beautiful town." Mr Elferink says cracking down on offenders against the Two Kilometre law, a key strategy against alcohol abuse for both the CLP and the town council, will pose some real difficulties for police. The former police sergeant says when drinkers in the river see police approaching, usually in a four wheel drive known as the River Queen, they bury the bottles (into which they've decanted their wine) in the sand or hide them in trees. As there is little cover in the creek bed any attempts to sneak up on drinkers there is difficult, and that sort of hide and seek game is often "farcical".Mr Elferink describes it as "bows and arrows against the lightning".He says a real penalty needs to be attached to this law.When arrests are made the duty of care police must exercise is "onerous". Mr Elferink says: "There's a lot of nervousness following the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. "However, from a public policy point of view I am not entirely convinced that the commission has had a beneficial effect at a social level. "By creating a situation where police are tempted to avoid [placing offenders in] custody the message to offenders ultimately leads to more harm in the community."He says the processes required from police are now a great deal more complex then when he started serving as an officer in Alice Springs in 1985. The "drunk tank", in the old police watch house, has been replaced by a "far more suitable" cell in the new watch house. Mr Elferink recalls an occasion that there were 180 people in a cell built to hold 60. "Back then prisoners were frequently left unobserved – a far cry from the modern video surveillance. "At times there was no watch house staff at all," says Mr Elferink "and that wasn't all that long ago.""Today care for prisoners has come a long way."Because of the pressure to keep people out of custody, police use measures that avoid arrest. In terms of the Two Kilometre Law as it currently exists the only option for police dealing with public drinkers is to tip out the liquor. Police can then caution the offenders and move them on."That doesn't always work," says Mr Elferink. "You tell someone to cease loitering, tip out the booze, move people on. "They move 150 yards and sit down again."Mr Elferink says his concerns arise out of public order issues. "With the introduction of on the spot fines for breaches of the Summary Offences Act the message to the public seems to be that the offences in the Act aren't that serious. "Police can also proceed by summons or arrest, but that seems to occur very little these days. "There seems to be an excessive reliance on protective custody for being drunk rather than charging people with things like, disorderly behaviour, offensive language, fighting and the like."He says the process of taking a person into protective custody means that the police cells are the last place they are likely to finish up after their apprehension."What I would like to see is people being charged for offences arising from breaches of public order and those people answering for their actions in a court," says Mr Elferink. "This applies to all people who break the law be they people who drink liquor as well as those who sell it. "The Licencing Commission should deal with breaches of the Liquor Act far more sternly. "Instead of simple suspensions of trading hours for 24 or 48 hours the commission should also turn their attention to permanent changes to conditions. "Part of the problem is that the commission is the investigating body as well as the executioner."He says that the current debate on alcohol measures, while slow, at least shows that "all parties are saying that something has to be done"."The ball is in the courts of the Licencing Commission and the Alice in Ten project," says Mr Elferink.

MAYOR TELLS HOW HIS TOWN GRASPED THE ALCOHOL NETTLE.

Trial trading restrictions on take-away alcohol have worked like a charm in Katherine, claims Mayor James Forscutt, and they took only about six months to agree upon and put in place. Mr Forscutt says the process was driven by "utter frustration" over "anti-social behaviour" and the ineffectiveness of the Two Kilometre Law, as well as by a spirit of determination to get the town on its feet in the wake of the Australia Day flood of 1998."The community had been through a really hard time, tolerance levels were at an ebb, and we were prepared to try anything," says Mr Forscutt.At the end of the wet season in 1999 the Liquor Commission conducted a hearing that was open to the general community."Everyone could have their say – the hoteliers, caravan park operators, the town council, Aboriginal organisations, and individuals."With the "evidence" from that hearing, a group of around a dozen community representatives – "the movers and shakers of the town" – met with local MLA and Deputy Chief Minister, Mike Reed, and the relevant Minister, Tim Baldwin. "We tabled all the issues and talked about what we could do," says Mr Forscutt. "It took another meeting or two to refine it, during which time we flagged the ideas to the community."There was some opposition, but most people felt it was ‘bite the bullet' time."Some people said, "It won't work', but you don't know that until you trial it. It has worked in Katherine, it's brought about a cultural change that has made all the agony worth while."Before the start of the new wet season, a two stage trial had been proposed and was put in place from January 1 this year. In the first six months, six major liquor outlets had their take-away trading hours restricted to 2pm-8pm. Three of them, including Woolworths, were not allowed to trade on Sundays.From July 1, trading hours have returned to those in force before January 1, and a new set of restrictions have been imposed until the end of the year, barring trade in fortified wines and wine in casks greater than two litres on Wednesdays,Thursdays and Fridays.Mr Forscutt claims there have already been "dramatic drops" in domestic violence admissions to hospital, child abuse, imprisonment, breaking and entering, anti-social behaviour in the streets, and littering.The amount of liquor seized from illegal public drinkers and poured out has also dropped, from an estimated 300 litres per week before January 1, to, by mid-March, around 80 to 100 litres.Mr Forscutt says that he and many others in Katherine feel that "the restricted hours and all the implications that came with it was definitely a cultural change for the town, and everyone in the community, all colours and creeds, have acknowledged that it was most beneficial."Mr Forscutt and his council met with the Kalano Association (an Aboriginal community association) two weeks ago to discuss the first stage of the trial: "We had an open agenda, laying on the table what were their concerns and what were ours."The question I put to therm was, what did they think of it. They'd like to return to it immediately. I've spoken to the executive officer of the Jawoyn Association, Robert Lee. He says, ‘Yes, let's go'. The majority of the community of Katherine have said to me, ‘We think it was great'."Mr Forscutt describes the trials as a "community venture" and says the whole community has moved towards an acceptance of the change. "They're saying, ‘Gee, is this what normal life's like again? Isn't it wonderful?' They are starting to find they are reclaiming the streets, they are prepared to walk the streets at night. It was a major concern not just for the elderly and women, but for people in general."Mr Forscutt says evidence for the success of the trials at this point is "verbal". He says the town won't have an independent evaluation, but his council is calling for "written comments"."Without too much further ado we need to go through the second part of this trial. When the people wish for something to happen, and it is bite the bullet time – that's what people like myself and others are elected for. We've got to make those decisions and trial some of these things. I think even Alice Springs will be quite surprised when it eventually decides what it wants to do, it will be surprised at the support that comes from the community."Not everybody's going to like it but that's not what it's all about. The opposition [in Katherine] was from vested interests and that's to be expected. Those people legitimately have the right to sell alcohol, but when it gets to the stage where it's unsettling, unnerving and upsetting the majority of the community, that's when people like myself, who are elected to represent the community, we need to bite the bullet and say, ‘Well, I'm prepared to stand on this issue'."And can I just say, in our case, at the local elections in Katherine, the aldermen who were previously on the council and re-stood got re-elected. I think the issues were there and people could see we were prepared to stand up for the rights of the community."

NEW CENTRES JOIN DESERT MOB. Report by DOROTHY GRIMM.

Araluen's annual Desert Mob exhibition, featuring recent work from 28 Central Australian Aboriginal Art Centres, included for the first time artists from Ingkerreke Outstations Resource Services and the Irrkerlantye Learning Centre.Desert Mob started in 1991 as the Central Australian Aboriginal Art and Craft Exhibition, involving 13 art centres.Evolving and growing along with the art centres, the name changed to Desert Mob in 1997.The work ranges from traditional dot paintings to pottery, fabric pieces, scarves and artefacts.There are even bush toys, such as tiny figurines of ringers riding horses, made from recycled materials.Some participating art centres represent the work of a small community concentrating on a single art medium, while others represent a large number of artists from more than one language group who work in a variety of mediums.Because so many centres take part, each group was limited to 15 pieces. Many selected only their very best work, including large exhibition pieces.But regardless of the size or number of works, the thrill of being part of Desert Mob brought smiles to the faces of many artists making their debut appearance.Almost all the exhibiting artists from Ingkerreke Outstations Resource Services, located just south of Heavitree Gap, were present.Arts coordinator Veronica Johnson said the group was particularly pleased because the art centre has only been operating since January this year and many of the artists are still developing their skills and talents.Desert Mob continues at Araluen through November 5.

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