By KIERAN FINNANE
Freedom of choice for Aborigines is dominating the parliamentary debate on alcohol but the link between excessive drinking and lack of employment is also receiving attention.
Member for Barkly Gerry McCarthy made a colourful contribution in the debate last Friday when Leader of the Opposition Delia Lawrie moved a Matter of Public Importance about the reintroduction of full strength beer to the Tiwi Islands. By his own account Mr McCarthy took warmly to his “research” into Aboriginal social clubs while on a tour of bush electorates with Ms Lawrie.
He extolled the “vibe” of the “very well patronised” club at Kalkaringi – security on the door, great food, entertainment, mid-strength alcohol and no quota system – although he also said people had made a “clear distinction” between when that club sold full-strength alcohol and when it did not. “There was definitely a difference in the community life and the community safety. That [view] was coming from all walks of life, Indigenous and non-Indigenous.”
He had a “great time” too (drinking Coke) at the Nguiu club where there was no tucker, a band, mid-strength alcohol and a quota system (six mid-strenghth beers). He said locals told him how that quota system could be easily scammed.
But despite the “lot of good fun” he had in both places, he also saw the challenges, similar to those in his home town of Tennant Creek: “There was a common denominator: in both those places the employment programs are running at less than 30%, but the club was really well patronised. Nobody was late for the club, but the employment programs are running at less than 30%. People were not going to work, they were not getting up and doing things. Their self-esteem, obviously, has dropped – and you know the story … they had the similar problems of communities in the Barkly, where employment levels are really low, people are not going to work, kids are not going to school with 100% attendance, the community wellbeing is low, self-esteem is low, and there are issues.”
Member for Braitling Adam Giles hinted at having a different view of the freedom of choice argument being advanced, saying that his opinions on alcohol are being challenged by the Member for Arafura Francis Xavier Kurrupuwu “because that is what his people want”. Perhaps that is why he focussed instead on the ‘big picture’, talking about the provision of infrastructure to stimulate economic development, something he sees as working on the “demand side” of the alcohol issue.
“You did not talk in your speech, Member for Barkly, about welfare. All members here, but particularly the Member for Port Darwin [John Elferink], spoke about treating people equally. If you live in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth or anywhere and you are on the dole and you do not look for a job, you lose your money. I do not want to see people lose their money, but I think there needs to be a carrot-and-stick approach to all Australians, to encourage people to get a job …
“If you paid me to sit down and do nothing all day – because I do not mind having a beer – I might drink beer. I have responsibility in my life; I have things to do, I have to earn a living. That is what provides that change. The real debate is about welfare. The real debate is about sit-down money; it always has been about sit-down money. Land tenure reform is a part of an argument – that is a federal argument – but sit-down money is a major problem. You are not going to get people to turn up to your employment programs if you keep paying people to do nothing. That is the No 1 issue.”
Independent Member for Nelson Gerry Wood expressed his strong support for Mr Giles’ focus: “In fact, I would have preferred this MPI to say: the introduction of full employment and the dissolution of welfare.” He recalled being works manager in the Nguiu Shire Council, employing 107 men.
“We employed everybody we could until about 1978 when Gough Whitlam brought in unemployment benefits. Since then we have had generations of unemployed people and that has been one of the absolute disasters for the welfare, not only of Aboriginal people, for other people as well.”
He recalled the social club on Bathurst Island in the ’70s, when people were entitled to four cans each of full-strength beer. “Drinking was certainly an issue”, he said, but having a job had a “calming” influence: “If people had to turn up the next day for a job, they were less likely to get on the booze. If someone did not turn up, they would not be given the next day to work either. So, there was hopefully an incentive to make sure that even though you had been on the grog, you would turn up for work.
“And I think the two work together. If you have got no job, well you might as well get drunk anyway, because you have not got much to live for, so why not? I mean there is a lot of talk about what are you living for? And if you are living in an overcrowded house, have not got a job, they are not putting any new houses in your community, what are you living for? And work is something that gives people a reason to live. And if you are taking that basic human value away, who blames people for getting drunk or going on gunja? ”
He said he has spoken about this directly with Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin: “I said, ‘You have to get rid of welfare’, and you have to give that money – and this is my version, so other people might have a different idea – give that money to the councils, top it up to a reasonable wage and say to anyone, ‘Welfare is not available here, but if you want some money, you go to the council and the council will at least get you a job’.
“As long as the council is also funded with enough infrastructure and capital equipment to do that, it can be done. There is plenty of work in communities, plenty! And then if people want another job, well, perhaps they have to advance their education, apply for jobs elsewhere, but at least you give them the basic start in life that you give them a job. And I agree totally, if you are the government and if you can convince the federal government …”
The sittings resumes tomorrow.
Source: MLAs’ comments as reported in Daily Hansard.