At the deep end of The Centre’s drinking culture

By KIERAN FINNANE

 

– You bought the Jim Beam at 6pm?

– Yes.

– But you’d been drinking beer with a group of people from 2pm?

– Yes.

– How did you know it was 2pm, did you have a mobile phone?

– 2pm is when the bottleshop opens.

– And before that, you were at the Peanut Bar?

– Yes, Riverside.

– What time did you go there?

– About 10 o’clock.

– So you’d been drinking all day?

– Yes.

– And what time did you come back to Charles Creek?

– 9pm, when the bottleshop was closed.

 

Defence lawyers’ questioning like this*  seeks to cast doubt on eye-witness evidence; as a by-product they paint a revealing picture of prodigious drinking going on in our midst.

 

The time of the day is reckoned by the time of the bottleshop opening and closing; the time with family remembered, at least in part, by the grog shared with them and the arguments and fighting that can follow; the geography of the town is described by its drinking spots and the routes between them.

 

Right: Todd Tavern (Riverside) bottleshop. 

 

Not every eye-witness of the 16 questioned over the protracted ordeal that ended in the death of Kumunjayi Pollard was drunk at the time, but most of them were.

 

Petrina Andy, the woman questioned above, agreed she was “full drunk”. The Jim Beam was a “four corner” (one litre, so called for its square bottle container), shared with her partner and another woman. She had more than they did, “half a bottle” she estimated.

 

They shared the Jim Beam at the park near Centrelink. She and her partner had an argument, and she left him in the park while she went back to the bottleshop. When she got there she saw it was closed and so walked back to Charles Creek – to the creekbed in front of the town camp by the same name. She agreed that that stretch of the creek is a regular drinking spot, a drinking camp.

 

The woman at the park with her and her partner was Gladys Daniels. She said she was a “little bit drunk” after downing a bottle of chardonnay.

 

– One bottle of chardonnay you finished by yourself?

– Yes.

– Did you have any beer?

– No

– Did you have any Jim Beam with anyone?

–Yes.

– How much?

– Four drinks mixed with Coke.

 

Rosemary James too said she had drunk a whole bottle of chardonnay by herself. And this was before starting on “a box” (two-litre cask of wine) with her husband, one of the accused. She said she was “half drunk” but in her statement to police she had said she got “full charged”.

 

Jason Cooper took his seat in the witness box. A youngish man, he was striking for his erect bearing and eager manner. Most of the other witnesses, the women in particular, seemed down at heart, even crushed at times to be talking about the events of that terrible night, but he took it in his stride.

 

– So you started drinking at 2 o’clock?

– Yes, at the Riverside.

– Inside?

– No, in the creek.

– What were you drinking?

– Two 24 packs of VB and a Jim Beam and three bottles of Coke.

– What kind of Jim Beam?

– A ‘Big Mumma’.

– Who did you share the grog with?

– My missus.

 

From the creek in front of Riverside, they got a taxi to Charles Creek. The grog was finished while it was still daytime. Was he full drunk by then?

 

– Little bit, only little bit.

– You consumed the alcohol pretty quickly?

– Yes.

 

He went back to Riverside to buy more. He ran into family and they got two 30 packs of VB. He mentioned a ‘Big Mumma’ again but later questioning suggested that he had only had one on the day, mixed with Coke.

 

– Where did you go to drink it [the second lot of beer]?

– 24 hour shop.

– You mean the park nearby?

– Yes.

 

It was “a bit late” when he walked back to Charles Creek.

 

– Were you full drunk by then?

– Yes.

– Had you had any food that day?

– No.

 

Renee Brown was one of a group of four drinking a 30 pack of VB and a Jim Beam “four corner”. They were at Middle Park, a stretch of the Todd, north of its junction with Charles Creek. When they finished that grog she said Jason Cooper and his wife brought them more – two bottles of chardonnay. She agreed she was drunk.

 

Gilbert Wako was one of the same party. He agreed he was “half drunk, just right” at Middle Park but later by the time he got to Charles Creek he was “full drunk”. He went there after the bottleshop had closed and said there was no more grog then.

 

We don’t know how much any of the accused may have drunk that night but we do know they went to the bottleshop before setting out to find Kumunjayi Pollard at Ilparpa Camp. CCTV at the Todd Tavern (Riverside) drive-through captured images of some of them there at 7.59pm.

 

We don’t know either what or how much Kumunjayi Pollard may have drunk but forensic pathologist Eric Donaldson was of the view that the greater part of his post-mortem blood alcohol level of .129% would have been due to ingestion of alcohol prior to death.

 

I feel like I have been writing these stories for years. Chief Justice Trevor Riley (pictured) is feeling the same way.  In the Supreme Court in Alice Springs on Thursday he sentenced Tennant Creek man Eugene Green to four years in gaol (with a non-parole period of three years and three months)  for causing serious harm to his wife.

 

The couple had both been drunk and started arguing. He beat her numerous times with a stout stick, then stabbed her repeatedly with a stainless steel kitchen fork.

 

Mr Green has significant health issues associated with his drinking, including liver damage and non-functioning kidneys. He is on dialysis three times a week.

 

Chief Justice Riley had dealt with him before in 2008, when he sent him to gaol for a similar offence against another woman, his then wife. He had this to say last Thursday:-

 

“In my sentencing remarks of 20 February 2008 I said to you: ‘Your offending on this occasion is another depressing example of drunken violence within a relationship between Aboriginal people who are living in Tennant Creek. It seems that when the court sits in Alice Springs, which is often, we are confronted by numerous offences of this kind. Many of them are sourced in Tennant Creek. In most cases the offender was drunk at the time and the victim was also drunk. The violence is generally a product of the drunken state of one or other or both the offender and the victim. The violence often occurs for the flimsiest of reasons and is a response out of all proportion to the circumstances which give rise to the assault. The circumstances of your case are no exception.

 

“‘It seems plain that something must be done to curb the level of alcohol consumption in Tennant Creek. The courts regularly hear evidence of alcohol being consumed in Tennant Creek in quantities beyond comprehension. It seems that the excessive consumption of alcohol continues for so long as alcohol is available. People drink until they can drink no more and then get up the next day and start all over again. The frequency with which drunken violence occurs is unacceptable and the level of violence is likewise completely unacceptable.

 

“‘For the good of the town, for the good of the victims, the good of the offenders and for the good of the innocent children of Tennant Creek, it seems to me obvious that a system must be devised to limit the amount of alcohol made available to the people whose lives are being devastated in this way and to educate and rehabilitate those already abusing alcohol. The people of the Northern Territory cannot sit on their hands and allow what is occurring in Tennant Creek to continue. I accept that it is a complex issue but it is an issue that must be addressed and must be addressed sooner rather than later. Hard decisions must be taken.’

 

“I am sad to say that those remarks remain true today some six years later. So far this week, amongst the other business of the court, I have dealt with four matters of a similar kind from central Australia. In each case a drunken Aboriginal man has pursued another, intent on violence. In one case the prisoner went searching for his victim but when, fortunately, he couldn’t find her he smashed property. In another the prisoner attacked his partner with a metal broom handle and also kicked her in the face whilst wearing steel capped boots.

 

She suffered a fractured arm. In the third case the prisoner smashed a steel framed chair over the head of his victim fracturing his arm which he had raised in protection. The fourth case is your own. There are other cases in the list of a similar kind yet to be dealt with. This is standard fare in almost every sitting of the court in Alice Springs. The depressing fact is that the problem surrounding the abuse of alcohol and the consequent violence has not been successfully addressed. We, as a community, need to do more.”

 

* Questions and answers are reproduced from detailed notes (taken during the committal hearing into the charges arising from Kumunjayi Pollard’s death) but may not be verbatim.

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2 Comments (starting with the most recent)

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  1. Ian Sharp
    Posted April 7, 2014 at 6:21 pm

    Once again Kieran, thanks for the reporting. We would be lost without you (and Erwin, hope he’s mending well). Re shy Mark’s comment, a couple of years ago The Australian did print some details of the owners of one/some of the pubs (living in Adelaide) and tried to get comments from them, unsuccessful as I recall. Worth a follow-up I reckon. One of the weaknesses of the free market economy are the so-called ‘negative externalities’ (ask Rainer [Chlanda, former student of Ian’s], see if he remembers these from Yr 12) just one of the reasons why we need governments to intervene in the market on behalf of the greater good … it’s not all about profit.

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  2. Mark
    Posted April 7, 2014 at 7:01 am

    Re: At the deep end of The Centre’s drinking culture.
    As a one time resident of both Tennant Creek and Alice Springs, I appreciate the terrible toll that alcohol fueled violence had on my family, friends and the wider community.
    The effects of this violence are so devastating, but in my mind the resulting poverty from all of this drinking is equally abhorrent and must go a long way towards keeping these people perpetual victims of vicious cycles.
    I would be pleased to see a comparative piece showing how the holders of various liquor licensees live, compared with the typical alcoholic customer.
    Thanks to Kieran Finnane for keeping what is a depressingly too familiar story front and centre of the public interest.

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