Letter: The more things change the more they stay the same

Sir – It was interesting to read the report on the recent public meeting concerning future directions after the expiry of the federal Intervention.

I note with particular interest the comment by Betty Pearce, “a prominent senior Aboriginal woman, (who) said the government would be too “afraid to do anything drastic” on grog issues, because it would affect whitefellas’ economic interests.

“She criticised the failure of the Intervention to provide rehabilitation and counselling services in communities, and fired a broadside at land councils (presumably relevant to the Intervention generally, rather than to grog measures in particular): “While land councils are in control, you’ll never get anything done.”

I thought it might be interesting to enlarge a little on Mrs Pearce’s comments, especially in relation to grog measures. For example, she stated that she “believes education against the bad influences of liquor should begin in grade one of primary school.

“What I learned before the age of eight has stayed with me.

“Those people here tonight who have religious convictions were all brought up with religion at birth.”

She said that if children were educated from birth we wouldn’t have the problems we face today.

“And you are the businessmen who should help,” she said to the audience, “because you are the people who are getting richer at the expense of the Aboriginal person.

“You’ll have to keep the Aboriginal person alive, won’t you?”

Oh, hang on a moment, I’m quoting from another meeting! These comments were reported in the story “Liquor main illness cause” by Jill Bottrall, published on the front page of the Centralian Advocate of Friday, 29 October 1982, which covered the public forum called by the Alice Springs Town Council earlier that week on what to do about the burgeoning alcohol abuse and associated problems affecting Alice Springs.

Betty Pearce was one of four guest speakers at this forum on account of “her involvement with the Congress rehabilitation farm”.

This was the story that reported that 20 out of every 22 admissions to the Alice Springs Hospital was due to alcohol-related causes, according to the then Chief Surgeon, Dr Charles Butcher.

This meeting was the prelude to the NT Government’s introduction of the 2km restriction law that commenced operation on 1 January, 1983. It also coincided with the announcement by the Minister for Health, Ian Tuxworth, on the creation of sobering up shelters for people taken into protective custody.

Almost three decades ago all of this occurred – gee, so what’s changed?

For good measure, here’s another quote: “It is fair to say that a large bulk of the money available to problem drinkers in Alice Springs arises from Social Security payments intended for the support of the recipient and his or her dependants to meet the basic [my emphasis] living needs of shelter, food, clothing, transport etc.

“This, significantly, is now being voiced as a basic concern by members of the Aboriginal community themselves. I recently met in Alice Springs with Aboriginal women and senior men representing communities from all over the Centralian area.

“At those meetings I was told, in the starkest possible terms, of the family neglect, social dysfunction and breakdown of traditional values arising from the ‘urban drift’ of Aboriginal people leaving their home areas in favour of accessibility of liquor in Alice Springs.”

This is from a letter by Chief Minister Marshall Perron to Hon. Robert Tickner, the federal Minister for Aboriginal Affairs; and to Senator Graham Richardson, Minister for Social Security; dated 24 May 1990, pleading for Commonwealth assistance to deal with crime and anti-social issues that peaked earlier that year.

More than 5400 cases of protective custody had been recorded for Alice Springs from January to April that year, and Alice Springs “normally” recorded an average of nearly 11,000 such cases annually (from a population of about 22,000 at the time, although it’s important to note the overwhelming majority of the protective custody records were dealing with relatively few people).

In my younger and more naive years I used to attend such public meetings and forums, because I thought maybe – at last – some progress would come of them.

The last one I attended was an “emergency” public meeting under the Todd Mall sails in 1995, chaired by the late Charles Perkins.

These days I’ve got better things to do with my time.

Alex Nelson

Alice Springs

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3 Comments (starting with the most recent)

NB: If you want to reply to a previous comment, start your comment with this notation: @n where n is the number of the comment you want to reply to.
  1. Hermann Weber
    Posted August 20, 2011 at 3:10 pm

    As much as I would like to commend Steve on his faith it is unfortunate that the truth is far more on the side of Alex.
    Living away from it all it never ceases to amaze me to come across abysmal ignorance in all these matters down here. I feel much of the reason for this is that there is no sense of what has gone on before and we are constantly re-inventing the wheel with every new generation in politics and the workforce. I despair that we will ever learn.
    Hermann Weber

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  2. Alex Nelson
    Posted August 20, 2011 at 10:29 am

    I agree with Steve Brown “that during the passage of time to which [I] refer there has been a huge amount of thinking, discussion and many lessons learnt”. Well, perhaps not the part about lessons being learnt.
    The biggest problem we have is in fact our failure to learn the lessons from the past, which is the primary reason I keep dredging it up. Steve’s grandiose conclusion states: “In the true light of our history let’s all remember the greatest strength … is the ability to forgive, to forget and to move on, lessons learnt!” Rubbish!
    You can forgive any amount you like but forgetting the past means exactly the reverse, the lessons haven’t been learnt – which is precisely the reason why we continue as a society to see no real progress on many issues. It’s a head in the sand approach which obviously invites disaster.
    As the famous quote from just over a century ago states, those who forget their past are condemned to repeat it.
    I reject Steve’s assertion of my “pessimistic view” – on the contrary, I wouldn’t be bothering to make any comments at all if I saw no hope for the future.

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  3. Steve Brown
    Posted August 18, 2011 at 4:07 pm

    Although it is occasionally interesting to look backwards and learn a few lessons from our history, it is a completely futile exercise if you feel helpless, overwhelmed and unable to move on because of it. The fact is that during the passage of time to which Mr Nelson refers there has been a huge amount of thinking, discussion and many lessons learnt. We today are in a very different place to back then. Those who have had the strength and intestinal fortitude to stay the course, will eventually see their efforts rewarded in the blossoming of a united and successful community of Central Australia, and hopefully Mr Nelson will achieve a slightly less pessimistic point of view. But one thing that is an absolute certainty, is that if we all adopt the attitude that it is all too hard, or it’s been done before, what’s the point? We might as well shut the lights off and condemn our community to oblivion. In the true light of our history let’s all remember the greatest strength, the greatest gift any human being can offer their loved ones or their community is the ability to forgive, to forget and to move on, lessons learnt!

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