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Standing Committee on Indigenous Affairs - 01/07/2014 - Harmful use of alcohol in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities

RIDDIFORD, Mr Ken, Chief Executive Officer, Ngnowar Aerwah Aboriginal Corporation


CHAIR: Thank you, Mr Riddiford. I am sorry you had to wait a little while. I appreciate you have come a long way from Wyndham. You have been administering the 7 Mile Rehabilitation Centre, which provides 13- to 19-week residential rehabilitation programs. We are very keen to hear how you are going. As you know, our inquiry is looking at best practice, at what has worked, at what we can learn from different programs across Australia. We are not just looking at remote Australia; we are looking at metropolitan areas as well. We were in Perth yesterday taking evidence. You have a range of facilities, including a young women's group and family groups. You may wish to make an opening statement before we ask you questions.

Mr Riddiford : I probably should talk to you a bit about the organisation because, while we started as a drug and rehabilitation centre, we have grown to be the largest employer of Aboriginal people in Wyndham. We run four separate centres. One is a sobering-up shelter with a night patrol attached to it. We have what we call a safe house, which is the domestic violence centre and deals with homelessness. We have the community centre, which runs education programs about drug and alcohol and has a couple of councillors in it. Then we have the 7 Mile Rehabilitation Centre, which accommodates 30 beds. Within that centre we cater for individuals, couples and families with children. We have a creche, which looks after children from two to six. The older kids who come with their families we run to school every day and pick them up. It is a big operation. We employee between 60 and 70 people and 90 per cent of them are local Aboriginal people. We are a major operation.

I have brought along our annual report, our strategic plan for the next three years, brochures on each of the sectors and also our operational plan. I also have a presentation which I presented to the National Indigenous Drug and Alcohol Conference in Melbourne recently in June. I will focus a fair bit on drugs and rehabilitation in the beginning.

We run programs from 10 to 19 weeks, depending on what type of referral we get. We get a lot of referrals from corrections, police, hospitals and so forth. We tend to cater for the East Kimberley and Milliya looks after the West Kimberley. We have a good brotherly type of arrangement there. Andrew and I took quite often and we try to assist each other where we can. We do a lot more than just be a drug and rehabilitation centre in Wyndham. Wyndham has a population of around 900, about 50 per cent of whom are Aboriginal people. We provide employment. We also provide opportunities for housing and so forth. A major issue for us is the lack of housing in Wyndham. It is when we come to the programs themselves, because what I notice is that we are funded to run the drug and rehab programs, but they do not have any pathways from after-sale type service to follow on and support them. Basically, once they have done that we are not funded to have outreach people visit them every four weeks for the next six months to see that everything is going fine, and so that they feel they are supported. We do not have that, but we would like it.

We also would like to be able to provide other pathways, such as skilling people so that they can go into employment, and housing, which will get them out of the house they are in and into their own house, and hopefully that will break the cycle as well. So there is plenty of thought there, but we really need support to get those things off the ground.

I met with Andrew Forrest recently when he came up to Kununurra. Wyndham is a bit of an out-of-the-way place. It is off the beaten track. We think it is the jewel in the crown of the Kimberleys, but not many people tend to come there. However, I did host the Governor-General just last week. He was thrilled with the place and with everything we were doing. I talked about the fact that we should have a type of skills centre established. Even though we do have the Kimberley TAFE Institute, it is not particularly catering for the type of clients we are dealing with, because a lot of our guys have not been employed and have not been to school. If we had a practical type skills centre, maybe even based on the model of a men's shed and a women's shed, we could actually do a lot of that practical skilling. Once you show our guys how to do things once, they will do it and they can do it. It is just that if they are coming through an institute where they are struggling with literacy and numeracy, those things start to compound and they do not like that environment. However, if we had a mentoring type program for skills development I am sure that we could get a lot more people choosing other paths.

I have spoken to another organisation in Wyndham that has their own business—it is an Indigenous business called Dadaru. The company loads the boats and so forth. They employ around 40-odd casual staff. I have talked to them about getting our people to do work experience with Dadaru for the last three weeks of our program. Hopefully they will either pick them up or they will learn enough skills to be able to get a thirst to want to learn more.

So there are plenty of thoughts and ideas around. It is just a matter of getting more coordination from all levels of government. I have been working very collaboratively with the different levels of government, because I have started up a strategy that I have called Brighter Futures, which is based on the transitional housing, as well as living change, but modelling it in Wyndham. Initially we would start by offering transitional houses to the people who worked at [inaudible], because they meet one criteria straight off, and that is employment. The second part is to get their kids to school. Already they have the basis and they have the capability of saving and moving into a house of their own. That would build a lot of confidence and it would build a bit of pride in working for the organisation, because the organisation is actually giving back more than just a wage. They are just some of the thoughts I have.

CHAIR: We are about to lose Ms Melissa Price, your local member for Durack. Do you have a question before you go, Ms Price?

Ms PRICE: Not really a question but more of a comment, Ken. I went to Wyndham about eight or nine months ago and I have seen all of the facilities you have talked about. I also received an invitation to the Governor-General's event but unfortunately parliament was sitting that week. I want to congratulate you on the work you are doing up there. I have to say that the activity at the port is starting to open up a few more opportunities. Hopefully the Chinese will be able to build their own port up there—that will be the sugar going from Kununurra down to Wyndham. So Wyndham is indeed the jewel in the crown, and it has a lot to offer. The views are fantastic, and it is a great little community. Your organisation, and a couple of others—I call them Aboriginal corporations—are obviously providing a lot of services up there. So I really look forward to there being more economic activity out there, because I think that is really going to help you solve a lot of the problems.

I am afraid I have to go; I am already late for another meeting. But thanks very much for coming all the way—and indeed it is a long way to come. So, thanks very much.

Mr Riddiford : And you are welcome to come and visit any time.

Ms PRICE: Thank you very much. I appreciate that.

CHAIR: We are told that your alcohol restrictions were reintroduced to Wyndham and Kununurra in February 2011. I presume they were a community based, community driven initiative. But can you tell us what happened after 2011—which was not so long ago, three years ago—in relation to less harmful drinking? Has there been any change at all, because, say, sly grogging has gone up instead, or whatever? How did those restrictions come about? Were they a locally driven initiative? Or were they imposed from outside? And what has actually happened since then that we can learn from?

Mr Riddiford : I have to apologise. I have been in the place for only 11 months. I came across from Queensland. So I do not know very much about what happened. I can pretty much talk only about the present situation that I have seen.

CHAIR: We are told you had an increase in alcohol related emergency department presentations soon after the restrictions were brought in. That seems odd. We are not quite sure why that happened. Also, you had an increase in sobering-up shelter admissions during that time, but with the majority of the clients listing that they were from Warayu or Oombulgurri—from out of town.

Mr Riddiford : Yes. I am not sure what you know about Oombulgurri, but it was closed down by the government not so long ago for various reasons.

CHAIR: It was a community?

Mr Riddiford : It was a community, yes. And a lot of the people who were out there—because it is not that far from Wyndham—tended to see Wyndham more as their home close to home. However, there is a lot in Kununurra and Kalumburu as well. But they do attach themselves mainly to Wyndham, and that has put a lot of pressure on. It means that those people are fairly displaced and tend to be the people we pick up mostly through the night patrol and the sobering-up shelter. They are also the people we are getting a lot of self-referrals from, out at the rehab. Again, it is because of that displacement.

CHAIR: Yes, the very recent displacement of the people at Oombulgurri.

Mr Riddiford : Yes. Everyone calls it Oombie for short. But I think perhaps there needs to be some thought around housing and—

CHAIR: There is no housing provided for them coming off that settlement?

Mr Riddiford : No.

CHAIR: So, where are they meant to live?

Mr Riddiford : That is what they are doing; they are living in the street.

Mr VAN MANEN: If I could just jump in there, on housing in Wyndham, one thing is the land to build more houses, because that has been one of the issues in some of those towns, I believe.

Mr Riddiford : You are saying there is no land?


Mr Riddiford : Oh, I think there is plenty of land there. I think there are a lot of Department of Housing houses that have deteriorated and probably could be renovated and so forth. But I suppose funding is the issue for them, and that sort of thing. But there are vacant houses.

Mr VAN MANEN: What about private construction of houses?

Mr Riddiford : There is not a lot of private construction of houses up there. It tends to be more government, and that would be government services and the Department of Housing. It tends to be mostly that.

CHAIR: So Oombie basically required the people who lived there to relocate. They have come to Wyndham. They do not have any accommodation. They do not have jobs, presumably, either. So they are ending up with greater alcohol and drug issues than you have had in the town before.

Mr Riddiford : Yes. And you would have seen in the media that there is a bit of an action by the local Oombie people to try to relocate back.

CHAIR: Why were they asked to leave? In what sense were they required to leave? Were the local services shut down?

Mr Riddiford : I am led to believe—again, it happened before I came—that there were a number of issues around drinking, child abuse, sexual abuse, domestic violence and all of those issues that were happening there, and it got to a point where they decided that it was best to just close it down.

CHAIR: But then those issues and problems—and I see big nods from the members of the public who are here—have just relocated to Wyndham, by the sound of it.

Mr Riddiford : Yes, and Kununurra and Kalumburu. It is one of the things that I was thinking of as a future activity for us—to be able to provide outreach services to those areas through perhaps travelling counsellors or doctors or something like that. We do not have a medical service in Wyndham. We have a hospital, but we do not have an AMS or anything.

CHAIR: You have nurses but no GPs.

Mr Riddiford : In the hospital?


Mr Riddiford : Yes. There are a couple of doctors there, but the relationship is not as good or strong as we would like.

CHAIR: You do not have an Indigenous-specific medical service?

Mr Riddiford : No. Again, that is something that I think the rehab could benefit from—having a doctor on the premises. We need to get more mental health employees there. We have one mental health counsellor, and that poor person is strapped. And the state drug and alcohol services are moving under the mental health commission. We thought that in a way that would be an advantage; it might give us an opportunity to strengthen our mental health situation at the rehab. And that might help deal with a lot of those things, because whilst we are dealing with these people in a drug and alcohol sense, mental health is a real issue.

CHAIR: That includes children born with FASD?

Mr Riddiford : Yes.

CHAIR: Are you observing much of that problem yourself—kids born with behavioural symptoms?

Mr Riddiford : Yes. And they tend to be the disengaged kids we have around the place. We are basically only funded for 18-year-olds and up. However, we do have a program that we were given some money for, which was a very small amount, to deal with 13- to 17-year-olds. But $50,000 is not going to go very far when you are dealing with a major issue like that. But at least it is something to kick-start things.

CHAIR: Are the police working closely with you? Are you happy with your police relationships?

Mr Riddiford : The development of relationships in Wyndham and Kununurra has really increased since I have been there, because I made it a priority. We have really strong ties with the police, the schools, the shire and most of the other organisations in the town. That is what the Brighter Futures strategy was about—getting everybody onboard to work together to make this strategy work. I have said all along that we cannot do this on our own; we need the support of other governments and agencies and individuals and businesses and so forth.

Mr GILES: In your opening remarks you talked a bit about the need, as you saw it, to be supported to do more after-sales service. With an open chequebook, what would be the priorities in that regard?

Mr Riddiford : I really think we do need to employ support workers who would do the home visits and the visits to other paths that they choose. So if the client said, 'I'm going to go and do some training at the TAFE,' or 'I'm going to go and get some work experience,' or something, then a person would be there to support and help those people along. Support workers would have been with them on the way through and after the clients finish the program the workers would continue to support, out in the community, and try to keep them on the path.

At the moment we can see our guys coming back within a few weeks. Whilst they love being out there, and you can see the difference in them—they look good, physically; they are crisp and sound and so forth—when they go back into the community they are back in the environment that they were in and they have the pressures from family humbugging them and that sort of stuff. All of a sudden they are back in the routine. They do not like going back there. They like to be back with family, but not back in that environment.

Mr GILES: Are there models elsewhere that reflect that sort of support worker engagement?

Mr Riddiford : I am not sure, but it is something that I have thought should and could work. I am only talking about a few people—maybe three people; four people at the most. They do not have to be highly skilled people, just people who can work in a support role.

I tend to think back to the old days a fair bit with a lot of this stuff, and I remember how helpful community nurses were in the community. They were primary health care workers who worked in an Aboriginal medical service. They worked in a unit that went out and worked with old people and sick people and so forth. They would visit them in their homes. They were taken away. I do not know why. They were very, very helpful. So I was thinking that in that type of environment they were out there to support the person in what ever way they could.

CHAIR: How many people did you have? Was it 60 or 70 that you employed?

Mr Riddiford : Yes. It depends on the casuals.

CHAIR: What qualities would you look for in employing these 60 or 70? I assume you have about 50-50 men and women coming to your centres as clients.

Mr Riddiford : Yes.

CHAIR: And you have 50-50 men and women in your employ?

Mr Riddiford : We have six counsellors—three of each. We tend to have that balance. It is not for us a men and women thing, but it is men's business and women's business.

CHAIR: Yes, I understand.

Mr Riddiford : We look at it from that perspective. Some of our counsellors, who may be non-Indigenous, do not understand that. They think, 'I'm a professional; I should be able to counsel anyone.' We say, 'No, in our culture we like to see that women deal with women and men deal with men.'

There is another major issue. It is a big challenge for us to get professional people into work in Wyndham. I am consistently struggling to get counsellors. We get a lot of people sent up to us but they last three months; it is not the place they want to be. They should never come here in the first place.

CHAIR: Who is sending them to you?

Mr Riddiford : There were professional agencies that deal with counsellors. They just think, 'So-and-so would be good up there, so we'll send them up.' I think they read the brochures and think, 'This is a wonderful place to be,' and it is. The community is the best community I have ever lived in, as far as people getting on and so forth, and it is very welcoming. However, the counsellors struggle to deal with seeing people drinking and just lying around in the park and so forth. They try to move things to quickly. We say to them, 'You really need to build trust and a relationship with that person before you even start to think about counselling them, because they are not going to open up to you if you don't.' So, it is really a challenge for people. However, we have had a couple of counsellors who come there, and they love it. It is just a matter of finding the right people.

But I have been struggling for about three months now to try to find a male counsellor to come to Wyndham, and I have tried almost every avenue I can to find that. I thought about perhaps hooking up with a university. I saw at the conference in Melbourne that there is a guy who just graduated 14 Indigenous counsellors out of Sydney university, I think it was. So I thought it would be great—and not only for myself but for everyone in the Kimberley—if we could go to them for the supplying of some of those people, either when they graduate or after they graduate. That would be a good way to go.

CHAIR: So, you do not think they need to be local Indigenous people to be able to relate in a counselling role, as long as it was women and women, and men and men, and there was an understanding of the cultural aspect?

Mr Riddiford : Yes. Three of the counsellors are local people. But it has been tough, because they have had to come through the learning process of doing a certificate IV in counselling and so forth. That has been a tough challenge, but they are there. We would like to home-grow if we can, but the fact remains that with the numbers we have we need people from outside.

CHAIR: Is there still authority attached to the elders? Is there still a sense of the authority of the traditional owners, both men and women, in terms of you being able to call upon that traditional authority and discipline, perhaps, when it comes to people who are mucking up in Wyndham—that you can call upon the elders?

Mr Riddiford : It is a little difficult because of the nature of the groups that are there. The Oombie people are not from Wyndham, so they need to be dealing with Oombie people, and also the local traditional owners are tied up a lot with the native title stuff, because they were only granted native title recently through Barngarla. So, there are five traditional owner groups associated with that title. It is a big challenge for them just getting on with business with that stuff at the moment. We tend to try to deal with matters ourselves through our board. Our board is made up of seven local Aboriginal people, so we tend to look to our board for guidance and direction more than anything.

CHAIR: We have heard a lot about healing centres, which work with the local culture and try to rebuild for some who have perhaps lost traditional association, perhaps kids who have been getting into jail for most of their lives, or whatever, and who have lost that connection. I have seen this in Canada and the US. They call them healing circles over there, and they do a lot of that work in prisons, trying to rebuild an understanding of traditional culture. You are not going down that path with cultural healing centres?

Mr Riddiford : It would be good, but we do not have any real structure in place at the moment. I am really supportive of that idea and want to get that happening, for sure.

CHAIR: I am in awe of what you are doing, I have to say, because it is an enormous challenge, and you have come across from Queensland, so you have clearly had an enormous motivation to work over in these parts, so I just want to congratulate you for what you are doing there.

Mr Riddiford : I had some good grounding in New South Wales. I was for two years CEO of an Aboriginal Land Council in New South Wales, and it was a tough gig.

CHAIR: Yes, land councils make our politics in Canberra look like a Sunday school picnic sometimes! If we could accept your literature there as a submission, are you happy for that to go on the public record?

Mr Riddiford : Yes.

CHAIR: Thank you. In about a week to 10 days you will get a draft transcript of the evidence to check for mistakes and so on. Before I close the public hearing, I call upon one of our members to move that the committee authorise the publication of the evidence given at the public hearing today, including publication on the parliamentary electronic database, of the proof transcript. I also want to acknowledge that we were given some information that is to be off the public record.

Mr SNOWDON: It is so moved.

CHAIR: There being no objection, it is so resolved. I thank you very much to contributing to this inquiry, Mr Riddiford.

Mr Riddiford : I just want to add some thanks. First of all, thank you all for taking the time to listen to me. I want to thank Pauline for getting in touch with me and making me aware of this inquiry, because I was not aware of it, so I am thankful to you.

Mr SNOWDON: Thank you.

CHAIR: We want to learn from you. You are on the ground, at the coalface. Our previous witnesses made the point very strongly that we have to make a difference. We have too much pain and distress and sadness in our Indigenous communities, and it is not right in a country like ours. I thank you very much for contributing to this inquiry. Please feel free to communicate with the secretariat at any time.

Committee adjourned at 16 : 26 .