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Standing Committee on Indigenous Affairs - 05/09/2014 - Harmful use of alcohol in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities

PARKER, Ms Kirstie, Co-Chair, National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples

SCOTT, Mr Geoff, Chief Executive Officer, National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples


ACTING CHAIR ( Mr Snowdon ): Welcome. I invite you to make an opening statement before we proceed to questions.

Ms Parker : I would like to start by acknowledging country.

ACTING CHAIR: I should say that the chair acknowledged country at the beginning of the hearing.

Ms Parker : Yes, thank you very much. I too would like to acknowledge the Gadagal people of the Eora nation as the traditional owners of this place. I also want to thank you very much for allowing us to come and speak to you. The comments we make today will be reflective of the statement that we made to the committee in April this year. I am very happy to take questions and have a conversation with you all.

I know that many of you are familiar with the work of the congress, but I just want to position us in your minds. We are the national representative body for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. Congress is a leader and advocate for protecting and advancing the wellbeing and empowerment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and for securing our economic, political, cultural and environmental futures. Congress has created one of the largest networks of our peoples in the country. We currently have more than 8,200 individual members around the country; and about 180 of our community-led community-controlled organisations also form our membership, contributing their massive membership of tens of thousands of our people around the country to the congress family.

Our statement draws from the expertise of our member organisations, including the National Health Leadership Forum; NATSILS, the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services; APONT, the Aboriginal Peak Organisations of the Northern Territory; and NIDAC, the National Indigenous Drug and Alcohol Council. Congress also participated in a robust consultation process for the National Aboriginal And Torres Strait Islander Health Plan—which, of course, you are well familiar with, Mr Snowdon—including co-hosting a dedicated roundtable on drug and alcohol issues with NIDAC in March last year. The principles I will speak to shortly draw from these conclusions.

By way of introductory comments, we see alcohol abuse as a scourge on the whole of Australia, on all Australians. It has become ingrained in the culture of the nation and is not seen as necessarily a bad aspect. It has become part of the life of Australians and abuse has been normalised. This curiosity is supported by all except the ardent campaigner. It needs to be recognised for what it is—that is, a drug, an addictive substance, a harmful substance.

The harmful use of alcohol should be seen in context and for what it is—that is, a social and a health issue. The way forward lies in a health and wellbeing approach based on community healing and personal rehabilitation which addresses the historical and social factors which contribute to an unhealthy social environment and targets resources at those areas affected. The serious consequences of alcohol related harm impact on the health and quality of life for individuals, families and communities. Combating the effects of alcohol related harm will undoubtedly help close the gap in health inequality and the quality of life for our people.

Criminalising alcohol consumption in itself has been shown to be a failed strategy, merely adding to a cycle of escalating rates of incarceration and hiding specific problems in watch houses, prisons and institutions, providing no remedy. This approach should pay no future part in alcohol policy.

Other forms of government-driven intervention which discriminate against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are also misapplied. Such approaches perpetuate the negative stereotyping of alcohol consumption and tacit forms of racism that the broader Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations are subjected to. Feeding the downward spiral around the stigmatisation of alcohol interventionist policies which are not under the control of our communities does more harm than good. The current trends to address alcohol consumption through forms of income management such as the basics card or the mooted healthy welfare card are not the way to address the social and health ills of the nation or of our people. We believe that prohibition feeds an avoidance culture, that people will still seek to obtain alcohol by any means possible if they are denied access and usually at higher cost and higher detriment to themselves, their families and their communities.

We would like to put the statistics into context. The Australian Bureau of Statistics Aboriginal and Torres Street Islander health survey of 2012 013 found that harmful consumption rates of alcohol for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people was 1.2 times that of other of Australians; the rate of abstainers was 1.6 times the rate of other Australians. Harmful alcohol consumption is serious problem which affects some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and communities but not all. While the social and cultural circumstances for our people are unique, the harmful consumption of alcohol is of equal concern as a population health issue for other groups of Australian society which are outside the scope of this inquiry.

With respect to Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, FASD, we note that we have recently seen a number of inquiries with equivalent terms of reference including a House of Representatives standing committee report in 2012, FASD: the hidden harm, a Western Australian inquiry and the announcement of an inquiry in the Northern Territory. However, despite repeated calls for FASD to be recognised as a disability, action has yet to be taken. Thus, we restate our submission to the 2012 Senate inquiry into FASD for the declaration of FASD as a disability for the purposes of accessing support services and we support a nationally coordinated strategy for the prevention, early detection, intervention and support for people affected by alcohol related disability.

I have a number of recommendations here. Then I would like to reiterate the 10 submissions contained in the submission congress made. The first recommendation is that an objective analysis of the issues without prejudicial stereotyping is required so that resources can be targeted where they are needed the most. Strong leadership is required to debunk negative stereotypes, tacit racism and myths about alcohol consumption which pervade Australian society. A balanced strategic approach is required to reduce the supply of alcohol, the demand for alcohol and harm minimisation, as articulated in the National Drug Strategy.

Implementation must see national coordination and a systemic integration between NGOs, government, the private sector and at federal, state and local levels. Coordination problems have traditionally been a core problem in dealing with the complexities around alcohol-related harm and its social determinants. Strategies must also be applied with a strong, culturally affirming core to make application relevant to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Research in Canada has shown that preservation and restoration of culture is a pathway to positive change and that is certainly a principle we support.

We support a wellbeing model based on 10 core principles for mitigating alcohol harm. Policies and practices to managing the effects of alcohol should be non-discriminatory. The harmful use of alcohol should be addressed as an issue of health equality and that is not a criminal issue. We should systemically address the social and systemic determinants of alcohol-related harm within a human rights framework. Preservation and restoration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures are central to solutions. Community and personal healing programs which are trauma informed and culturally safe are important and essential. We need to support the ongoing professionalisation of the alcohol support and healing workforce. We need to invest in education, prevention and rehabilitation as a balance to strategies which constrain supply. We need to provide resources to build and translate the evidence base into effective programs, drawing on the expert knowledge of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and organisations. We need to create innovation schemes as a catalyst for research, leadership and new thinking. And we would like to see FASD declared as a disability and implementation of a nationally coordinated strategy for its prevention and support of people affected by FASD.

ACTING CHAIR ( Mr Snowdon ): Could I make the observation that we do not see this as being particular to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people—our terms of reference are but the problem is not. We accept that there is a population wide issue and that anything we say will have an impact on the broader population not just on Aboriginal and Torres straight Islander people.

Ms Parker : That is great. We are very pleased about that. We noted comments were made in the media at the beginning of the process. There were some statements made and then a stepping back from them but that is heartening to us because we see it as a problem that impacts on all Australians.

ACTING CHAIR: It does but you pointed to the issue of risky behaviours and that is what is most concerning to us. That is what we are concentrating on for the purposes of this inquiry.

Ms PRICE: Thank you for your presentation. I would like to look at some of your principles regarding preservation and restoration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures being central to solutions. I am from Durack and most Aboriginal communities live in the more remote parts of Western Australia, albeit that there are still large numbers of Indigenous people living in regional centres like Geraldton. Is it more difficult in an urban setting to try to promote, as you say, the cultures that are central to the solution, as opposed to a regional setting?

Ms Parker : I would not say it is more difficult from an Aboriginal perspective generally. Culture is really central to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. It does not matter where they live. Of course we see a lot of programs that are dedicated to remote areas but more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people live in urban and regional areas than not. The issue is that culture cannot happen in a vacuum. There are things that are important to people not embracing their culture but feeling stron gly connected to their culture. These are issues of connection to country, of belonging to a community, of preservation and awareness and of preservation of language. It is a feeling in the Aboriginal community that their culture is valued by the wider community. This not something that we are fighting. We are not making stuff up. Often people will say that people in urban areas have lost their culture so it is a bit of a furphy to be saying that culture is going to be important to the way that Aboriginal people who are living in urban settings are going to approach this. Culture is absolutely fundamental. How we feel about ourselves, how we regard ourselves as strong and connected people, is not the difficult bit. It is the complications of life around culture. It is the damage that something like alcohol does to culture that is the problem, not the culture itself.

Ms PRICE: I am trying not to look like I am really naive but I am trying to understand this. If you are in Fitzroy Crossing and you have a large number Indigenous people all living together and you want to promote their language and help them to promote it and ensure that it has longevity or some other element of culture, I just think it might be a bit easier than in some major centre—a city like Sydney—where people are spread out. This is what I am trying to understand about how it might work culturally when people have for generations been living in a city.

Ms Parker : I do not want to come across as defensive by saying, 'Don't say that people who live in urban and regional centres are bereft of culture.'

Ms PRICE: No. I do not believe that. I am trying to understand the challenge of trying to promote and encourage—

Ms Parker : In remote areas you are much more likely to be speaking your language on a daily basis, whereas people who are living in urban and regional settings have in some cases lost language completely. Language renewal is a really important issue in our communities. It is something that requires work. Of the 250 languages that were around at the time of the British arrival, there are now something like 20 that are healthily spoken languages. This is an important part of it. Actually having a strong and viable community to belong to, with all those things in place, makes a really big difference. If you have to work at those things then of course it makes it more difficult but no less important. I do not know any Aboriginal people who say, 'I'm either off country,' or 'We don't have native title,' or 'We don't have this connection to our country and that lessens me in some sort of cultural sense.'

But certainly a lot of people who misuse alcohol have become disconnected from their communities and their culture in ways—for example, members of the stolen generation who have been removed from country, who do not know their families and who do not have access to stories and language and to elders providing them with guidance. It says to me that, because we have seen the difference that culture makes to individuals, there needs to be support for people to be able to immerse themselves in their cultures. This is why we have national language programs and why we are fighting to retain funding for that. They are really big things, and you kind of think, 'That's too big for us to look into.' An acknowledgement of the place of country, language and culture is absolutely fundamental to the work that you are doing.

Mr NEUMANN: Thank you for that. This committee looked at the report titled Our Land Our Languages. I was chair of the committee that wrote the report. It came out of the Doing Time-Time for Doing report. Thank you for quoting the forward of that report.

ACTING CHAIR: Did you write it?

Mr NEUMANN: I did. I wrote that foreword. I make this point: whether it is in Halls Creek, in the Kimberley, and the language learning centre up there or in the Miromaa Language Centre in Newcastle, can you comment on the importance of funding those centres to support language and culture. I would have thought the next step would be to fund those centres to archive, preserve, digitise and produce dictionaries and language learning materials to assist in the reclamation, maintenance, development and spread of Indigenous culture and language.

Ms Parker : Yes, absolutely. It is really important that people understand the significant role of these sorts of places, like Miromaa at Newcastle. We had a board meeting there about a year ago. It is like other Aboriginal places. So much more happens there than just the business it was set up to do. Many of our families, for all sorts of historical reasons and practical reasons, are not in situations where language is spoken at home. It is very difficult to reclaim and retain a language unless you are hearing it on a daily basis or in some sort of concerted way. If you are a 16-year-old Aboriginal kid and your parents, for any reason, are not fluent speakers in their language, the only opportunity you may have to connect with your language is in a place like a language centre or a language hub.

The fact is that our communities are extremely mobile. We have a lot of people living away from their country. If there is one way back into their language and it is by virtue of a dedicated language centre or a cultural centre, we have to protect those ways back in. I do not think that connection to your culture is the panacea and the one thing that will keep you out of trouble. I used to observe this when I lived in Adelaide. Adelaide was the place where people from Arnhem Land would come if they needed intense hospitalisation and care. You would hear about people who lived on country and were very immersed in their culture but experienced life problems. There might have been a violent situation or people might have rolled in a fire when they were on country and they were brought to Adelaide. People said, 'You'd think that mob who are on country and have the luxury of access to all of these things would not have the problems that we see them coming to cities to have addressed,' but it is the one thing that brings people back. If you take it for granted, you have a level of assurance and a sense of identity. You can tell when people do not have it. It is the thing that brings people back. If you can take it for granted, it is a wonderful thing. If you do not have it, the only way that you will receive it if you are disconnected from your family or from your country is through these dedicated means—these programs, these services, these centres.

Mr NEUMANN: You talked in your submission about the link between harmful use of alcohol and the fact that it needed to be dealt with as a health issue rather than a criminal issue. We talked about the linkages between the harmful use of alcohol and the shocking incarceration rates of Indigenous young men and women in our country, and it is getting worse, frankly, not getting better. Can you comment on the importance of the development of justice targets in closing the gap, which Labor in government said they would do and which the coalition opposition said they would support when they came to government? It was a bipartisan position. Can you talk about that in the context of alcohol misuse?

Ms Parker : I can. Congress has called repeatedly for the introduction of justice targets, not just around reduced rates of incarceration but also the twin target around reducing violence in our communities per se. Grog is what brings so many of our people into contact with the criminal justice system. We talk about the level of the abstainers in our community being 1.6 times that in the rest of the community. The problem is that Aboriginal people live in different circumstances. You are more likely to see Aboriginal people than non-Aboriginal people drinking in the park. Our people are social people. We drink in public, we are out in public and we are on the streets, so we come to the attention of police et cetera. If we can reduce the extent to which our people are consuming alcohol at harmful levels, there is a direct relationship with the extent to which we come into contact with the coppers. We know that, if people are in contact with the police, there is a trifecta that they are likely to encounter—offensive language, resist arrest, disorderly conduct. There is such a direct link that it is almost impossible to divorce us from that. Sorry, can you just repeat the question?

Mr NEUMANN: It was the idea that justice targets involve a whole-of-government approach—state, territory and federal—with national partnership arrangements put in place. Apart from the Federal Police, a lot of the criminal things you are talking about are state or territory law. There is the importance of the development of justice targets and a national partnership approach to the reduction of harmful use of alcohol in Indigenous communities. There has got to be a linkage and it has to be seen as a holistic approach. If we develop justice targets, surely, state and territory ministers and Commonwealth ministers are sitting down saying, 'Hang on a sec, there is a direct link'—and we have heard that from Northern Territory police. If we develop those types of targets as a bypass approach, then we will have to deal with the issue of harmful effects of alcohol. You cannot divorce yourself from it.

Ms Parker : You to have to, and you have to approach it from both directions. It is not just, 'Okay, let's put in place programs in the community,' and not look at it from the direction of the justice system. If you set justice targets, then you have to think out ways of: what are the things that are going to stop us? You have to work backwards.

Mr NEUMANN: How are you going to get there?

Ms Parker : Yes, absolutely. It is like diversion. If you are putting someone in jail because they have an alcohol addiction, you are not addressing the reasons why they have the alcohol addiction. It is a no-brainer. You have to work backwards. You have to interrogate why people drink at unhealthy levels and, in some cases; it is habitual or it is environmental. People see other people drinking and they just think that this is the way that we do things. In some cases there are lots of personal issues that bring people to that point. If you can see harmful alcohol consumption as a health issue, you put in place health solutions, not criminal solutions.

Mr RAMSEY: I am drawn to principle 1 in your report where you focus on the negative comments around Aboriginal issues with alcohol and whatever. From my experience in my electorate, particularly in the remotes, is that, if anything, the instance and the social ramifications of alcohol consumption or underreported. In fact, I think so much happens in our remote communities that the rest of the world does not know about. I understand exactly what you are saying. If we keep getting negative stories, we are going to have negative stereotypes drawn, but how do we actually manage that? Part of me says that the world should know exactly what is happening in these communities and yet, we try to curtail the information stream. In fact they have already probably got a non-realistic view of how well these communities work. How do we deal with that?

Ms Parker : That is a difficult question and I see it as a similar question to the question that was raised around domestic violence and family violence may be 10 or 15 years ago when that issue began to be talked about in our communities. There was a real concern amongst, not just men, but men and women where we said, 'We mustn't talk about these things because they're scary. It will result in stereotyping. It will mean that, if the men are the major perpetrators of family violence, the removal of our men from our communities, and that is damaging for us in the long run, so we have to push it down.' Of course there was an opening up of the conversation, particularly around the provision of supports for women with family violence prevention legal services as opposed to legal services that were generally representing men. We do have to talk about these issues, but the conversation really has to be had, first and foremost, within our communities.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are torn between being defensive and really needing a hand. We are defensive because we see the sensationalism of alcohol and its impacts in Aboriginal communities. We are beginning to see it in the mainstream community, as we have seen in, for example, Kings Cross. Kings Cross is a notorious hot spot and trouble spot. Yet, we see something like on Melbourne Cup Day it is de rigueur to go out and get absolutely blotto, be on the streets and cause problems. We are, generally speaking, in a desperate situation where we are trying to say, 'Can we have a conversation, not just in our communities, but with government and NGOs and everyone outside of the glare of the media spotlight, because that is the sort of thing that does damage to our communities.' We feel that we are demonised in a way that other Australians are not. Getting blotto is, kind of, a celebrated Australian thing in general society. It is regarded as a bad and terrible thing in Aboriginal communities, it leads to all sorts of problems, and there is a kind of stereotyping.

Mr RAMSEY: That is the problem though. It is not so much the drunkenness. It is the antisocial behaviour and the antifamily behaviour that then revolves around it. Even the figures say the are more Aboriginals that abstained from alcohol than the general community, and we also know there is far more damage done within communities, such as violence to women and terrible outcomes of children, than in the greater community. There is a good reason to bring these things to the public's attention, yet, when we do it, it is almost by accident or necessarily it actually stereotypes are larger population that are doing all the right things. But I do not know how to do it.

Ms Parker : And you get pushback because people are defensive. The most important thing is for local communities to be able to have conversations and then to be supported to put in place the measures that they see. We have communities say, 'We want alcohol controls in our communities. We want a women's patrol.' We have strong women standing up in our communities that say, 'That is not going to work like that. We are not going to do this.' That is when it works, when the communities come up with the solutions themselves. I know that it is expensive to put in place place-based solutions, but every single Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander community is different. If people feel that they can raise their head above the parapet and say, 'We have an issue here and we need help. Let's sit down, and you might support us in the solutions that we come up with', I think we would see some answers.

We were talking last night about the seismic shift that was required in our communities to move us to a better spaced. A seismic shift really is self-determination at a local level. Our communities feeling that being able to have conversations without prejudice and without fear that people say, 'Okay, we've got to come in and intervene and fix something for you,' because it just does not get any traction. We saw it with many of the aspects of the NT intervention. It is really unfortunate that some worthwhile aspects of the intervention were lost in the greater pushback against the clearly unacceptable aspects of the intervention. Do you know what I mean? You cannot have the honest conversations because people think, 'No, if I concede that, this is the action that you will take.' It is very much ingrained in our psyche, I have to say. Our mob basically think we cannot tell people that we are struggling in any way because we will be penalised in some way. It is the same with the way that we handle alcohol in our communities.

Mr Scott : I think there is an issue here about how people perceive Aboriginals in communities, and it is different from remote to urban. In remote communities you do not have the support groups; you do not have the protections. The latest phases are that you are finding it in the police in these communities. You do not have the normal protections that exist in society. I do not think it is a stretch to see why things happen when there are no measures. There is no-one there saying, 'This is not acceptable'. Things get normalised and it is not done properly. There are measures to try to do that now.

Mr RAMSEY: I would say that rural and remote communities have lots of support. There are so many organisations trying to do these things where they are failing. I do not think that is a fair criticism.

Mr Scott : I think there is a bigger question. I get a lot of business colleagues coming to Sydney. They say, 'Show me where Aboriginal people live.' They want to go to Redfern or they want to go somewhere else. I take them around there. I took the first lot around and said, 'What did you see?' 'Oh, it's terrible. Aboriginal people in the streets drinking. It's terrible. They are congregating everywhere. Aren't they working?' I said, 'Okay, we'll go again and I'll show you what else is there. Look over there and over there. What are they?' 'Oh, they're white people drinking and congregating.' My point in saying that is that people see what they expect to see. Media feeds that stereotype and it becomes a self-perpetuating issue. It happens all the time. That is all homeless people.

The bigger question I was trying to get to is that we go on about cultural and other issues, but I think there is a bigger question about remote communities when we talk about these issues. We are trying to put band aids on a problem without addressing what the issue is. Alcohol is both the cause and the effect. In various policies it is approached as a symptom and in others as a cause. A symptom you treat with interventions, but the focus has not been there for the cause. I could raise a controversial one now. Are remote communities sustainable?

ACTING CHAIR: They think they are, and that is the point.

Mr Scott : I have not finished my comment; it is a question I put to you. Remote communities were not created to be sustainable. They were created to make white Australia sustainable and move us aside. We never got comfort from where our homes were. Is there an obligation there to provide resources to do it properly? Yes, I think there is. They have never been at the level which provides the social, cultural, spiritual and economic backups that people need. A child born in a remote community has far fewer chances than a child born in a rural or a metropolitan area. I do not care whether you are black or white; it is just a fact. Then it comes down to: what do you do about that? Society is struggling with what sort of services and supports can it put in place to mitigate that. It is an ongoing issue that you are going to have.

You have an issue now with the Forrest running around with his report. Again, he misses two questions. Are remote communities sustainable? What do we do about them? If you say that they are sustainable, people have a right to live where they are. There is an obligation there from government to do that. What do you do? Do you provide all kids with the option to go to boarding school? You are never going to have the education facilities there to actually maintain an education level the same as outside of there. It is the same for health issues and the same for social and cultural issues.

You talk about alcohol. Why do people perceive to be drinking more in the remote communities? That is the question that, I think, you should be asking. Forrest says that there are. So, we are going to train up all these people, we are going to push them through school and we are going to get them out there. They are going to come out the other end and they will sit there and say, 'Mmm, where's my job?' There is no market there. That is why we are talking about boarding schools, about orbits, about mobility. That is all about the sustainability.

That is the real question you have to ask about this. It affects alcohol as well. Alcohol affects everything. It is normalised in our society. In relation to your question about the media on the neighbour's communities, I think Aboriginal people see a microcosm of how society works elsewhere and they get worried about it because they see Aboriginal people doing it. That becomes a self-perpetuating issue in itself. I am not saying that the problems are not there; they are. There are all of the best intentions in putting programs in place. At the moment I think the capacity in a lot of those communities has now gone. We all have disputes about the intervention and about what it did and did not do. The worry there is about intervention and no development. We talk about communities. It is about social capital. It is about the cultural, spiritual and social strength of a community. If that breaks down you have problems. You asked what programs should be in place. Is it important to have language centres? I think they are important because they contribute to it. If you take them away they are gone.

When the Howard government came in their first act was to withdraw $400 million from the program. They ripped out the heart of the social and cultural support programs, the language centres, the women's programs, the men's sheds. We are still suffering from that. I hope that today's policy levers do not go the same way.

Ms Parker : Can I say something?

ACTING CHAIR: We need to move on, Kirstie, I am sorry. If you have a short intervention that is fine, otherwise we have to move on.

Ms Parker : It goes a little bit to what Rowan was saying. We need to get to a point where we are not defensive about things, where we feel we can have a genuine conversation. We need to get our people in good shape, because no-one that is in good shape turns to alcohol and lets that become their life. They have alternatives, but it has to be the full suite of alternatives. It cannot just be, 'We'll give you a job, and that's the answer to your questions.' We need to recognise connection to culture, place of culture, your land—all of these things. The approach that we have seen, where there have just been a couple of priorities nominated and everything else could wither on the vine, is really problematic and short-sighted. We will have all this stuff bubbling up to bite us on the bum unless we do take an holistic approach to things. The seismic shift that people are talking about—we actually have not seen it. I do not believe that the Forrest review is a blueprint for a seismic shift. It has to be a very considered approach, where our communities feel that they can have a genuine conversation with someone that they trust.

ACTING CHAIR: Thanks, Kirstie. I would like to thank you for your submission, which is a very good, all-encompassing submission. You were asked questions on some aspects of it but not on the whole submission. Your submission reinforces messages that we have been given right across the country, from all sorts of people. I thank you for your contribution this morning. It has been fantastic.

Ms Parker : Thank you very much.