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Community Affairs Legislation Committee
24/07/2012

HEWITT, Mr David Reginald, Private capacity

HEWITT, Mrs Margaret May, Private capacity

Committee met at 08:35

CHAIR ( Senator Moore ): This is the first public hearing for the Community Affairs Legislation Committee inquiry into the Low Aromatic Fuel Bill 2012. The committee acknowledges the traditional elders, past and present, on whose land we meet. These are public proceedings, although the committee may agree to a request to have evidence heard in camera or may determine that certain evidence should be heard in camera. I remind witnesses that, in giving evidence to the committee, they are protected by parliamentary privilege. It is unlawful for anyone to threaten or disadvantage a witness on account of evidence given to a committee, and such action may be treated by the Senate as a contempt. It is also a contempt to give false or misleading evidence to any committee. If a witness objects to answering a question, the witness should state the ground on which the objection is taken, and the committee will determine whether it will insist on an answer, having regard to the ground on which the objection is claimed. If the committee determines to insist on an answer, the witness may request that the answer be given in camera, and such a request may also be made at any time. I welcome Mr Hewitt and Mrs Hewitt. Thank you so much for your submission. Do you have any comment to make on the capacity in which you appear?

Mr Hewitt : We both come as private individuals, but we will be speaking on our background in Indigenous communities.

CHAIR: You have come before us before, haven't you?

Mr Hewitt : Yes.

CHAIR: I can remember your evidence in other inquiries. But I do not think you were there, Mrs Hewitt, so welcome. I invite you to make an opening statement—just some comments from both or either of you—and then we will go to questions.

Mrs Hewitt : Thank you for the opportunity of sharing with you some of our concerns about the continuing threat from sniffable fuel in central Australia. My first contact with Indigenous people was 51 years ago, when I worked as a registered nurse at Warrawee home in Adelaide, run by the Australian Inland Mission. We cared for children from the Northern Territory, both Aboriginal and white, who came down for outpatient medical treatment. From there, I moved to Point McLeay Aboriginal reserve on the Murray River, and in 1964 I went to Amata, then called Musgrave Park, in the far north-west of South Australia. In my time at Amata, the people were quite traditional, with much hunting and gathering at weekends, and there was a positive Christian influence from Ernabella mission. We made regular medical patrols to family groups still largely living off the land around Mount Davies on the Western Australian border, 200 kilometres from Amata. From there I came to Alice Springs and a position with Rural Health Northern Territory. I had met my husband at Amata, and in 1969 we took up roles with the Northern Territory welfare branch at Areyonga. A new community had just been established at Docker River, and Anangu who had been living at Areyonga and on cattle stations were able to return to the tribal country. I was appointed as the first nurse at Docker, in 1970. When we moved to the Kimberley in 1975, sadly, petrol sniffing was slowly creeping into the Pitjantjatjara communities. In the following years many tragic accidents involved sniffers and their families. Amongst those that I had close contact with, two families each lost two boys and a fine old man lost two sons and a grandson and another grandson is in full-time care. A single mother's only son, whom we had nursed through difficult infant years, died from petrol sniffing. Four families have one disabled son and another has two sons in 24-hour care and another son who is mildly affected.

There were other deaths through car accidents, suicide and violent incidents indirectly related to petrol sniffing. At a Western Australian community four young men who were carrying cans of petrol died when a car rolled and caught fire. Whole communities were continually in mourning.

The elders expected the whitefellas to find solutions because we had exposed the young people to what was causing the problem. The financial and emotional cost of 30 years of volatile substance abuse must be absolutely enormous. When I returned to Wingellina Community in in 1998 two mothers took me to the cemetery and, as we walked around the graves, said: 'This one died of sniffing. This one died of ganja and petrol and this one of petrol and alcohol.'

In 2005-06 all this changed with the introduction of BP's low-aromatic fuel. Initially Opal was only rolled out in remote communities; but, almost unbelievably, Anangu were bringing in unleaded fuel on demand from young people and supplying it to sniffers. Sometimes older family members would be threatened if they did not oblige. When the Yulara Resort and roadhouses on Lasseter and Stuart highways changed to Opal, sniffing almost totally disappeared in the communities south-west of Alice Springs, across the border in South Australia and in most Kartutjarra communities in WA.

It is of great concern to us that at least 10 fuel outlets around Central Australia still sell standard unleaded fuel. Sniffing is nowhere near the levels of 10 years ago, but we cannot relax efforts to combat this terrible attack on the health of our young people. I would never want to see other families go through the absolute despair and constant grieving that so many Indigenous friends of ours faced in the 1980s and nineties. It is impossible to understand why some fuel outlets do not want to make the change to Opal. We would have hoped that this could be a voluntary move; but, as the constant approaches of respected groups such as the NPY Women's Council have failed, the only alternative is Commonwealth government legislation. We congratulate the members who are proposing the bill that will mandate the introduction of Opal in specified areas. We trust that it will receive bipartisan support in parliament.

CHAIR: Mr Hewitt, do you have anything to add?

Mr Hewitt : Yes, I have a few comments too. I commenced work at Amata in South Australia in 1964, working with Pitjantjatjara men on construction around the community. Three years later I moved across the Musgrave Ranges to Ernabella, and with the help of local men we built a power station and provided electrical reticulation around the community. I was returning to my trade as an electrician. After a year at Areyonga in 1970 my wife and I moved to Docker River, where a community was being established, and later to Warburton Ranges.

Tragically, 10 years later these communities all became centres of acute petrol sniffing and many of the men I worked with suffered losses of family members. Desperate measures were used to entice young people off petrol sniffing, and nothing seemed to work. The experts told us that, with the change from leaded to unleaded fuel in 2000, sniffing would disappear. This was not the case, and young people were still able to get high on the new unleaded formula. Aviation gasoline was introduced in remote communities as a substitute for sniffable fuel. This had a limited result, but then in 2004 the composition of avgas was changed for environmental reasons, and that made it sniffable.

The breakthrough only came in 2005 with the introduction of a low-aromatic fuel. This was absolutely brilliant, and in the remote communities we could hardly believe that sniffable ingredients could be removed from petrol. There was still a bit of sniffing around; but, with the rollout of Opal the following year to roadhouses south and south-west of Alice, the turnaround was complete. Some studies report a 94 per cent reduction in sniffing; however, I would put it as high as 99 per cent in the communities where we have worked over the past six years.

Sadly, this is not the case in some localities close to where unleaded fuel is still available. Titjikala has experienced sniffing, and unleaded fuel is available in the adjacent Maryvale Station. There is a distinct possibility of unleaded fuel finding its way into Papunya from Tilmouth Well roadhouse. Papunya suffered terribly during the peak of the problem, and it would be most unfortunate if there were a recurrence of this because of the availability of sniffable just across the Tanami Road. Tilmouth should be thanked for declining to fill containers that may be destined for a community; however, I wrote to Tilmouth proprietors in 2009 appealing to them to make a complete change to Opal and did not receive a reply. I have a copy of this letter that I sent if the committee would like to read it.

CHAIR: With the agreement of the committee, which we have, we will accept that as a tabled document. And you cannot provide a reply because you did not get one.

Mr Hewitt : Yes. Neither Kings Canyon Resort nor Kings Creek Station south-west of Alice have Opal. There is currently no sniffing in the three small communities in the area, and they should be commended for this, but it cannot be ruled out that, while unleaded fuel is still sold at the outlets these communities use, sniffing may occur there.

Some communities have been very strong in the past but, unfortunately, recently have been subject to outbreaks of sniffing. Yesterday's Australian newspaper featured our Alpurrurulam. We worked there in 2001, and it was considered to be the proudest and strongest community in the Barkly region. That it has moved to see sniffing on such a scale is a real tragedy. To protect Alpurrurulam, Urandangi and Camooweal need to change to Opal as a matter of urgency.

Those roadhouses that have made a voluntary move should be sincerely congratulated. If other fuel outlets are not prepared to make the change to Opal—and it is obvious that some of them do not want to do so—then the legislation being proposed is absolutely essential. We also support the proposal to make the locking of premium unleaded pumps in urban areas compulsory where there is a perceived problem of access to premium fuel. Fortunately, we do not believe that this has been an issue to date.

There is a recent shining example of the impact of a change via commercial outlets. With other communities in the Ngaanyatjarra Lands, Warburton received Opal in 2005, but unleaded fuel was still being sourced from Laverton and Leonora. After constant lobbying by the community, Opal was introduced to Laverton and Leonora several months ago. The community development adviser at Warburton told me the other day that there had now been complete cessation of sniffing in his community.

Regions outside the current sniffing strategy zone also need to be included. I do not know whether this is part of your committee's brief or not, but one such community is around Ceduna-Yalata in South Australia. The state government has been very reluctant to support the introduction of Opal in this area, and only last month the Minister for Mental Health and Substance Abuse in South Australia said that no further action on a state level was required. However, it was encouraging to hear yesterday from the Commonwealth Department of Health and Ageing that Opal will be introduced there soon.

We thank you for the opportunity to meet with the committee. We hope that no other Indigenous communities will ever have to suffer the way many in Central Australia did through the 1980s and 1990s. It seems that this will only be possible with the mandating of Opal.

CHAIR: Thank you.

Senator SIEWERT: First off, thank you for your submission and oral evidence. I want to go first to the number of outlets that you think still offer sniffable fuel. You talk about 10 outlets in your submission and mentioned them just then. Are they based on the CAYLUS map? Which communities or roadhouses are still serving sniffable fuel?

Mr Hewitt : I think CAYLUS has covered it pretty well, although I do not think they were certain about Kings Creek and Kings Canyon Resort. But it was confirmed to me the other day by a friend in the tourism industry that neither of those places have Opal. That is a real concern. I did some work this year out at Viller Community. It is only a small community 15 kilometres east of Kings Canyon. It is a wonderful little community, and it would be tragic there if the people were to sniff. They can get sniffable fuel now, but it has not caught on. It would be very sad if sniffing started there because sniffable fuel was available only 15 kilometres away.

Senator SIEWERT: Do you know why they are not stocking low-aromatic fuel?

Mr Hewitt : No. I think Ian Conway at Kings Creek would probably be quite supportive. He takes a real interest in Aboriginal education. I do not know whether there has been any discussion with Ian Conway at this stage. Kings Canyon Resort is owned by a company called Delaware, and I do not know whether any approaches have been made to them.

Senator SIEWERT: We can follow that one up.

Mr Hewitt : The other communities listed on the CAYLUS submission cover the issue pretty well. Our real concern there is Urandangi and Camooweal, where the people from Alpurrurulam can access fuel. But, of course, they are only 250 kilometres from Mount Isa. Whether Opal would ever be extended that far is a matter for the government.

Senator SIEWERT: How effective do you think the rollout and take-up has already occurred in Alice Springs has been?

Mrs Hewitt : I think it has done quite well really. We have not heard too much about people sniffing in Alice for awhile now, but I think they may have gone to some other thing. There was a little bit of a scare about deodorants awhile back, but I have not seen anyone who looks like they are a petrol sniffer or anyone sniffing deodorants either.

Senator SIEWERT: You mentioned Ceduna and Yalata. Yalata is one of the centres that we have been chasing relentlessly through estimates to ask when because it has been of a saga about when they are going to get their bowser. At last estimates I think we were told that things were on track. It has been glacial progress, but things are now on track. In your opinion, if Yalata gets a bowser, how is that going to be affected by Ceduna if Ceduna does not go over to low-aromatic fuel?

Mr Hewitt : It will need to change at Ceduna and also at Nundroo roadhouse, which I think was a concern too. There is a man in Adelaide—Jonathan Nicholls—

Senator SIEWERT: Yes, we know Jonathan.

Mr Hewitt : We have known Jonathan for a long time. He does some wonderful work. He has been keeping us informed of the situation down there.

Senator SIEWERT: One of the issues that has come up—I think you just mentioned it, but it has come up in other submissions—is roadhouses outside the actual strategy area and the potential to obtain sniffable fuel. Have you had much experience where fuel is coming in from outside the strategy area like you said with Ceduna?

Mr Hewitt : No, we have not. It is interesting that Cadney Park and Marla do not have Opal fuel yet. We do not know of much sniffable fuel coming into the APY Lands and that area, although the community of Indulkana is only 50 kilometres from Marla. We were at Mimili Community just a couple weeks ago and did not hear anything about sniffing there. But it is a concern, and I do not think we can become too complacent about it.

Senator SIEWERT: That is where I would like to go. What do you see as the factors? You will see communities where suddenly fuel will come in and you will get a few sniffers who then encourage others. What are some of the characteristics where a few people in a community will suddenly start sniffing?

Mrs Hewitt : I think there being nothing for young people to do is one of the reasons, but in many communities now there are youth workers and people who are encouraging them to use their facilities and join in whatever is happening. Alice Springs has the same sort of thing here over the school holidays to keep everyone occupied and not thinking about sniffing, breaking and entering or anything else. The older people tried all sorts of things in the culture, because Aboriginal culture does not allow you to chastise a child whereas, if you saw a four-year-old with a petrol hose, you would certainly take it off them and perhaps give them a smack. But that is not part of Aboriginal culture. If the child is happy with what it is doing, they just let it do that. I really do not understand what happened in olden days when a child exposed itself to danger; did they just continue to let it walk off the cliff or did they stop it? It is quite intriguing to see some of the things that the children do and nothing happens. I might add that they do not get hurt either, but I am not quite sure why.

Mr Hewitt : One encouragement for sniffing in communities is somebody coming in from another community who is familiar with sniffing. That can often encourage the local kids to start. It would only need one young person to come into a community where there is no sniffing now. They can easily bring other kids on board to start sniffing. So I think it is something we have to be continually aware of. There is that possibility that just one person coming in from another community can start the chain of sniffing if there is any possibility of getting sniffable fuel. It is a concern of these outlets that it is possible to get this sniffable fuel. We always have that worry that it might start up.

Senator SMITH: Thank you very much for your evidence. How effective do you think the information about the mechanical safety of Opal is understood amongst motorists travelling through the Northern Territory, South Australia and Western Australia?

Mr Hewitt : I do not think it is understood sufficiently. Only this morning, on ABC radio, we heard a roadhouse proprietor say that a lot of his customers were concerned about the safety of Opal for their vehicle. But in our experience it has been absolutely confirmed that Opal will have no adverse effect on cars. We cannot understand why people are still concerned, but obviously there is a bit of reluctance to take it up among people out there. But there has been some good publicity from BP and from the federal Department of Health and Ageing, which should be enough to convince people that Opal is safe.

Senator SMITH: In a similar vein, how aware do you think tourists and others that are travelling through the Northern Territory, Western Australia and South Australia—just to experience the environs—are of the damaging effect of petrol sniffing to Indigenous communities?

Mr Hewitt : I do not think a lot of tourists are aware of the problem. It only takes a report like the one on the front page of the Australian yesterday for people to realise the really destructive impact of sniffable fuel. But generally I do not think tourists are aware enough. People seem to be a lot more aware of the problems with alcohol than they are of the problems with petrol sniffing.

Mrs Hewitt : While the major papers might put it on the front page, not everyone reads a paper. I think a lot of tourists are more worried about their petrol being stolen than about the effect it might have when it is stolen.

Senator SMITH: I am also curious about this: the evidence points very, very strongly to the strong occurrence of petrol sniffing among young men. Can you share with us what that is about culturally. Is it simply about a lack of activity for young Indigenous men? The evidence suggests that the great bulk of those affected by petrol sniffing are young males.

Mrs Hewitt : There is a definite separation between women and men in that age group in Aboriginal communities. If you go to church, the females sit on that side and the males sit on this side, or vice versa, but they do not sit together whether married or not; they are all separate. Therefore, I do not think men would encourage the women to join them; the women would have to start up their own petrol-sniffing club. We could talk about peer pressure in the schools; it is tremendous in Aboriginal communities, and they all encourage each other. People who are alcoholics have become alcoholics because, 'My brother said I should drink,' or, 'My cousin said I should drink,' because they are drinking, and that is often what happens. But the basic thing is why they all club together like that. It is obviously something cultural. As a female, I would not know anything about it.

Mr Hewitt : There is a fair bit of sniffing—or there was a fair bit of sniffing—amongst the girls too. At one of the communities in South Australia that we worked at just before Opal fuel came in, there were probably 30 young men sniffing there regularly, and maybe half as many girls. It certainly was a problem amongst the young women too—perhaps not as severe as among the men.

Mrs Hewitt : I have a bit written here, if I may read it, on some of the medical issues I have come across in relation to petrol sniffing. In 1991 in Alice Springs, two babies were born within a week to mothers severely affected by petrol sniffing. One was started on an intensive 20-day treatment in an attempt to stem the brain-damaging effect of very high lead levels. This child is now 11 years old and living at Warakurna Community in WA with relatives. He has faced a severe brain disability but is doing reasonably well considering how strong his mother's addiction was. hat young lad can walk. He can talk a little. But he will need care, probably for the rest of his life.

There is another thing that we have been wondering about. Perhaps there should be a study on the impact that foetal alcohol spectrum disorder may have on a child's later ability to resist substance abuse such as petrol sniffing. We know one young man from the South Australia community who has struggled for some years with quite unusual behaviour because he was probably suffering from foetal alcohol disorder. One of the most tragic actions of mothers who had access to sniffable petrol was to offer their babies a sniff of petrol to put them sleep. It can never be known how this would later affect the growth of the child. So a combination of petrol sniffing, marijuana and alcohol has resulted in several deaths.

Senator SMITH: In your submission you talk about community lobbying of those proprietors that do not yet provide Opal. Can you just step me through what that actually involves? Is it just a phone call? Is it letter-writing, as in the example that you used? What is your understanding of what is involved in making those approaches to those 10 or so proprietors that have not yet agreed to make Opal fuel available?

Mr Hewitt : I think, unfortunately, that a lot of Aboriginal people are probably too shy or just a bit reluctant to make the approach themselves. I think they would much rather see it go through their peak organisations, like NPY Women's Council, CAYLUS, Central Land Council and Mount Theo. There is a very strong move amongst the women, through NPY Women's Council. There was one instance on a roadhouse on the Lasseter Highway where the women took direct action. But generally the women prefer to work through NPY Women's Council. Their leader, Andrea Mason, is very good at, firstly, communicating with her own women and then passing on the message to fuel outlets.

It is probably a bit unfortunate that the people are a bit reluctant to make that approach themselves. Maybe the roadhouses would sit up and take a bit more notice if Aboriginal people themselves were prepared to personally front up to the proprietors. That is not to say that there is not a lot of good work being done, because CAYLUS has done some excellent advocating on behalf of Aboriginal people.

Senator BOYCE: You both mentioned a number of communities where there is currently no petrol sniffing, although there would be opportunities for it if people chose to. What I am trying to understand is the difference between communities where petrol sniffing is happening and communities where people are not petrol sniffing. Are we simply talking about ignorance of petrol sniffing, lack of someone to follow, or what?

Mrs Hewitt : It is probably a combination. If they are children, they have to have someone bring the fuel into them anyway. They cannot drive a car. They do not have a car. Now that it has subsided so much, the parents are not being threatened, either, to bring it in. I am not sure why.

Senator BOYCE: Threatened by older children?

Mrs Hewitt : Yes, by grown-up sons. It is the same as the way white people are threatened by grown-up sons for their drugs. It happens.

Senator BOYCE: Petrol sniffing is a form of substance abuse. We have had evidence at previous inquiries that there has been substitution in some areas—ganja instead of petrol in some areas. What is your experience of substitution, and why in some areas where petrol sniffing has stopped has there been no substitution? In other words, why have people simply stopped being addicts?

Mr Hewitt : We have not heard of much substitution in the remote communities. Some of the older young people, perhaps men in their 20s, have turned to marijuana, but marijuana was never an issue with younger children. We have seen kids of five or six years old starting sniffing but they have only done that because they have seen the older kids doing it. There has been a bit of substitution in Alice and I think CAYLUS could speak more about that. In the remote communities we have heard of very little substitution unless the young people could get hold of pressure pack cans. This is always a problem with contractors working in the communities. There was a campaign about 18 months ago to make contractors aware of the problem and to keep the solvents well away from view or not bring them into the community at all. We can be pretty thankful that there has not been very much substitution in the remote communities and we hope that does not happen.

Mrs Hewitt : Since the intervention, with more police stations and police on communities, the police really keep a look out for the marijuana.

Senator BOYCE: You mentioned one of the factors being boredom—people not having anything to do. Some of the communities you are talking about where petrol sniffing has not occurred must have similar issues. Are you able to compare in any way communities or see anything that might be useful to know?

Mrs Hewitt : When we worked at a Alpurrurulam, they were in the process of building their own houses. It was a very strong community to start with. Its history was that when they were given that land from Lake Nash Station they fenced it, put a gate in the front, put a sentry box at the gate, which was still there in 2001, and two elders slept there every night. No one was allowed in who was drunk or had alcohol. Their attitude to petrol sniffing when we went there was—as told to us by one older man—that some department in Alice sent a petrol sniffer up there to get him away from the petrol, and the community sent him straight back, 'Because,' he said, 'It was just like sending AIDS to an island. Someone would get infected and then it would just go on.' It was really a surprise to us to hear that some of the kids had gone to petrol sniffing. I think every able bodied person was working and that is what Aboriginal people used to do anyway. They had to hunt and gather all day, and that included the children, to exist. School has not really taken the place of that.

Senator BOYCE: There is a House of Representatives committee doing an inquiry into foetal alcohol spectrum disorder. You might like to look that up on the website and follow its progress. It is certainly an area of great interest to this committee.

Mr Hewitt : One observation we made, especially working in communities in the Kimberley, was that a lot of those communities which had a base in the pastoral industry had no sniffing and had very little in the way of alcohol problems either. Unfortunately that is breaking down now because we have probably a whole generation who have not worked in the pastoral industry.

Senator BOYCE: When you say based in the pastoral industry, do you mean people had worked as jackaroos or on particular stations?

Mr Hewitt : Yes. These older men took a real pride in the work that they had done. Even years after they had retired from being a ringer or a stockman, they still turned out everyday in their high heeled riding boots and their cowboy hats.

Mrs Hewitt : And they were clean and tidy too.

Mr Hewitt : This was an example to the younger people. I think it was quite significant. Sadly, we have seen a generation pass, now, that have not had that regular work. And they have not been able to take pride in what they were doing.

Senator BOYCE: Is it primarily about having people—role models—with self-esteem?

Mrs Hewitt : Yes. That is what has happened to Aboriginal men. Their self-esteem has been getting less as the years go by. The women have become a lot stronger, but nothing seems to have lifted up the men.

Senator SMITH: Mr and Mrs Hewitt, are you saying that any petrol-sniffing strategy that just looks at the distribution of Opal and does not constantly review, address and update initiatives around improving the self-esteem and activities for young men particularly is always going to be less successful.

Mrs Hewitt : There would be quite a danger of recurrence, I should think.

CHAIR: Thank you very much. Is there anything that we have not asked you that you want to put on record?

Mrs Hewitt : I would just like to say something. We believe that the introduction of the Opal low aromatic fuel has had the biggest single positive impact on the health and welfare of Indigenous people in the 48 years of our work in remote regions. That one product could make such a difference is a truly remarkable achievement.

CHAIR: We look forward to coming up and getting your evidence next time we are in Alice Springs. Thank you very much.