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Community Affairs Legislation Committee

LOW, Ms Susie, Chief Executive Officer, Warlpiri Youth Development Aboriginal Corporation

ROBERTSON, Mr Eddie, Chairperson, Warlpiri Youth Development Aboriginal Corporation

ROBERTSON, Mrs Lottie, Chairperson, Warlpiri Youth Development Aboriginal Corporation


CHAIR: Welcome. Thank you for coming to talk to us. We have your submission and I know you have information about parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses. Would any of you or all of you like to make some opening comments before we go to questions?

Ms Low : I would like to read a short statement which highlights what WYDAC boards think are essential views regarding this bill. WYDAC's Mount Theo Program, based in Yuendumu, has been operating for nearly 20 years. In that time we have grown from our origins as a community movement that succeeded in stopping petrol sniffing in Yuendumu to become a comprehensive program of care that operates across all communities in the NT Warlpiri lands.

Opal has proven an effective measure in its own right and when combined with youth programs, access to appropriate treatment and a broadbrush rollout provides even more sustainable outcomes. Across Central Australia, the introduction of Opal fuel was a catalyst for many young people breaking with sniffing and thus a change in youth culture so that sniffing was no longer an acceptable everyday behaviour.

A number of sites in the petrol sniffing strategy extended zone still do not use Opal fuel. Our program has particular concerns about two of these sites: the Ti Tree and Tilmouth Well roadhouses. We have had a number of contacts and referrals related specifically to Ti Tree Roadhouse. While to date we have had no clients directly related to Tilmouth Well and their stance, our colleagues at CAYLUS do have further data on it. The fact that these roadhouses do not sell Opal fuel compromises our strategy across all the Warlpiri lands.

Our experience confirms that the use of Opal fuel strengthens communities against petrol sniffing. It removes the supply, which is an essential element. This breaks the cycle and allows communities to concentrate on diversionary and youth development activities. Apart from independent studies, our own community's use confirms that there are no harmful effects on vehicles using Opal fuel. This is simply not a valid argument.

In this forum, we would also like to gratefully acknowledge those suppliers who have voluntarily made the change to Opal over the last five years. It has been a very important support.

Warlpiri families come and go across state borders so, for maximum impact, we would like to see this legislation applied to Western Australia, Queensland and South Australia as well as the Northern Territory. We know that Opal fuel has proven effective but, unless the sale of Opal is mandated, and across the broader region, there is a real danger of sniffing outbreaks and devastating consequences.

The gains achieved to date through the rollout of Opal fuel are crucial but they are also fragile. We currently have a generation of children in much of the region who have grown up free of a sniffing culture. However, due to what we believe are the irresponsible decisions of some retailers, the sniffing culture appears to be once again rearing its head in some sites. We know from hard experience that sniffing, once established in an affected community, can rapidly spread. It is an epidemic we do not wish to relive. We do not want this one sniffing petrol, you know?

We stand at a junction in Central Australia now and we cannot afford to go back. Our program is known for its hard earned success over many, many years. We cannot emphasise too strongly to this inquiry that the way we tackled sniffing in the Warlpiri communities would not be permitted today—and we can talk about that more later. Increased scrutiny on process and regulations means that the successful strategies that Mount Theo used in the early days would not be considered acceptable. We have welcomed a higher level of accountability and scrutiny. However, we despair at the possibility of a resurgence of petrol sniffing, especially given that our original successful strategies could not be applied today.

CHAIR: Mrs Robinson, Peter Robertson—who is going to go first? Mr Robertson? Okay.

Mr Robertson : Thank you for inviting and listening to us. This is very important for us, this day. Today we wanted you mob to listen to us. We are very strongly supportive of having Opal fuel run out in our communities in the central area where our children are very affected by petrols and other stuff that is hurting them. Most of our children live around the four communities where the Warlpiri populations move around in Central Australia. We believe that, for everybody, for the youth, for our children, for the future, we need you to support us in that Opal petrol. There will probably be a brighter future for our children if that can happen. We strongly want Opal fuel in the communities where our children are suffering. Thank you.

Mrs Robertson : It has been so many years now since the Mount Theo program was started. It started because the people of the community had been worried about the sniffing. It has gone now, but we still get some complaints from other communities that their kids are sniffing and we would like to be able to help those kids, because the fuel that we have now—I think it is the problem. I do not know how Opal is going to change that. We have started this program because of that and we do not want our children to die. We have had so many problems in the past where kids have been burnt through that, mostly in our community. The first coordinator who started this was so concerned about the children, the young people, that had been sniffing, and now this program has gone wider and wider, but we still try and get more clients who have been sniffing from other communities to come and stay with us. We would really like our programs to keep going so that we might ask for that fuel change. We have three stores and only two sell fuel. They both have Opal. It has been a change. We are worried about the other kids in the neighbouring communities on the Stuart Highway, up north and in other Warlpiri communities. We feel for them to come and join our program.

Senator SIEWERT: Ms Low, I want to start with your comment in the conclusion of your submission about the generation of children growing up in communities that have never sniffed and have not witnessed sniffing. That seems to me to be very significant progress. What impact does it have when children that have never been exposed to sniffing suddenly then are exposed to it?

Ms Low : There is a very real danger of experimentation. To experiment is one thing but that becomes a common practice. Although we have not seen sniffing for a long time, there is an ever-present fear of seeing that arise again in our community. Twenty years ago Warlpiri communities were destroying themselves through petrol sniffing. I am not only talking about the effects on young people but the effects on the rest of the community as well. That is one of the reasons we were particularly diligent with this program in the early years and we did manage to stop petrol sniffing prior to Opal. We also saw the effect of Opal in our surrounding communities, particularly in Papunya, which we have a very close connection with. For us, it is a question of why would you not do it? If here is a strategy that is painless and is a governmental opportunity to support organisations like us on the ground, why would you not do it?

Senator SIEWERT: Your last comment was, 'The time has come to finish the job.' That to me summed up your submission. The approach that runs through your submission is 'we have made good progress but we have not finished the job'.

Ms Low : That is absolutely the case.

Senator SIEWERT: You talk about Ti Tree and Tilmouth, which are the two road houses that have been coming up for the last five or six years, but you focus on Ti Tree. Can you run us through some of the most recent examples and what impact they have had?

Ms Low : We have had clients from Ali-Curung, which gets fed from Ti Tree roadhouse in the last six months for sniffing petrol.

Senator SIEWERT: How many?

Ms Low : Three. We have also had a group of girls also from Ali-Curung for whom at the time we provided an intervention other than the Mount Theo Outstation. It was a bush camp with elders. It is a perfect example: some girls came from Ali-Curung, went to Willowra and were sniffing there, which is where we originally picked them up. When we started talking to them and their families they ran away to Nyirripi but they were not safe there because we have a program there. We were able to pick them up there and provide an intervention with a bush camp. We do expect clients from areas that do not have Opal fuel and they do come.

Senator SIEWERT: What are the areas that you get clients from that do not have Opal fuel?

Ms Low : Mostly from around Ti Tree at the moment.

Senator SIEWERT: I thought you were talking about another area.

Ms Low : We still get Warlpiri referrals from Darwin, from Alice Springs, from all over.

Senator SIEWERT: Is access to fuel through Ti Tree because somebody has a car that has come into the community that has got sniffable fuel in or is it that people are selling fuel?

Ms Low : I do not have data on that but my colleagues from CAYLUS would definitely be able to answer that.

Senator SIEWERT: Could you explain your comment here about harmonisation across state borders and timing a little bit more?

Ms Low : We are afraid—it has been discussed here this morning—how long some of these processes can take. We believe that if this bill goes through that does require a mandate that also requires some sort of time frame then we have far more chance of nipping in the bud some of the issues that we have with petrol sniffing across borders.

Senator SIEWERT: It is about timing. Is what you are saying, and I am not trying to put words in your mouth, that you are concerned about the amount of time it will take to harmonise rather than having one piece of legislation that can mandate?

Ms Low : I am concerned about both, quite frankly. Where we come from is certainly not a political viewpoint and it is not even a legal viewpoint; it is about caring for young people across our region and asking the government to support any strategy that can do that.

Senator SIEWERT: Okay. Mr and Mrs Robertson, what changes have you seen in communities since Opal has been there? What difference does it make in your community to your young people and their opportunities?

Mr Robertson : Ever since we started putting in programs with WYDAC, the change is that young people have youth programs and other activities going on. The children were taken out to the community for sports. They have almost forgotten the course of the other children happening in the past. That is a big one for us now because now the children are concentrating on and interested in some other activities. They are at school and healthy. Anything we can do to save our children and put in more programs for WYDAC and any funding we can plan to do things to help young people to look to the future.

Senator SIEWERT: In terms of the issues around ongoing access to Ti Tree, have you been able to engage with them to explain the impact sniffable fuel is having on the community? If so, what has been the response?

Ms Low : At one level CAYLUS has had those discussions with them. At another level our outstation coordinator at various times when she has been over to pick up clients from that region has attempted to talk to the roadhouse but they are really not interested at that level. Given the fact that perhaps we are just dealing with a staff member, not someone that is important, so far they have not been interested in engaging.

Senator SIEWERT: This has been going on for years, hasn't it?

Ms Low : Yes.

Senator SIEWERT: You mentioned before three in the last six months. Has it just started now or have there been an ongoing incidents over a period of time?

Ms Low : There have been ongoing incidents. There has been an increase of clients from Ali Curung because we have established a better relationship with that community now so the Mount Theo program is available. Whether or not that is indicative of a rise in petrol sniffing or just a rise in better being able to respond I am not sure.

Senator SIEWERT: I hesitate to go here, but you made a comment earlier that you would not be able to do the same thing now. Without dropping yourselves in it, can you walk us through that? Your program is held up across the nation as being a successful program in the way that you have over the years been able to respond and provided healing and rehabilitation. I am interested to know what you did that you cannot do now and why you made those comments.

Ms Low : I am very happy to discuss it because we think it is a key element in ongoing care. It was an epidemic, it was a crisis a situation back then, 20 years ago, looking for crisis responses. There are a couple of very simple examples of this. The people who cared for our petrol sniffers during those early days included these two, who still do, by the way, every week. They were just people who cared. They were family members or members of the extended family who were worried about the young people in the community. Now we must have a Cert IV in alcohol and other drugs. That is a big ask for community members—a very big ask.

Another small example is, again, things that we appreciate as being valuable: having very, very strict referral processes, exit and entry forms and case management. Previously, if anyone in the community saw a young person sniffing, they could pick them up, put them in the car and take them to Mount Theo, and we would deal with it along the way. It was that availability and that freedom to have a crisis response that we think are one of the keys to the success that we now have.

Senator SIEWERT: In other words, there are stricter controls about what you can do, so you feel that, if petrol sniffing builds up again, that will restrict the ability to put that crisis care in place.

Ms Low : I do. As I said, we have grown to a stage where we welcome that level of accountability and, because of that accountability, we get support from government. All those sorts of things are very good, and the qualifications of staff are also important. However, if we had that same crisis today or in other communities, there are massive hurdles to be able to provide that immediate zero-tolerance approach, which is one of the reasons we are so nervous about a resurgence in those epidemic proportions of petrol sniffing.

CHAIR: Ms Low, we have been asked by NITV whether they can film some of the hearings. It is okay with us—that is part of our job—but we always ask whether people have any concerns about that. Do you have a problem with being filmed?

Ms Low : That is fine. Yes, they are our friends.

CHAIR: Also, for people in the public area, if you do not want to be filmed then now is the time to hide.

Senator SIEWERT: My question now relates to how we were talking earlier about the young women that seemed to go round from community to community. Is there a possibility that people will move out of your area to sniff petrol in another area because they know that your communities are very strong and deal with petrol sniffing? What is the possibility of people moving?

Ms Low : It is a real possibility. I have not seen it as much lately, but certainly in the past it was quite well known amongst Warlpiri communities that there was zero tolerance in Yuendumu. In fact, it was also very uncool to sniff, and young people would dob on each other if there were visitors coming in who were sniffing. So, yes, there was definitely a trend there for people to go, say, to Papunya because they knew they were able to sniff in Papunya.

Senator SIEWERT: Is that one of the concerns with the resurgence—that, if people want to sniff, they will move out to other areas?

Ms Low : It is a definite possibility. Yes, it is. I think Yuendumu and the Warlpiri communities are in a unique position because we were able to stop petrol sniffing prior to Opal, but that is now a generation who are young mothers and fathers, and they are employed and they have a strong community contribution. There are still those other ones coming up who do not have, perhaps, that history of knowing how bad petrol sniffing was or having come through that experience. Again, it is one of the preventative measures. Mandating Opal fuel is a preventative measure that seems to me to be such a simple strategy in a whole range of other strategies that the government can support us with.

Senator BOYCE: You were talking earlier about three young men, I think, and a group of women who were petrol sniffers and had been around the Ti Tree Roadhouse. Did the program or anyone else that you are aware of talk to the Ti Tree Roadhouse about this happening? I realise there is ongoing communication, but what actually happens in situations like that?

Ms Low : As we do when we are aware of the source of the fuel, which we were in that case, our outstation coordinator, who is highly qualified, talked to both the families and the roadhouse when she went to pick up the young people, but she was not well received.

Senator BOYCE: We might leave that at that. I was interested in what you were saying about your youth service communities and the fact that there is good provision in some areas but patchy provision in others. What is the effect of that patchiness, in your view?

Ms Low : Are you talking communities other than the ones where we are working?

Senator BOYCE: Yes. I am looking at the part of your submission where you say 'other sites have not access to the Youth in Communities funding and as a result youth service provision has remained patchy'.

Ms Low : That is right. The Warlpiri community is very lucky in that we can offer services in all those areas. But where there are no youth services, there is definitely a massive lack in the provision of other options for young people, whether or not they going to sniff petrol or get into criminal activity or something like that. Youth services are available for most young people around Australia, wherever they are. When they are not available, it is far more likely that young people will look for alternatives.

Senator BOYCE: You have talked about the success of and the ongoing investment in programs in your area. It is all very well to say that, but what have been some of the measureable outcomes of some of those functioning and functional youth services?

Ms Low : That is the good thing: a lot of them are very easy to measure. We maintain a lot of data. We count everything that moves, is about to move or does not move. And then there is the qualitative data on top of that. Overall, the obvious outcomes are less engagement with harmful substances such as petrol, marijuana or alcohol. That can definitely be measured. Then there is the level of participation in youth programs, whether by numbers or hours that young people go to them. That is a definite measure: if they are there, they are not getting into trouble. We can also measure trends, even for case management in terms of who has and has not been going to the youth program. Crime statistics are definite measures. I am probably missing some. They are some of the basic ones. And then there is people moving into training or employment. We have a lot of employment. We have a very clear education and training pathway through our program. All those sorts of things can be counted. Is that the sort of answer that you were looking for?

Senator BOYCE: Yes. If you have any quantitative measures of those things, could you provide that information to us on notice.

Ms Low : For the last six or 12 months?

Senator BOYCE: Both would be excellent.

Ms Low : We would be happy to.

Senator BOYCE: That be very helpful.

Senator SMITH: Mr Robertson, in the evidence we have heard that a lot of the petrol sniffing occurs is done by young men. From your experience and observations, what is it about young men in Aboriginal communities that might lead them to petrol sniffing? What sorts of things can governments and other organisations be doing to specifically address petrol sniffing among young men?

Mr Robertson : A very important thing is education. A few other things would funding for activities to keep young people occupied. Football, basketball and any other sport that can involve them and get their minds off anything bad that they might do are things are reliable activities for young men. Mostly, young people do not have jobs or opportunities to do any training on the job. We would like to see the government put more funding into training and other things that can take young people towards a better road. I have explained this. I have seen this. I was involved in looking after young people in 1994 when we started up with Matthew. In the past, everything worked really well, because there were a lot of jobs and a lot of activities. Suddenly, the government changed or some of the rules or laws changed in the community. Then people started doing things in a bad way, which has hurt them. The way that I look at it, we need to have more funding and more structure for young people. We need youth programs and any other programs that can help young people in the community and in Mount Theo.

Senator SMITH: My next question is not specifically related to petrol sniffing. Ms Low, are you starting to see the influence of or the exposure to other drugs in Aboriginal communities? I am thinking of crystal meth, for example. Is there a pathway between petrol sniffing and other sorts of drugs?

Ms Low : First off, we have none of those drugs. We have certainly seen marijuana—ganja—for quite some time at varying levels. That is not specifically related to the availability of other drugs at all. But it is a massive issue in terms of our young people who are experiencing suicidal ideation. We find a strong correlation there. There have been no harder drugs brought into our community yet and we would like to see it stay that way—maybe it will not. But to date that is not an issue. The way that our program works is that the bottom line of what we do is cultural strengthening. When young people are strong in their own culture they are for a start more likely to be resilient in the face of some of those temptations. But we also find that they operate better in a white philo-culture as well, because they are confident and strong in what they do.

Senator SMITH: I was interested to hear you identify three young women. The evidence points very heavily towards it being predominantly a challenge for young men. Is this a new trend?

Ms Low : No, I would not say that it is a trend. When I look over the history of the Mount Theo program, in the early days it was probably 50-50 girls and boys. There was an increase over five years or so of young men coming into the program. But now we get so few petrol sniffers that I would not like to comment on a trend. I am not sure about that. In terms of our program and suicidal ideation and attempted suicides, over the last 12 months there have been more males involved in that than women. But it is too soon to suggest a broad trend.

Senator SMITH: So mental health programs might be another strategy as part of an overall anti petrol sniffing strategy that should be closely considered?

Ms Low : Yes. That is quite insightful. The way that the Mount Theo program has progressed is that we now have a counselling service, called Warra Warra Kanyi, which means 'looking after each other' or 'the right to care'. That grew up independently through the Jaru Pirrjirdi program, which means 'strong voices'. That is our youth development and leadership program. There was a very strong mentoring aspect to that. Young people coming through the program and getting well and healthy wanted to mentor other young ones to make sure that they were okay. That became a really solid part of our program that dealt with young people having serious issues. As a result of that, the board identified a need to take that counselling to another level, so we now have a fully professional counselling service with qualified counsellors. That is quite unique. It was built on Warlpiri principles using best practice from the white fella as well. But in my opinion it is not something that you can just lob into a community. It grew up within the Mount Theo process, as did each of the developments in our program. That is certainly a long-term goal. But bringing in mental health experts, for example, from remote mental health—and I have nothing to say against them; they do the best that they can—is simply fly-in fly-out. Relationships are not formed.

Senator SMITH: It is not organic enough.

Ms Low : No. What you identify that is important is that there are mental health issues with any sort of substance abuse. I am sorry; that was longwinded.

Senator BOYCE: We heard evidence earlier from the Alice Springs town council about people who come into town from their communities so that they can continue to sniff petrol or abuse other substances. They come because of the opprobrium that they are facing back in their own communities. What experience have you had of that in the Warlpiri areas? What have you done about it?

What experience of that have you had in the Warlpiri areas and what have you done about it?

Ms Low : I will start and then let these two comment as well. We get really concerned when our at-risk youth come to Alice Springs. There are so many temptations, so many bad options, for them here. Where possible we do what we can to bring them home. It might be fuelling up a family member to drive in and get them or, if somebody else is town, offering them a lift back or encouraging them go back. We obviously cannot make them, but we do worry about the opportunities. Do you want to talk about them coming into Alice Springs and what they get up to, Eddie?

Mr Robertson : Yes. When some family moved from Yuendumu to Alice Springs, the children got mixed up with other children here who were sniffing and doing other things not good for them. What we really relied on was the four parts of the Tangentyere Council and other people who could help us to bring our children back home. If there are others here who can take children back home to their parents, we can take full responsibility for our children and our tribe back at home. Out here it is a shame because we respect and own the land, and we do not want our children to do any things wrong in their country. So what we have said for a long time is that any children that do the wrong here in Alice Springs must be sent back home where we can look after them.

Ms Low : I would also like to add that we have an excellent partnership with CAYLUS in that they are often on the lookout for people from our community, so they can identify people we are worried about and we often organise a halfway meet or something to try and look after those ones.

Senator BOYCE: The view of the Alice Springs Town Council seemed to be that because the roadhouses were not in their council area they were not something they could deal with. Is there something any groups you know about who are trying to work on this at a larger level have, where you have got Warlpiri people, people from the town council, Arrernte and others all together, talking about it? Is that happening, or should it happen?

Ms Low : It happens at some level through CAYLUS. CAYLUS are quite diligent about talking to all communities, getting community takes on their concerns for their community and then doing what they can to facilitate meetings with suppliers and all of those sorts of things. I am not aware of other movements that are afoot but, again, CAYLUS would be your best source of information for that.

Senator BOYCE: Would you see any purpose in organisations such as the Alice Springs Town Council advocating to Ti Tree and others about their fuel?

Ms Low : Absolutely. The more—and the more people who are saying, 'This fuel does not hurt your car'—the merrier. There are ways around some of the arguments that are brought out. All of the arguments that have been brought out are definitely able to be addressed and have been addressed over the last five years. So the more organisations advocating on behalf of Opal fuel the more beneficial it is.

Senator BOYCE: Thank you.

CHAIR: Thank you very much, Ms Low. Do you, Mr Robertson or Mrs Robertson have anything you want to add that we have not touched on?

Mr Robertson : One very important thing that we would like to ask you to do, if is possible, is to put Opal fuels in the community where our children are being affected.

CHAIR: That is what it is about. We appreciate your evidence, as always. We will see you next time, and we must get back to Yuendumu. It has been too long. Thank you very much.