Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Community Affairs References Committee
Accessibility and quality of mental health services in rural and remote Australia

BARNES, Mr Stephen, Sole Proprietor, Taylor's Store


CHAIR: Welcome, Mr Barnes. Have you been given information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses and evidence?

Mr Barnes : Yes.

CHAIR: Excellent. Do you have any comments on the capacity in which you appear?

Mr Barnes : I'm the sole proprietor of Taylor's Store in Halls Creek. I've been the owner of the store for coming up on 11 years.

CHAIR: I invite you to make an opening statement, and then we'll ask you some questions.

Mr Barnes : When you talk about mental health, suicide and all the associated triggers and precursors in Halls Creek, I believe from my observations of 11 years that they are 90 per cent generated by government and about 10 per cent generated by a Stone Age people struggling to come to grips with a modern society where the goalposts are forever changing. It would be very hard for you guys to conceptualise what real life is like here but, for instance, if a young Aboriginal man doesn't go through Aboriginal law he finds it very difficult to find a wife. There's a higher status of Aboriginal law compared to the parliamentary system in Australia. That flows through very much on a sociological level and is the thing that I think government doesn't understand very well. Issues like this in this region are very real.

CHAIR: Is the document you've just given us a submission?

Mr Barnes : That's correct.

CHAIR: Okay, thank you.

Mr Barnes : There are a number of documents in there that I've photocopied that various members of government have. I've advocated very strongly here for a number of years, and you'll find there's a copy of correspondence to an ex-Prime Minister in there. I might add that, having provided that ex-Prime Minister with a $5,000 child psychologist's report into this little boy here, it never even got a response. I think that's an indictment of the man. I think that he goes to Aboriginal communities each year to boost his ego and to lift his profile nationally, but he does nothing for the communities that he visits. I provided him with probably the most substantive document created medically on an abused child in the Kimberley and got zero response. This is the man who would shirt front Putin.

CHAIR: Thank you. We're just trying to look at your submission as well as ask you questions.

Mr Barnes : It was intended more for you to take away some substantive material. I'm happy to answer any questions. I've worked with 14 suicidal people in this town. I'm not saying that it's only because of me, but those 14 people are alive today. I've had zero training, but the one thing I've got is two words: I care. I've said to people, which is a very interesting psychological phenomenon: 'If you need help you can ring me, 24/7.' Not one of those people has rung me at an untoward hour, but the security of knowing that they could reach out to someone when they needed it was important to them. I did some work on Monday this week with the first lady I worked with, back in 2007 when she was suicidal as a teenager.

CHAIR: The security of knowing that someone can reach out 24/7 is obviously one of the things that you've identified that people need or as part of supporting somebody with suicidal ideation. In the years that you've been working with people, what are the other things that you've identified that are key to addressing their mental ill-health or the other reasons that people may have developed their ideation?

Mr Barnes : If you simplify it down to the most important point, people that are isolated and suicidal just need to know that there's someone out there that cares. That's why I put it in the summary. The last point was isolation, because I see three common denominators between suicidal people. You might say most of these Aboriginal people come from large families, they're part of the community and their tribal heritage for the Jaru and Kija is on this land. That's true, but when they have head problems and they can't talk to family, who often don't understand the issues, they get progressively isolated. I think we've probably got to the point where there's a degree of copycat suicide going on. I'm not medically qualified to make that statement, but I did speak with a psychiatrist on my front verandah one day. He just visited my store, and he just said to me straight out, 'We're not fixing problems here; we're putting on bandaids.' My message to you guys is that we have to get beyond putting on bandaids. We have to find solutions, and programs need to be evidence based.

Senator PRATT: Mr Barnes, you talked about the fact that people are comfortable calling you 24/7. The chair asked about having around-the-clock services, but an around-the-clock service wouldn't necessarily have the same level of trust as people that you have a community rapport with. What do you think could be done to strengthen peer-based outreach within community so that community members themselves have more experience in supporting each other? That kind of training is often done on construction sites and other types of places where people do mental health first aid and it's made available to lots of people in the community. We've had other witnesses talk about the importance of embedding that training throughout the community so that we're not just relying on service providers. What do you think about that?

Mr Barnes : I think that you're looking at it from a dominant culture perspective, and I'll give you an example. This is a true story; it's not a parable. There was a little girl who used to visit my store quite early in the piece. She was very smart, and she never went to school. School attendance was zero. I spoke to her mother one day; she was from Mardiwah Loop. I said to her, 'Aren't you concerned about your daughter?' She said, 'Why should I fight with my daughter every day for her to end up qualified on the dole queue?' That was her mother. All of a sudden, I started to look at it from a different perspective. The reality is that unemployment in Halls Creek—the official level—is 42 per cent on Highway 1. Government agencies all too often think that nobody locally can do this, so they recruit around Australia or overseas, and the locals don't get a look in. My argument is that government has to look beyond the moment and say, 'If we don't have qualified people there now to do it then we need to train them.'

Senator PRATT: Yes. I take issue with you saying that I was referring to it within a dominant cultural paradigm, because unless people are paid to do their own cultural business, as we're paid to do our cultural business, you can't expect things to improve. What would you be supporting within the community for people to do if government said, 'Here's the money to make a difference'? What would you apply it to?

Mr Barnes : What I've witnessed in 11 years is an extraordinary rip-off of government money by NGOs and the local government. What I would say to you is that there need to be checks and balances on that. Our CEO prior to this guy was just dismissed for effectively criminal activities. What I would say is that this is becoming a national problem. It's not just a Halls Creek problem. I really believe that there needs to be stricter safeguards to ensure that the government that are funded to do a certain job actually do that job and that it's not so loose and airy-fairy that people can systemically exploit the system at the expense of the people that actually need that money being spent on services for them—the delivery of services.

Senator PRATT: Thank you. I'm done.

Senator O'NEILL: I want to go the fetal alcohol syndrome, which was No. 10 in your list of points for the summary.

Mr Barnes : Yes.

Senator O'NEILL: You were here for the evidence that we just received from the youth worker and coordinator for the council. He cited research that indicated that between 60 and 90 per cent of young people have undiagnosed fetal alcohol syndrome. You've put it in here too. What's the problem and what's the solution that you see, Mr Barnes, because that seems to be a very, very big problem from where I'm sitting?

Mr Barnes : I can say to you that that's basically a lie.

Senator O'NEILL: What do you think it is, and why?

Mr Barnes : If you went through all the kids at Halls Creek—and I know most of these kids; I'm a stepfather to one of these kids—I doubt that it would get past 20 per cent on independent medical scrutiny, and it mightn't hit 20 per cent. But it has been a bandwagon for playing the drum, which has resonated with certain levels of government. Bringing in the alcohol bans didn't fix the problem, because we didn't deal with the triggers that were causing alcoholism to start with.

Senator O'NEILL: What are the triggers causing alcoholism, in your view?

Mr Barnes : Unemployment would be a big one. It is 42 per cent. People that sit around—

Senator O'NEILL: A lack of hope?

Mr Barnes : Yes, a lack of self-esteem, a lack of economic opportunity, a lack of economic participation. Some of the programs that I see going on—for example, on Cape York Peninsula under Noel Pearson's initiatives—I just think would be fantastic in the Kimberley. But I'm not seeing it; I'm not seeing that level of engagement. One of our stand-up Aboriginal contractors was actually bankrupted by a corrupt local government, and when you've got that sort of negative activity, what is the flow-on effect as people look at Steve? That's not me; that's the Aboriginal guy. They say, 'Well, he worked his guts out seven days a week, and in the end it was all for nothing. Why should I go and do it?' The truth is—and I said this to Tony Abbott when he came to my store—we need Aboriginal role models in this community. We need people that are successful that the younger people can look to and say, 'You know what? I want to be like him. I want to be like her.'

Senator O'NEILL: How many of those successful people need to be skilled professional health workers in their own community that come from their community? Would that make a big difference?

Mr Barnes : I don't think so.

Senator O'NEILL: Why?

Mr Barnes : Because, on employment at the store, when I was able to employ Aboriginals in my store, after March 2008 I only employed Aboriginals. So we actually went to a bias the other way. What I found was that Aboriginal men are not given to working indoors as a general rule. It's not absolute. So then I was working with Aboriginal women. I found that I could train an Aboriginal woman to do a job and she could be quite competent at that job, but she wasn't confident. And it all comes back to this self-esteem, this self-image: 'I can't do that.' I used to say, 'The only difference between can and can't is taking the "t" off.' I said, 'We're a team, and there's no "I" in team, so it's not me, the boss. We are a team.' And that worked fairly successfully, and I was getting a trained level of staff. In the first 12 months after the alcohol bans came in, my store turnover dropped by 70 per cent, and we set our record when the global financial crisis was on. In the next 18 months it dropped about another 15 per cent.

Senator O'NEILL: Is that because people were spending more on black-market alcohol?

Mr Barnes : That is a contributing factor.

Senator O'NEILL: That money was not being spent on food, so it was an unintended consequence of that decision.

Mr Barnes : That is correct, and it has never been looked at by the local authorities. I will give you an example. If you had pre the alcohol ban a family—just a family—drinking four cartons a fortnight, post the alcohol ban that family are still drinking four cartons. The only difference is it has gone from somewhere around $44 or $45 a carton to over $600.

Senator O'NEILL: A carton?

Mr Barnes : No, for those four cartons. Centrelink hasn't increased their entitlement and the cost of living has gone through the roof. I'm saying that it is the most vulnerable in the community who are stuck having to buy the grog off these black-market traders.

Senator O'NEILL: You're the first person we've encountered to talk about gambling addiction. I wonder if you might put some of your observations about that on the record for us.

Mr Barnes : Absolutely. I had a lady come to my store who is the daughter of a close friend of mine. She bought an enormous amount of clothing. It would have nearly covered this table—it was maybe two wheelbarrow loads. From memory, it was about $2,300 worth of clothing. I jokingly said to her, because I know her and the family, 'Did you have a big win at the cards?' She said yes. My brain is a little bit analytical. She said, 'I came and got what I need for the future while I have got the money.' I said, 'How much did you win at the cards?' She said, 'I've won $7,800 in an afternoon.' The point I make to you guys is that others have lost $7,800 for her to have $7,800. Whilst I am sceptical of certain things that are talked about in the community, I have no doubts whatsoever that what that young lady told me was absolutely spot on. That's the sort of money that changes hands.

Senator O'NEILL: And you're literally describing card games where money is being put on the table?

Mr Barnes : Absolutely, and in the street behind my store. I had massive blues with the council who were sitting here before to get that street cleaned. I asked them to clean Quilty Street one day a month, and that was too much. They would not commit to cleaning Quilty Street one day a month. Because my property adjoins three roads—Duncan Road, Rhatigan Street and Quilty Street—I said, 'If you're not cleaning one of those streets, I'm going to reduce my rates by one-third.' What these fine upstanding people did was take me to court in Perth, where I couldn't defend myself. So they're getting paid, but they're not delivering a service. Then they had a court hearing. I was never served a notice, so I couldn't even get a lawyer to defend me. In the end I had a bailiff turn up because they got a judgement in my absence. This is over cleaning a public street. In the end I had to pay all of these fees to these fine upstanding people, who don't deliver a service one day a month. They clean the main street 365 days a year for the tourists.

In July last year a little girl who was born after I came to Halls Creek—other words, after 2007—has been diagnosed with rheumatic heart disease, in part because the street she grew up on is a filthy squalor to beggar belief.

Senator O'NEILL: This is where there are mites that get into beds and the bedding, scabies—

Mr Barnes : Maggots, cockroaches and all the filth that you could imagine. I'm talking about truckloads of garbage and rubbish up and down the street building up to epidemic proportions.

Senator O'NEILL: And that's likely to have much more significant community impact where you've got overcrowded housing as well.

Mr Barnes : That's correct.

CHAIR: Once we've had a chance to look at this, we may have more questions for you, so we may be in contact with further questions.

Mr Barnes : Yes. I'm coming here today as a concerned citizen. The thing I would point you to is the second page, where I start the submission off with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Eleanor Roosevelt sums that up:

Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.

That's the message I've got for you guys. When you have, in a community like this, the haves, and then you have the have-nots; when you have an area like Halls Creek, where the main street gets cleaned up 365 days a year, and then you've got Mardiwah Loop, which doesn't get cleaned up—it's like comparing Johannesburg and Soweto, but 40 years ago—I ask you: how do the children control that circumstance? This is why I'm down here advocating tonight. I'm here for the children.

I sincerely believe that child abuse is directly related to every single suicide in this town. You'll say to me, 'But there are adults.' Yes, but they were abused as children. They lack the self-esteem and normal maturity development to be able to cope with the stresses of life, and then something happens and they commit suicide. I can tell you that people here have committed suicide over things that we as mainstream Australia would deem quite trivial. But in reality what it is is the straw that breaks the camel's back. It's just that final trigger. They say, 'We've had enough. We can't get justice. We can't get a fair go. We're gone.' It's really tragic when death becomes more appealing than life.

And none of these suicides are, like you might expect in Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney or Canberra, of a 72-year-old man just diagnosed with terminal cancer, who's in pain, can't deal with it and takes a mob of pills. It's not like that. We're talking about eight-year-old children—nine, 10, 12. In my little stepson's photo book, there are two boys in his own age group. They're not here; they're out there in the cemetery. They're the ones I'm advocating for, because if we can't get generational change nothing's going to change. I've been watching this now for 11 years, and I fight like hell to keep this little bloke alive. He's been assaulted by his mother with an iron bar, she has three criminal assault convictions on her record, and today the DCP, which I call the department of child propaganda, will not talk to me, and yet I'm the one who for years and years has advocated for that little boy, to keep him alive. That is the child I paid $5,000 to a child psychologist—and he is probably the most qualified child psychologist in Western Australia—to do a report on. They turned it into toilet paper. Tony Abbott turned it into toilet paper. Shame on Tony Abbott!

CHAIR: What's happened to that report? Has anybody looked at it?

Mr Barnes : It's in the submission to you. You've got a copy of it. All I can say to you is I've advocated to very high levels of government. There's not going to be a quick fix to the mental health/suicide problems of the East Kimberley. But if we don't make a start, if we don't set good guidelines—if programs are funded, they need to be monitored and they need to be evidence based. If they're not getting the runs on the board, as a private businessman in this town I would say to you, 'Cut the funding.'

CHAIR: The flip side of that is programs that are working getting cut because they're not politically popular anymore or government needs a new program to push.

Mr Barnes : When we get the gold medal globally out of about 235 countries for Indigenous suicide, guess what: we're getting something fundamentally wrong.

CHAIR: Yes, I'm not trying to argue that every program that's funded is really good. But I also don't think that every program that's funded is bad.

Mr Barnes : No, and I didn't imply that.

CHAIR: Yes. So I think we need that evaluation to make sure that we're investing in the long term in the programs that work and that we keep innovating.

Mr Barnes : Yes, but they need to be evidence based.

CHAIR: Yes, we need to get rid of the programs that don't.

Mr Barnes : The big problem in Halls Creek is that programs that are being funded are not evidence based.

Senator O'NEILL: Sometimes they are evidence based but they're not outcomes based. Sometimes it's been proven in other contexts that they might work but, if they're failing here, there's a degree of lack of accountability for the outcomes that are supposed to be achieved. So evidence in one context is not necessarily transferrable to another.

Mr Barnes : Yes, I understand that. By 'evidence based' I meant outcome based, getting runs on the board.

I'm going to raise an issue that irks me. We have government funded NGOs here that take sorry days, and government pays for it, but there's no benefit to the community—zero. In the year that Jimberella Jugarie was effectively killed out the front of YY, YY had upwards of 20 days off on full pay for no good return to the community. I think the government needs to look at things like that. If you had a building site and the guys went on strike for 20 days in the year, the federal government would be waving the flag and saying: 'This is intolerable. This is unacceptable that taxpayers' money is being spent and we're not getting a return.' Yet we do it here and nobody bats an eyelid. What I can say to you is that one of those days from YY—their budget for one day—could have helped somebody like me, who wants to do things in the community, to run a development program for young boys for one year. But the government invests that money, and YY didn't go to work, but they still all got paid. I'm saying to you that I think we need to re-evaluate some of these things and say, 'Well, why is the money being given to them to start with?' It's to provide a service in the community. If that service is not going to be provided, should that money be paid out of taxpayers' money, where the expectation is that we'll get a return?

I've also seen days where, on the same day, YY didn't go to work, the language centre didn't go to work, Jungarni didn't go to work and the art centre didn't go to work, but everybody got paid. So it's like a glorified holiday. We're talking about non-Indigenous people in this process as well. The cost to the taxpayer on a day like that is quite significant for effectively a zero return. I do understand sorry time. White people have compassionate time too. All I'm saying is that I think the expectation that they're going to be paid for it, when it gets to the point where almost any excuse will do to have a sorry day, beggars belief.

CHAIR: Thank you for your evidence today. It's much appreciated, and we'll have a good look at this document. Thank you for your time.

Mr Barnes : Thanks for giving me a hearing.

CHAIR: That is the end of our evidence for today, so we'll adjourn and recommence tomorrow in Derby. Thank you to Broadcasting, to the secretariat and, most importantly, to all our witnesses today.

Committee adjourned at 17:44