Thursday, January 07, 2010

Coober Pedy's great leap backward

Life for many Aborigines is patently worse than it was 50 years ago, writes former Papua New Guinea crocodile hunter and politician John Pasquarelli


IN 1959 I arrived at the Eight Mile Field at Coober Pedy with two partners and, as luck would have it, our first shaft bottomed on saleable opal.

I was a 22-year-old dropout from the University of Melbourne law school and I met my first Aborigines in their own environment on the opal fields. In those days before mechanisation, Aboriginal women and their kids "noodled" on the mullock heaps of the working mines, which involved picking over the mined earth coming up from down below and collecting any opal chips and full opals, which were then stored in tobacco and cigarette tins. The law of finders keepers applied, but at the end of the day Aboriginal men would arrive and claim the collected opal, sell it to the people who ran the Shell service station and then go and buy metho; these were the days before Aborigines were allowed to buy the white man's grog.

I was made chillingly aware of the brutality that existed in the Aboriginal settlement when I noticed a young woman, obviously in distress, noodling on our mine. She had a filthy old singlet wrapped around her head and face and she was covered in flies. "Big trouble, boss," was the response from one of the women when I asked what was wrong.

The woman's drunken husband had assaulted her and forced her face into a campfire, burning out one of her eyes. I drove her into Coober Pedy in my 1936 Chrysler Model 66 sedan and she was taken to the Bush Nurses at Port Augusta. I never saw her again.

In 1960 I left Australia for Papua New Guinea and returned briefly to Coober Pedy in 1981, during a driving trip across Australia. Between 1959 and this year I have also visited Aboriginal settlements in the Western Desert, Papunya, Eumundi, Alice Springs, Tennant Creek, Katherine, Darwin, Kununurra, Mistake Creek and the notorious Palm Island. Outback Aboriginal camps remind one of Dante's Inferno. I have just returned from my third visit to Coober Pedy. Fifty years and billions of dollars on, the nightmare continues, worse than ever.

Coober Pedy is a stark microcosm of the problems that affect many Aboriginal communities. Many Aborigines run businesses, turn up at their jobs and look after their families. Signs proclaiming "Dry Area -- No Alcohol Allowed" and "Alcohol Consumption Banned" are posted everywhere.

But like some mad Monty Python script, drunken Aboriginal men and women are slumped on the footpath, crumpled VB cans beside them, within feet of these signs.

One afternoon in the main street of Coober Pedy, I watched a young Aborigine stagger out of a bottle shop clutching a plastic bag in each hand containing a bladder, or cask of wine.

In a catatonic state, he meandered back and forth as if trying to get his bearings before heading off to the settlement. Stones on the roofs of houses at the Aboriginal reserve are thrown there by drunks.

Dogs from the Aboriginal settlement roam the streets of Coober Pedy unleashed and the larger ones search the rubbish bins. One morning, a large, fierce-looking alsatian cross mongrel was standing on his hind legs rummaging through a garbage bin while 100m away an Aboriginal man was doing the same thing.

At the main hotel, de facto apartheid exists; blacks and town whites drink in separate bars by mutual arrangement. Unwary tourists soon realise their mistake. The police do their best but they have been turned into a de facto taxi service. They pick up drunken Aborigines in the main street and drop them back at the reserve, only to have them return an hour or so later.

The town's only ambulance is also co-opted to ferry drunks.

Coober Pedy sits astride one of Australia's busiest north-south tourist routes and local and foreign tourists pass through in great numbers seven days a week. Many will be appalled by what they see and will assume that the evil white man is responsible.

The question of how to deal with grog and drugs appears to be insoluble given our present laws and the influence of the civil libertarian movement. New draconian laws relating to the sale of alcohol could be passed. Years ago in PNG, problem white drunks had their photos distributed by police around the bottle shops and were refused service. This name and shame process proved effective, but imagine the response if such a remedy were mooted today to deal with Aboriginal drunks.

Far too many of the people that work in the Aboriginal industry, whether black or white, are totally unsuitable to be employed. They drink too much, smoke cigarettes and use drugs such as marijuana. Yet these people should be role models and mentors, setting an example and as such they must be drug-tested in the workplace. Unfortunately, many of these people are only too willing to promote the cult of victimhood, subconsciously or deliberately, and weeding them out must be a priority. Otherwise Aboriginal women and children will continue to suffer like that girl who had her eye burned out 50 years ago.


John Pasquarelli is an artist and political commentator.This article was first published in The Australian on August 19, 2009



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