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Essay

Mothers know best

KOWANYAMA'S FIRST CANTEEN opened in 1973. It was little more than a window, with a noisy throng of men outside, all flashing cans and elbows. Officers from the Queensland Aboriginal Affairs Department rationed the daily limit, which began at two cans each, increasing over time to four, before settling on six. If there was any misbehaviour in the community, the ration was decreased for all. All six cans were opened and passed in one go, to be consumed before leaving. Each person sat with their cargo, guarding them until they were gone.

Through the 1980s, the Bjelke-Petersen Queensland Government actively promoted community canteens, as a means for Aboriginal community councils to generate profits and pay for local services. At the lead was the ubiquitous Russ Hinze, the 'Minister for Everything', with his diverse portfolio of local government, roads, racing and police. When the new canteen in Kowanyama opened in 1986, it included a lounge bar. There was a major incident on New Year's Eve 1992, involving riotous behaviour, a break-in and looting of beer from the canteen in the settlement on the west coast of Cape York.

This was what Duncan McKean inherited when he started his job as canteen manager early in 1993. He immediately set about making the canteen safe. The lounge bar was closed, and converted into a storage room for the booze. The drinking was limited to an outdoor 'beer garden'. Chairs and tables were bolted to the concrete floor for ease of hosing and to prevent them from being thrown.

Duncan McKean's first nine months were the hardest. Early on, he had a few shows of strength, in measured stand-offs with half-cut men among politely seated on-lookers. He was never too forthcoming about it, but it was enough to earn the reputation of being capable with his hands. He needed that. The canteen in Kowanyama was as well-run as any in Queensland. If you mucked up, you were out, no exceptions. With obligations to kin and family at every turn, the local staff were grateful.

The stature of Duncan's wife Dellis Gledhill, in comparison, rose by degree. During her first five years, she worked with the community council, first as the training co-ordinator and then as the co-ordinator of the Kowanyama Justice Group. Dellis was an athlete in her youth, and no less quick of mind. Like her husband, Dellis's solid countenance was hard but fair in her judgments. Where Duncan was involved in the professional management of the supply of alcohol, Dellis diligently managed its deleterious effects. Between them, Dellis and Duncan knew every family in Kowanyama and their local knowledge and standing were pivotal to what was to unfold.

Dellis worked closely with group of powerful community matriarchs, including May Cheltrrakvliy. Together they formed the nucleus of the Kowanyama Justice Group. Most were Justices of the Peace (JPs), and they sat on and decided on cases, within the bounds of local government by-laws, or they advised the visiting magistrate. They were at times under enormous pressure, from family and kin demanding leniency or revenge. At the end of the day, disputes and family trauma frequently arrived at their doorstep. Several JPs resigned under the pressure, but May held strong.

May was a force of nature, with a durable and generous sense of humour. As a young woman, she had left Kowanyama for a time to live in nearby Normanton. She knew how to deal with whitefellas, travelling outside of Kowanyama, sitting on committees and meetings of government departments and regional Aboriginal organisations. Along with her three children, she raised ten nephews and nieces. She hated grog and blamed it for much that had gone wrong in her family and community. She stayed well clear of the drinking and gambling circles that dominated social life in Kowanyama.

People constantly came to May and other community grandmothers for help, seeking shelter from the drunks and noise. The nights were the worst. May 'slept with one eye open, and one eye shut.' In 2000, there was a tragic case of a neglected child removed by the State Government that hardened her resolve to stop the grog.

AT THAT TIME, Peter Beattie was well into his first term as Queensland Premier. Faced with a damning report from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women's Taskforce on Violence, Beattie decided that it was time to act. In the lead-up to the 2001 state election, Beattie appointed Tony Fitzgerald QC to lead the Cape York Justice Study. It had been twelve years since Fitzgerald completed an inquiry into police corruption in Queensland, that toppled the conservative Bjelke-Petersen Government. Fitzgerald was a big gun for Beattie to bring in, and the obvious parallels were made to the scale of reform at hand.

It's not that the Kowanyama Community Council hadn't tried to limit the damaging effects of alcohol. Variations to trading hours and takeaway sales were trialled through the 1990s. Takeaways were banned for three-months, but this resulted in binge drinking during canteen opening hours. Then, takeaways were limited to one carton per person, but this led to non-drinkers being pressured to buy booze for others. Light beer was trialled, but the canteen struggled to sell it. Most successfully, council proactively supported collaboration between the canteen and the justice group. Through the diligence of Dellis and May, heavy drinkers and offenders under the influence of alcohol were banned from the canteen, which Duncan assiduously enforced.

Council also had a policy of directing most of the $1 million-plus profits from the canteen to social welfare programs for the betterment of the community. None targeted alcohol rehabilitation directly, but a mothers and babies' centre, women's shelter, school bus, after-hours security service for nurses, and a ranger and family outstation program, all benefited.

The alternative was the sly grog trade, with young men taking moonlit bush runs to small liquor outlets hundreds of kilometres north or south, littered with conspicuous trails of green cans on back bush tracks. When the cargo arrived, the threat of confiscation and prosecution meant sales, distribution and consumption were quickly expedited. The sly-groggers earned a swashbuckling reputation and largesse from the large profits they made, with some rising to leadership roles. The illicit trade was one of the few opportunities for entrepreneurship in Kowanyama, but too often their exploits ended in tragedy, car accidents on the return journey, or the violence or health consequences of the binge drinking that followed. In Duncan's view, the sensible choice was a well-run canteen versus the chaos and tragedy of the sly grog trade; the profits from the canteen being directed back to the community rather than going to neighbouring alcohol outlets and illegal grog runners.

Council had held three well-attended public meetings on the issue of curbing alcohol supply. On each occasion, most voted for business as usual at the canteen, longer hours and no light beer. According to the principles of democracy that the council was legislated to uphold, the majority were opposed to curbing the supply of alcohol, regardless of the problems it caused. That was justification enough for Duncan, and for the string of councillors and staff who flowed through council.

Tony Fitzgerald took a different view. He saw the operation of a canteen by a community council as a conflict of interest – how could the council take profits from the operation of a canteen and then, at the same time, manage the social well-being of the community? Fitzgerald acknowledged that the councils were directing canteen profits to the well-being of the community, in the absence of land rates or other untied funding sources for that purpose. But he concluded that 'to suggest that community councils running their own canteens are examples of self-determination is a travesty of the concept.'

Acting on Fitzgerald's findings, the Queensland Government began stripping community councils of their social well-being role, transitioning them over five years to shire councils, the 'rates, roads and rubbish' of mainstream local government. At the same time, it gave community justice groups powers to restrict alcohol through a statutory alcohol management plan. Membership of the justice group was by ministerial appointment, to those without a criminal record.

THE JUSTICE GROUP had by this time been operating in Kowanyama for close to a decade. It was formed in the early 1990s, with the help of John Adams, a respected community development facilitator. John kept it quiet, but he was a reverend who had lived in nearby Aurukun as a young man during the mission period. He was respected among the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leadership in Queensland for resisting the excesses of the Bjelke-Petersen era during the 1970s. John had pioneered different tools and methods for increasing community participation, bringing along those with limited literacy, numeracy or knowledge of government.

The justice group comprised eighteen members from each of the three language groups, with equal numbers of men and women. The nomination process was culturally sanctioned, without elections. It was decided that the group would not incorporate, and operate instead under a set of informal, locally agreed rules. The group was essentially a more formal incarnation of a pre-existing elders group, mostly men, but also some women representing other traditional homelands.

Over its first five years, from 1993 to 1998, the justice group monitored community-service orders, visited prison inmates, supervised returning parolees, operated night patrols and monitored school attendance. It also dispensed culturally appropriate justice, through non-violent practices of public humiliation, known locally as 'growling and shaming'. Offending juveniles were brought before the group, heads lowered, to be reminded of their ancestors, their responsibilities to family and kin, how they were letting their people down. When the severity warranted it, the tone of conversation was loud and deliberately intimidating. It worked. From 1994 to 1997, the number of court appearance for juveniles decreased four-fold.

This was the heyday of self-determination policies, and evidence of the trial's success was lauded as a victory of community-controlled justice. Through the late 1990s, the Queensland Government rolled out a program of funding community justice groups across the state. Significantly, these groups were to be founded along cultural lines, to be broadly participatory forums for community deliberations.

THE INITIAL SUCCESS of the justice group occurred with little government involvement, but as government attention and funding flowed, so too did the administrative demands. The Queensland Aboriginal Affairs and Corrections Departments jointly funded the group, each demanding volumes of overlapping reports. When Dellis fell behind, the Corrections Department wrote to the council demanding that she focus on the backlog on the 'corrections side'. That department was then instrumental in the separate incorporation of the justice group from council, and promptly moved their grant to the new body. This was followed by the construction of the new Justice Centre in 2000, its centrepiece a courtroom.

Unlike the large informal group of old, the justice group under its new constitution was now controlled by a committee, and community members could not hold office if they had a criminal record. Since most of the men in the community had criminal records, management of justice effectively split along gender lines. The greater justice group still existed, but the controlling entity was the committee, with May as the chairperson. While the elders group remained mostly male, the justice group was now mostly female.

By the time the alcohol management plan was being prepared in 2003, male elders were openly expressing concern that the justice group had gone quiet.

'They keep things quiet up there. It's not all together like the elders.'

'Things were strong there, but they're going towards the police now. People are going to jail when they could have been handled by the justice group.'

'It was supposed to be stopping trouble before it happened. Now they're part of the court, sentencing offenders. They shouldn't be in the courthouse.'

On the other side, female elders had no illusions about what they were doing.

'We tell Dellis what to do.'

'We're running it ourselves. Us ladies are keeping it strong.'

For Colin Lawrence, the split was a worry. A traditional elder who had long been a leader of the elders group, Colin Lawrence was well spoken and polite – a gentleman statesman of community affairs. He was still a regular at the elders meeting at the Land Office, and was always available to meet with visiting government officials. He had learnt how to work with whitefellas from his days as a ringer on nearby Dunbar station. Mustering out bush, riding and reading the country by day and sharing campfires at night, Colin felt 'as good as the next fella'.

Colin Lawrence was also an on-and-off drinker, and on occasion, lost for days on a binge. It was during one of these binges, as a young man, that he committed a serious crime. He had done his time and worked through his shame by doing what he could to help his community. People were taken aback when they learnt of his one-off criminal act. But as a convicted perpetrator, he did not need to ask if he would be allowed to sit on the new justice group.

The Aboriginal Affairs Department brought back John Adams to facilitate consultation for the alcohol plan. Given his early involvement with the group, John Adams had the necessary relationships in the community, including with senior male elders. Colin Lawrence pushed for a public meeting to 'just talk about it', but when the Land Office advertised its scheduled alcohol management meeting, a departmental officer demanded that the signs be pulled down. There were to be no more public meetings on the matter.

Instead, an extended meeting spread over five days was held behind closed doors with the greater justice group, after which a draft plan was produced. This was the first time that there had been a meeting of the larger group in some time, but May and the other female elders held sway. Colin and other male elders walked out of the meeting in protest, as his proposal for heavy beer was voted down: 'Them five ladies were stronger than our voice.'

John Adams separately received a strong petition from senior male elders in the council-operated aged persons' hostel, many of whom he knew well from the early 1990s. He was obliged to respect their wishes and modified the plan to provide a three-month trial for pensioners to consume four cans of beer each, on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, within the confines of the hostel. The rationale was that these elderly pensioners would be humbugged in the canteen, and at risk of falling over on their way back home. When the alcohol management plan was finalised, the department removed this provision. Through what was referred to as a 'zero carriage limit', the plan prohibited takeaways from the canteen and bringing in any alcohol from outside the community. Canteen hours were restricted to five hours on weekdays, and alcohol sales limited to light beer. All Kowanyama community-owned land was declared dry, with the exception of the canteen grounds.

The vetting of the aged-persons provisions was surprising, given the lengths taken to orchestrate a participatory process. A departmental officer frankly summed it up as an 'intervention process – John's job was to bring the community along'.

This was certainly the case for the community of Mapoon, which refused to be externally 'facilitated'. They organised their own alcohol management plan through an internal community planning process, including an extensive household survey. The department then summarily dismissed their plan, imposing their own. Mapoon leaders were so enraged that they instigated legal action.

John Adams had been around long enough to read the politics concerning this, but he knew something had to be done about the grog. One thing to emerge from the meetings' minutes was a list of names of those making up the greater justice group, which revived the large, extended forum of old. When the Queensland Government gazetted the justice group on Christmas Eve 2003, it stipulated five members from each of the three language groups, plus one person from council – sixteen in total. The names closely resembled those who had attended the special planning meeting. Not surprisingly, more than one year later, there had been no meetings of this larger official justice group. May and the other female committee members continued to hold sway.

RELATIONS BETWEEN THE community council and the justice group had never been good, but now they became worse. With its growing influence, separate incorporation, statutory powers, and government backing, the justice group was at the cutting edge of the council's eroding power base. The justice group charged council employees with poor management, nepotism and profiteering from grog. The council questioned the legitimacy of the justice group to be making decisions that affected the whole community, and charged them as not being democratically elected. As is usually the case, both positions were exaggerated, and neither without basis.

Dellis played a pivotal role in the running of the justice group within the justice centre. Her capability, commitment and longevity were unusual among her remote community peers. As the co-ordinator of the justice group, she was expected to be a facilitator of community-based justice, but as the corrections officer, she also had statutory obligations to enforce the legal system; a confusing mix of responsibilities that pushed Dellis to her not inconsiderable limits.

The day-to-day operations of the justice centre came to provide a critical service in the community, dominated by the different court and mediation sessions in which the female JPs played a key role. At a moment's notice, the centre would erupt into chaos as an argument spilled into its chambers. There was just not the time to collect and assemble the large justice group, let alone wait for their deliberations along informal cultural lines of consensus and deferral. A narrow committee structure was quicker to mobilise.

In addition to these practical operational pressures, Dellis and May faced a much more political matter. If they were to govern the negative effects of alcohol, they could not take the lead from the majority of Kowanyama residents, and certainly not from the majority of male elders, as most were opposed to curbing its supply.

If a participatory process had been followed, including a popular vote or public meeting, alcohol restrictions would not likely have been forthcoming. It was the female elders in the community who had the determination to do something. They were the ones copping the abuse, struggling to find the cash to feed their families, bearing the household impact of kin seeking refuge, or rummaging for food in the early hours of the night. For May and the other female elders in Kowanyama, this was about protecting their grandchildren from neglect, abuse and possible removal. Although in the minority, they were a formidable and unstoppable force.

ONE YEAR LATER, there was ongoing disgruntlement with the alcohol management plan. Many people blamed the limitations on alcohol supply for a number of fatal car accidents during sly grog runs, and an increase in petrol sniffing and marijuana use. Others cited the number of people who had left Kowanyama, or who were on extended visits to nearby towns with pubs. Others raised their concern about the unpredictability with which sly grog arrived, and the intensity of the binge drinking that followed. Some argued that without majority support, the plan would never achieve its objectives.

For Colin Lawrence, the proposed restrictions were an infringement of his rights, hard won since the 1967 Referendum granting federal government powers to override the states. He lamented; 'We're back to the old days of Killoran.' Patrick 'Paddy' Killoran ruled Native Affairs in Queensland from the 1960s with an iron fist, ensuring Aboriginal people were prohibited from gambling, swearing, travelling freely, and drinking alcohol.

Yet through 2004, after a year of zero carriage and limited canteen trading conditions, local service providers attested to the early benefits. Clinic records showed a significant reduction in after-hours trauma. The co-ordinator of the Women's Centre told the Courier-Mail that the level of domestic violence had declined so far that they were running out of business. Police statistics confirmed that the severity of domestic violence had decreased. Academic research recorded a decline in medical evacuations by the Royal Flying Doctor Service across the state. Kowanyama was certainly a whole lot quieter and cleaner, to the point that some people were complaining that it was boring. This was especially evident during the wet season, when road closures inhibited the sly grog trade. The manager of the aged persons' hostel was happy with the final arrangement, confirming that her elderly charges were making their way to and from the canteen without incident. Over the five years from 2003 to 2008, the number of assault-related hospital admissions decreased three-fold.

An unexpected outcome was an increase in private vehicle ownership. A lot of the money that had previously passed through the canteen was now going directly into private Kowanyama households. With the going rate of $10 a can, the profits from sly grogging were huge and top-of-the-range, off-road vehicles began to appear. The grog runners aside, many families came to see the sense of buying a car, as they could legally travel to an adjoining town for a drink. They might as well take out a loan and pay off a car, as give all their money to sly groggers.

Over the first five years of the alcohol management plan to 2008, the community settled into the new regime. In the background was a growing number of police to enforce the restrictions. The number of police stationed in Kowanyama doubled, from four in 2003 to eight in 2007. With Duncan's diligent management and limited trading conditions, the bigger issue for the police was not the canteen, but the sly grog trade.

Such was the extent of the trade that police resorted to the extraordinary tactic of breathalysing patrons as they entered the canteen. As the canteen now only served light beer, people were 'pre-loading' before they arrived. In scenes worthy of a newspaper cartoonist, police earnestly barred the entrance gate, with a queue of sheepish looking patrons waiting to enter. Those with any alcohol on board were turned away. In between police visits, Duncan purchased a breathalyser to use on anyone he suspected. Problems in the canteen decreased substantially.

From 2005 to 2007, the Queensland Government completed reviews of all nineteen alcohol management plans across the state. The degree of alcohol restrictions varied widely. Only a third had the same zero carriage limits as Kowanyama, the remaining imposed more generous limits of up to three cartons of beer and two litres of wine. And few of the canteens were as well run as Duncan's. Unsurprisingly, the bigger picture that emerged was not as positive.

The review reports were not made public, but the Courier-Mail invoked Freedom of Information laws. The reporting was negative; 'levels of harm remain grossly and unacceptably high compared to the Queensland average'. Most communities had an increase in petrol sniffing, marijuana use and home-brew. Drinking camps had sprung up near restricted zones. All communities had problems with sly grog. In Napranum, people were wading across crocodile-infested waters to get to the pub in Weipa.

Not long after Beattie passed her the premiership batton, Anna Bligh had to face this negative publicity. In December 2007, Aurukun experienced its third riot of the year. As a social worker and former Minister for Families Services, Bligh had no illusions about the impact of domestic violence on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and children. Prominent female leaders, including those involved in the original women's taskforce on violence, complained that too little had been done. National leaders, including Noel Pearson, threw Bligh their support.

The Premier had the option of overhauling the policy, or pointing to the communities where the alcohol management plans were doing better. She chose instead to deepen its reach and told the Courier-Mail that the plans had failed to 'restore law and order to the state average…and there are few that are even close to that.' Shortly after the new Aboriginal shire councils were elected in March 2008, Bligh moved to strip them of their canteen licences. Late in 2008, the doors to the Kowanyama canteen closed, which in combination with the zero carriage limit, effectively introduced local prohibition.

THROUGH 2008, MORE internal government meetings and community consultations were held. A joint state/federal $100 million alcohol reform package targeted people with alcohol and drug problems. Untied funds were provided to shire councils to replace canteen profits. Stronger powers were given to the police to stop sly grogging and home brewing, but their fears were far from allayed. The number of people charged in Kowanyama doubled in the year after the canteen closed, although it stabilised again the next year. Police numbers were increased – Kowanyama police became an eleven-person station. The frequency of sly grog ebbed and flowed with the efficacy of their efforts.

Together with Aurukun, Kowanyama Shire spearheaded an unsuccessful legal challenge on the grounds of racial discrimination. They lost the challenge in the Queensland Supreme Court in 2009, and then again on appeal in 2010. Growing numbers of Aboriginal shires across Queensland raised their voice in opposition to the alcohol restrictions.

In the lead-up to his 2012 state election victory, Campbell Newman criticised the Labor Government's 'paternalistic approach to alcohol management', committing the new Liberal National Party to undertake another review. Newman publicly posed the question: 'Why is it that an Aboriginal worker cannot come home to a home they own and have a beer on their front porch and watch the TV news with their family?' There was an unprecedented swing to the LNP candidate in Kowanyama polling booth. The following month, a new shire council was elected, with every intention of holding Newman to his word.

Given the history of alcohol management at Kowanyama, it is hard to imagine what Newman might have in mind. It has been thirty years since the first canteen opened. The underlying causes of the problem have not gone away. Despite all attempts to limit supply, people are home brewing and finding new ways to bring grog in. The Queensland Police and the Department of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs is dreaming up new ways to enforce the restrictions.

Over a twenty-year period, different alcohol management regimes overlapped and intermingled, including participatory community justice, restrictions through a well-managed canteen, a statutory female-dominated justice group, and finally local prohibition. Lessons were learned, but all fell short of a solution. If you are to have a canteen, ensure that it is well managed. If you are to take a participatory approach to alcohol management, then respect cultural practices and privilege women. If you are to enforce alcohol restrictions, then increase police numbers. Every attempt in its own way succeeded and failed.

While policy-makers set the field of play, what occurred in practice was largely beyond their gaze and quite magnificently at odds with their predictions. It was on the rocks of practical implementation that people in Kowanyama determined the outcomes. Surely this is the engine room of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs, not the media, politicians and commentators that currently dominate. We need to look back as well as forward when considering policy reform and cannot afford to dismiss past practice as failure or irrational because it does not align with the latest solution.

AFTER MORE THAN fourteen years, Duncan McKean and Dellis Gledhill left Kowanyama in late 2007, and are now working in another community. For the twelve months that the canteen remained opened after they left, the shire council had two different canteen managers. In the Justice Centre, they had to separate the role of coordinator from the corrections officer, as no one could be found to reasonably carry both roles. There was no ready pool of talent to draw from.

Colin Lawrence is waiting it out, trusting that things always come around, that the canteen might one day reopen. He remembers: 'People were happy then, everyone met at the canteen, the teachers and workers and families all together – now people are driving out of the community, carting grog back – you can't stop them.'

May isn't going anywhere, and is steadying herself for another round. Her position is plain enough: 'Children come first, not alcohol.'


From Griffith Review Edition 40: WOMEN & POWER © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

Griffith Review