Cairns Connect


By James Travers-Murison


By James Travers-Murison who is a lawyer and writer since 1989. He did his articles at Sly & Weigall (now Deacons). He worked in London and has travelled extensively in the third world. He lived with the Aboriginals in Cape York, Queensland in 1995 and 1996. This led to his attempts to ban alcohol there by producing an independent report on Lockhart which eventually contributed to the alcohol ban currently in place.

An old Queensland National Parks and Wildlife Service map

Lockhart River I hope will change the world's attitudes to indigenous peoples. When will people learn to love each other? Listen to the wind and behold the story of 'Lockhart', 'Locked Heart', or how to 'unlock the heart' of our discontent and open up to all our peoples the intricacies of human bondage, to triumph over adversity, and so reach beyond the earth to inspire hope and happiness in our children of all races. These solemn utterances must bring our nation together in peace and reconciliation.


I visited Lockhart River in October and November 1995 over a period of six weeks and a story opened up to me. A sad story, but one that I hope ends happily. I start this bitter journal from the time I first truly entered native territory and that was in September 1995. I had skirted through Iron Range National Park and its heath-like moors and mountains and dipped down into the largest area of lowland rainforest in Australia. I had relaxed with the wild fishermen at Chilli Beach lined with coconut palms for a few days. In that period where the dry is well centred in the yearly seasons, I drove my worn VW combi down the rough gravel road to Lockhart. A kingfisher with a yellow bill circled the van.

A party of eight explorers led by Edmund Kennedy had made a last desperate struggle to reach the tip. Disease, starvation and the local Cannibals took all but two. Carron and Coddard managed to signal the ship Ariel from the mouth of the Pascoe River. That was in 1848 when the first Europeans made contact with the indigenous people.

The evening sun settled behind some high cumulus clouds on the edge of the hill called Mount Tozer and an air of lightness struck me. The gravel road twists onto asphalt as I passed the first weatherboard dwellings, slightly rundown, some with small tropical fruit gardens, most without, but all with a hammered up wood outhouse with either a tin or palmleaf roof. Ramshackle affairs under which occassionally a weatherbeaten and overweight man would sit. The slow meandering heat and the dull ochre brown of the earth's alluvial sediments, one drives past some pretty brick houses with neat gardens, one is in Lockhart and within moments you are by the store to the hooting of a fawn-breasted bower bird.

My first contact with this community of Aboriginals, or Murri's as they like to be called, began when I drove up to the crossroads by the caged petrol pump by the store. A scruffy bearded man approached and I beckoned him closer.

"Where can I stay?"

He smiled and his face looked like it had seen some hard drinking, but held a kind of gentleness, a lightness in the eyes. He was middle aged. I asked where everyone was and the kind 'old fella' pointed to and gave me directions to the guesthouse, my mind switched off as I was more looking for a place to camp, but I let him complete his little dance and drove off in the opposite direction - towards the beckoning face of the Canteen. Bordering the large mulga grass football field were a couple of square, white and light green and paint peeling concrete buildings where the Canteen was. A squat barnyard like structure with a slightly sloping roof. A good 500 metres from the nearest housing, no doubt to sober up wayfearing drunks who might spend the night in a ditch beside the road rather than with their families.

So I went there ordered a beer from a window in the concrete and brick wall and met Mike or was it Claudie. The canteen was in fact the bar and the community’s only official source of alcohol. It sold beer and nothing but beer, and packets of chips if you were lucky. We sat on the bolted down benches and concrete tables. Mike was tubby and short in a chequered shirt with a smile of sunburnt scrub. He was pretty much a full blood aboriginal or Murri and he introduced me to Tom. He was half aboriginal and half white, though to me he looked European. Tom's clothes were torn jeans, filthy and a ripped shirt that he never did up and never tucked in. I was offered hospitality almost immediately and he invited me to stay in his house.

I became their "mintah yabba" or good brother. The house was centred round a kitchen, with a dining room and lounge at one end and a living and washing area at the other. Bedrooms surrounded either side. Cracked windows, holes in the boards, it was cosy and not quite derelict. Between six and ten people slept on mattresses on the floor in the various rooms. "Wuwanaa" was the word to sleep. Rubbish, clothes and bottles of beer lay everywhere. A well-worn rug lay on the lounge floor where the sofa hung together; cushions lay torn and askew next to the TV. Housing conditions for the majority of indigenous people were not good, many bordering on derelict, contrasting with facilities for white administrative staff, including $1,000,000 hospital without a doctor. I would pass by the white area on the way to the beach, larger houses with tidy gardens and fences.

In Tom's house everyone was downing chilims

In Tom's house everyone was downing chilims, as they referred to the practice of filling a plastic bottle full of marijuana smoke then sucking it all in one breath. "Kuppun" was a super smoke in their language. The kids participated. We were going to watch a video. Tom was repairing the video recorder, with no electrical training he had the lid off and the power on, and directed his screwdriver over the green circuit board completely stoned. Marijuana drug and alcohol abuse was excessive. Almost all members of the community seemed to some extent afflicted, including members of the council. Television, video and Western music, in particular Afro-American reggae seemed to have taken over what was left of their culture. There was still a strong sense of community sharing and I was always offered food wherever I went. At mealtimes a mixture of dishes was placed on the table called "kaikai" or "maiyee" and if you felt like eating it you ate it. Often family members just got up and walked away. No one minded. Through the extended families much support was given and a watchful eye kept on their children, though this was not the case after a visit to the canteen.

Some of the housing and conditions, especially of Christian members of the Community were very good. However this was not so for the majority. One of the reasons for this was the European basis for housing. There seemed little incorporation of traditional, open widely spaced, housing made from local natural materials appropriate to the culture. This was so despite consultation and some adaptation to aboriginal needs when they were built.

A local European 'flower power' commune and organic fruit farm showed what could be achieved with open housing and farming, but they also had drug problems.

An organic fruit growing commune at Pasco River lived in open-air housing with nature fairly successfully, and many Aboriginals visited there to barter. Relocation of many of the aboriginals into low density open-air housing each in its own tribal area seemed to be called for. Possibly with encouragement to move into small cattle ranch settlements. From what I understood this may be happening to a limited extent.

Children neglected after binge drinking

I learned quickly that to talk about fighting invited fighting. While I was there I witnessed many bashings, mostly centred around the canteen, including Tom's woman, caught in a female fight, have her throat slashed by a broken beer bottle. She survived with remarkably little injury. Another very beautiful young woman was knocked into concussion by her boyfriend. I was attacked on three occasions. Once for dancing with another man's woman, once for saying I had no problem with the police and once for talking about fighting. Pinky tried to break my fingers as I played guitar, but he was so drunk he could not catch me. Pasco cornered me and he was young and hurt my nose and chest as I tried to block his punches and tell him to stop, but he only stopped when I put my fists up. Then he took me home and fed me and offered a place to sleep. They tell me it is "borra" or initiation - acceptance into the tribe.

One woman who was related to Tom's adopted family, a "woolamoo" - sister in law, had been 'cracked' as it was referred to, she seemed to suffer from a premature form of Parkinson's disease, incapable of walking or talking properly. This I was informed was a direct result of suffering severe headbeatings from a boyfriend. She was 26. Incest and sexual abuse seemed to be prevalent. All this was "yuntha" - bad. In fact the community appeared to be made up of three distinct tribal groups, the Umpila, Kuuku Ya'u and Kuthanumpoo, pushed on top of each other with resulting conflicts, some of which I got involved in. The Kuuku were forcibly moved to missions at Orchid Point and Old Site before coming to Lockhart.

The old grandpa, who used to sit under the Banyon tree, his eyes were blank and he could not speak, had suffered too many years of too much drink. There was another old fella I took to hospital. Terrible ulcers on his legs which he had refused to get Western medical treatment for. Somehow he was afraid of our system. The ultra-modern Hospital I was told took 1000 admissions per month. With a community population at 800 this was more than 1 admission per resident per month. Although most admissions were due to assaults, degenerative health disorders, in particular diabetes, alcohol related diseases and obesity seemed to be at a critical level. Fruit and vegetables were overpriced with almost no health foods. There was an abundance of heavily processed and junk food and little adult education on healthy eating. The other small shop, in a dusty aluminium prefab building was an Anglican Church run enterprise, run by a very fat white couple. They sold fish and chips and charged extortionate prices for all goods. It seemed to be a clear case of profiteering. The Anglican Church had a Samoan reverend that had almost no congregation and had not surprising difficulties inspiring trust in the community.

However what was needed was the introduction of subsidised health foods, the reduction of processed and junk food and more and better quality fruit and vegetables

There was some integration of traditional diet into the shops. However what was needed was the introduction of subsidised health foods, the reduction of processed and junk food and more and better quality fruit and vegetables, subsidised to standard Australian consumer prices. In particular the growing of these foods locally. i.e. community market garden venture, banana plantation, orchards, etc. or by the funding of private business ventures within the community to do it. And a better adult health education program.

Aboriginal medicines and traditional food sources seemed not to be adopted or integrated into the white administrative structure (which tended to look down upon the community), although within the aboriginal families traditional hunting, use of medicines and foods occurred. I was invited to go pig hunting which consisted of tracking then running after a pig with a rifle. Fish were called "pungnung" and the community relied heavily on this resource, even being allowed to hunt the rare dugong.

Unofficially there was integration into the Hospital of aboriginal medicines and treatment of sick, through using indigenous people who had such knowledge. But training white nursing staff to have an awareness of such, and giving patients a choice or combination of approaches was not included in the Hospital's system. A male Nurse I met from Adelaide informed me, while they were in some respects supportive of traditional medicines and realising its healing effects (albeit psychological or actual), it was considered acceptable within the Hospital.

I spent time with the kids taking them to waterholes and the beach by the droves.

I spent time with the kids taking them to waterholes and the beach by the droves. Sometimes up to 15 clinging on inside my combi van. They would play in the mud, get lost in amongst the river gums and on the way back they would take it in turns to sit on my lap and steer the car. The children always smiled, but this did not stop them from taking things and I had to learn to lock my car. In one instance children were bashed for stealing from my car. On many occasions I saw children neglected sometimes wondering round very late at night. But the children mostly were full of life and joy, and there was a kind of freedom to do as you like that is sadly lacking in a lot of mainstream Australia.

The kids helped me and I learned a few words.

I wanted to learn a bit of the language as they still spoke a mixture of english and their language. The kids helped me and I learned a few words. I was a "parka" - whiteman. You had to be careful of "kuwacka" and "puma" - dogs and man. Did I have a "wuyarmoo" - a girlfriend?

Apart from this there was little evidence of the culture or language flourishing. On talking to younger members almost no knowledge of their culture. Little remembered by the older generation. Language appeared to be in a precarious stage; although a corrupted mixture of English was used frequently, the pure language seemed to be rarely used. I saw no evidence of initiation ceremonies or dance or mythology.

At the school I talked to some of the teachers, an aboriginal assistant and some of the white staff. From talking to the teachers there seemed little ability to control the children or even guarantee their attendance. The teachers were basically European with little knowledge of the indigenous culture. The teaching methodology was almost entirely based on Western teaching constructs. There was no plan for restoration of the language through bilingual school teaching. However parents were being used in teaching, and assisting teachers to reintroduce culture and language in an interactive way so increasing class attendance and concentration. By being more dynamic and relevant to the culture there was some attempt to modify the European based teaching method.

Unnacceptable housing conditions for Aboriginals neglected by a wealthy nation who are placed in Western housing inappropriate to their cultural needs by an incompetent government

The Lockhart River administration was entrenched in conservative European values without what I could perceive a real respect for the indigenous culture or people. It seemed largely alcohol orientated; one white officer was alcoholic, and the canteen had white managers. The Aboriginal council seemed to make most decisions under the direction of the Council Clerk, another European, therefore the council's role appeared largely nominal. There was an attempt being made to introduce aboriginal administrators, however the poor level of education was preventing any but the lowest positions being filled. I was told by several people that the community had at one stage employed an aboriginal accountant and he had embezzled $100,000. Cultural education of European administrators to know the local culture was given a fairly high priority.

I spoke to some of the educated lower aboriginal administrative officers and one of them told me $20,000 in funds for women's refuge was not issued - at that time there was no women's refuge - and an undisclosed amount of money (over $10,000) had been stolen from Administration and covered up.

One of the sheds was literally collapsing, but it did not seem to bother anyone greatly.

Training and work under the Government scheme seemed to basically work, in particular with heavy machinery. I spent some time round the mechanics shops trying to get my combi fixed. One of the sheds was literally collapsing, but it did not seem to bother anyone greatly. Many of the younger Aboriginals would hang out there smoking and learning the trade. The administration, school and hospital also appeared to be endeavouring to employ community members and encourage training to such posts where possible. David Clarke, the council clerk seemed very much in tune with the Community; he was a local European and spoke their language. On the whole the European staff on the Community was very caring and performed their duties well, facing a very difficult task within the limitations of the European administrative framework.

However there had been no effective attempts to stimulate the culture, such as official reintroduction of cultural ceremonies with financial incentives and an honouring of participants as has occurred successfully around Cairns. Interaction with the tourist market through eco-safaris, accommodation/resort wildlife, cultural events/shows, cultural display/souvenir shops was also practically non-existent.

A sense of comradeship or mateship existed on the community that I have not seen anywhere else in the world.

A sense of comradeship or mateship existed on the community that I have not seen anywhere else in the world. Commune in the true sense of the word. And I say this after having searched the East Coast of Australia for an ideal commune and having spent time in Israeli kibbutz and ashrams throughout the world.

Unfortunately this community like many other aboriginal communities is caught in a vicious cycle of drug abuse.

Unfortunately this community like many other aboriginal communities is caught in a vicious cycle of drug abuse. Because the elders are drug abusers they are not going to take the steps to ban alcohol, nor perhaps more importantly do they provide the role model for their children or tribe to escape the drug culture. The largely white administration is no less guilty as they distribute and profit off the alcohol and often are addicted to it themselves. I visited communities in the Torres Strait where it was banned. The difference was extraordinary. Violence and crime were almost non-existent and a feeling of peace and calm replaced fear.

Alcohol seems to be the cause of almost all the damage.

Alcohol seems to be the cause of almost all the damage. The argument for banning alcohol seems almost irrefutable. The reduction in costs for hospital care, malicious damage and a healthier workforce, as well as a redirection of cash from the breweries means resources would be freed for health and housing schemes, private business ventures and consumer goods.

Why has Australia contributed to this self-destruction of a minority?

Why has Australia, a modern Western democracy, tolerated and by supplying the alcohol actually contributed to this self-destruction of a minority? Yet it appears to be the creation of our anti-discrimination legislation. Fulfilling United Nations treaties on human rights and self-determination, where equal freedom is given to all individuals regardless of race, it would be discrimination to ban alcohol from aboriginal communities. Earlier this century it was banned, but that is now seen as patronising. But it may be there is a breach of the Human Rights of the members of the community, in particular the children, (who suffer the worst as a result of drug-inflicted adult community members abuse of them). Where is their protection?

Some non-alcohol drinking Aboriginals are actually requesting help from Human Rights lawyers to implement an alcohol ban on their communities. They are arguing that the self-destruction of their people and their culture, supported by the method the Australian Government bodies are using to deal with indigenous people, in particular allowing the providing of alcohol (a known and substantive cause of severe physical and mental damage which indigenous people are extra-susceptible) seems to be not just immoral, but in breach of the International Convention of Rights of the Child, the International Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, and the International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

If we truly care about our aboriginal people how can we allow this to persist?

It seems hard to argue in support of the sale of alcohol in community's like Lockhart with hospital statistics connected to severe violence and the consumption of alcohol as they are. The financial let alone human cost are unacceptable. If we truly care about our aboriginal people how can we allow this to persist? If we allow this self-destruction later generations may accuse us of criminal neglect, if not an indirect form of genocide.

Superficially it appears that the Commonwealth government's hands are tied and all matters are for the aboriginal people themselves to determine. The Minister has attempted to intervene in a number of communities and has been prevented due to Federal Legislation such as the Racial Discrimination Act and parliamentary ratified International Treaties. This and other legislation protecting Aboriginals' right to self-determination appears to hand all executive power in aboriginal affairs to Aboriginal statutory authorities. Don Wilkinson, ATSIC's Human Rights lawyer, supports this view of the unfortunate consequences of the legislation, while not necessarily agreeing with the practical consequences.

Can this community look after itself?

However this understanding of the law may not be the case, and if so justice may prevail in preventing the self-destruction of the aboriginal culture, through these treaties to protect indigenous and minority races. And it may be in the Government's best interests to take legal steps to avoid future liability.

After visiting Lockhart issues such as self-determination, when council decisions were largely made by white administrators and the community were destroying themselves culturally and physically with drugs and alcohol, seemed to be missing the point. Perhaps human rights for children should come first and if this does not occur, in a hundred years time people will not believe we allowed this to happen. However their lawyers may have a different view.

The Lockhart River community initially upgraded their Canteen facilities and employed security staff as a solution. The Council Clerk informed me that he threw away the letter I sent the Community requesting further information. However due in part to my report to the government an inquiry was launched into Cape York by Fitzgerald in 2000, this eventually led to a ban on alcohol. Recently there has been an attempt to increase community health awareness and provide shelter for alcoholics, which has largely been brought about by Maggie Brady’s The Grog Book. Nevertheless the problem is far from over with bootlegging and worse drugs coming in, health statistics are still terrible - diabetes, alcoholism, obesity and violence.

NEXT EDITION : How can we stop this abuse? Why the government is avoiding the issue? The failure of our Racial Discrimination Commissioner to stop this abuse and properly exercise the powers she has, while blocking the states from acting. This is no horror movie, it is real life 'do-gooding' bureaucracy leading to in-action and health abuse below levels in the third world in Australia. Yet legally examines how we can act and the consequences if we do not.


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