“Evidence from Indigenous health workers of “sly grogging” and “grog runs” is being used to argue alcohol restrictions should be eased in the Fitzroy Valley, where children suffer among the world’s highest rates of brain damage caused by maternal drinking.
Kids are being left hungry as parents spend all their money buying in alcohol as residents, mostly Centrelink recipients, were paying $150 a carton for beer.
“The ban, which still allows full-strength liquor in hotels, was extended to Halls Creek in 2009 amid an outcry over alcohol-fuelled violence, suicide and fetal alcohol syndrome.
Witness statements tendered by lawyers for hoteliers in the central Kimberley who are lobbying the West Australian Director of Liquor Licensing to ease the grog rules.
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“After attending 50 funerals in 18 months, including a spate of 22 self-harm deaths over 13 months, many alcohol-related and 13 of them suicides, leaders from the Marninwarntikura Fitzroy Women’s Resource Centre (MFWRC) stepped up to fight for their futures.
Over a coffee, she explains that to stem the horrific effects of family violence, child abuse and suicide, they first had to stem the flow of alcohol. As CEO, Oscar led her corporation’s application to the State Government for alcohol restrictions.
“We had to stand up and say enough is enough,” she says. “Alcohol was destroying our community and it was affecting every aspect of life. It was being consumed to a level where everyone’s quality of life in Fitzroy Crossing was shocking. We had to stand up and fight for our future — our children’s future.
It was an Australian first — never before had alcohol been restricted to an entire community on such a scale. The women’s hardline stance was supported by a core group of men, but it also attracted criticism and fierce opposition. Members of their own families, some local councillors and the liquor companies felt the restrictions were too pervasive and too drastic.”
DRAPED in a splash of Kimberley colour, proud Bunuba woman June Oscar takes to the stage with some of WA’s big thinkers.
To her right is Chief Justice Wayne Martin and next to him is Perth-born polio-eradication campaigner Michael Sheldrick, a director of New York-based The Global Poverty Project. The rest of the line-up is impressive too, and Oscar, the only woman on the panel, admits she’s a little starstruck because the man asking the questions is academic, writer and TV host Waleed Aly.
“I’m pinching myself,” she says. “I can’t believe I’m here with you blokes. It’s a privilege, and it’s been so great to meet you Waleed. You’re one of my heroes.”
But Oscar, a social activist and community leader from the Fitzroy Valley in the state’s remote north, more than deserves her spot on the panel. She’s at the Disrupted Festival of Ideas in Northbridge — a gathering of mavericks for change — where Oscar has been invited to speak because for the past decade she’s been a lightning rod for sweeping social change in her home town of Fitzroy Crossing.
In May she was presented with the Desmond Tutu Reconciliation Fellowship Award by former governor-general Quentin Bryce, the same award won by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. Her acceptance speech received a standing ovation.
After she steps off the stage, a stream of people waits to give her a hug or warmly grab her hand.
Oscar’s long fight to stamp out the ravages of excessive alcohol consumption in her community in the southern Kimberley has won her a swag of awards and a legion of supporters.
In July 2007 she spearheaded a female-led campaign to restrict the sale of full-strength takeaway alcohol across the Fitzroy Valley.
They are among 29 statements, including 10 by local indigenous people including health workers and child carers, to support claims that “sly grogging” and “grog runs” to other towns have thrived since a ban on the sale of full-strength and mid-strength takeaway alcohol in Fitzroy Crossing in 2007.
“There are some people who still don’t agree with the restrictions, but we had to take a stand,” she says. “Alcohol was playing a big part in the level of domestic violence, and it was tearing families apart.
“We could not tackle educating people about their violent behaviours and their emotional triggers until we had restricted their access to alcohol.”
Within six months, the results of the restrictions were undeniable — alcohol-related injuries in hospital presentations had fallen from 85 per cent down to below 20 per cent and alcohol-fuelled domestic violence incidents also fell by 43 per cent.
Children were going to school more often and doctors at the local hospital were staying for longer than three months to help the community rebuild its health and its future. Police reported that rapes, bashings and street drinking were also on the decline.
For Oscar, the fight was very personal. Among the 13 reported suicides in 2006 — which led to a coronial inquiry in 2008 — was her 39-year-old younger brother. Her grief, and the grief of those around her, pushed her to fight the grog head-on.
And then there was Hudson, the little boy from her extended family who was displaying developmental and intellectual deficits. They suspected it was a result of his mother drinking heavily right throughout her pregnancy.
“Everything I’m engaged in comes from a place of personal experience and lived reality,” Oscar says.
“There’s a really personal story for me in all of these issues, and it’s the same for most of the women in Fitzroy Crossing.”
Hudson, and children like him, had facial irregularities, behavioural issues and learning problems. So the Marninwarntikura women held a bush meeting in 2008 and invited health researchers into the community to investigate.
They set up the Marulu: The Liliwan Project, working with researchers from the George Institute, the University of Sydney and the Telethon Kids Institute to study the incidence and prevalence of foetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD).
Initial studies of children aged seven and eight who had been born in 2002 and 2003 revealed Fitzroy Crossing had the highest incidence of the disorder in the country, and probably the world.
“When the women learnt that their drinking was harming their babies, they started to change,” Oscar says. “Now we are seeing more and more women who are pregnant abstaining from drinking. Some are finding it very difficult. It’s an ongoing battle.”
Dr James Fitzpatrick, head of FASD research at the Telethon Kids Institute, says Oscar’s intuition about the problems facing Fitzroy Crossing in 2008 has led to a huge drop in the number of women drinking during pregnancy. The rates fell from 65 per cent in 2010 to 18 per cent in 2015.
“June is incredibly courageous in her approach,” Fitzpatrick says. “After a long moment of community sobriety after the restrictions, she approached us to say they were ready to learn about FASD. She knows what she’s talking about and she’s steadfast in navigating what she often calls ‘a road out of hell’.”
Born in the heart of Bunuba country in the southern Kimberley, Oscar was the second of six children, brought up by her mother and mentor, Mona, now 82, a straight-talking domestic worker.
Her father was a white pastoralist, but three weeks after June was born she and Mona were forced to take refuge at the nearby United Aborigines Mission.
“His wife was not happy that he had fathered another child to an Aboriginal woman, so we were driven to the local police station and taken to the mission, where we stayed until I was three,” she says.
“I met him once when I was 19 and that was it.”
Despite this, she’s in regular contact with nieces and nephews from her four half-siblings on her father’s side.
“I’m a Bunuba woman, but I’m also a woman of European heritage and I have family from both sides,” she says. “I see people, I don’t see colour, or creed or ethnicity and I believe we are all connected.”
Mona later took a job at Leopold Downs Station and when Oscar was seven she was sent to boarding school at the nearby mission. Her family visited once a week and she would return to Leopold Downs to be with Mona during the school holidays.
“I don’t see myself as a member of the Stolen Generation,” she says. “I was never taken away from my mother in that sense, but I have lived through the massive impact it had on our people.”
She was sent to high school in Perth, staying at a hostel near John Forrest High School. It was the first time she heard the terms “boong” and “Abo”.
“I was a capable student, and I think I could have done better if I didn’t have to fight racism and taunts most the time I was there,” she says.
But it wasn’t until Oscar worked with Aboriginal activist and Yawuru man Peter Yu at the Aboriginal Legal Service in Derby that she had her own political awakening.
“I was working as a relief legal secretary and receptionist, typing up affidavits for the solicitors and the courts, when it hit home that what I had seen and experienced growing up was unacceptable and discriminatory,” she recalls.
“I reflected on my own life and understood that I could take action and change things for my whole community. Education and information were crucial.”
She was 29 when then Aboriginal Affairs Minister Robert Tickner rang her to invite her on to the first full board of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission. She even hung up on him the first time.
“I thought it was someone playing a prank — sometimes my mob did things like that, pretending to be someone important,” she says.
One of Oscar’s close allies in her work at Fitzroy Crossing is Emily Carter, another Bunuba leader and Oscar’s deputy at the MFWRC. The pair made a big impression on Kim Anderson, a former high school principal, who moved to Fitzroy Crossing five years ago after meeting them in Melbourne when they came to teach students about the languages of the Kimberley.
Anderson says that hearing of the pair’s efforts in teaching women about the effects of drinking during pregnancy impressed her and their “strong stance” in restricting the flow of alcohol was “phenomenal”.
Anderson has witnessed huge changes in the valley first-hand.
“I first went to Fitzroy Crossing in 2005, before the restrictions, and it was a very sad place,” she says. “When I went back in 2010 and the restrictions had been in place for some time — well, my goodness, what a difference. They never wavered in their decision to ban the sale of takeaway alcohol and that was incredibly courageous.”
Oscar and Carter are still working to promote the 28 surviving languages of the Kimberley region, signing up to a cross-cultural program with Melbourne’s Wesley College.
“Kids from Wesley come and stay with us and our kids visit them,” Oscar says. “It’s a chance for the Wesley students to be exposed to indigenous language and culture and issues.”
In 2009, the story of Fitzroy Crossing made it all the way to a commission on the status of indigenous women and children at the United Nations in New York. Oscar and Carter travelled with Labor MP Tanya Plibersek for the summit.
Their story struck such a chord when Yallijarra, a film about the Fitzroy Crossing and its children, aired, some delegates were in tears.
“Sometimes you have to get out of here to make a difference where it matters,” Oscar says. “I will go wherever I need to if it means that my community can grow and thrive from it.”
In the past two decades, Oscar has collected “many hats”, serving as a local councillor, language specialist and Bunuba Films director. She’s a member of the Lowitja Institute for Health Research and Bush Heritage Australia — and the list goes on. Three
Her quest to tell the stories of the valley have taken her all over the world, and she has lunched with the Queen and had drinks with Academy Award winners.
But Oscar is happiest by the Fitzroy River where the sights and smells of her childhood come flooding back.
“I love being ‘on country’,” she says. “Being down by the river just revives me. I love fishing in the spring with Mona. There’s a cave there, near the Geike Gorge, where we always retreat to. The Australian outback is the best part of the country and a big part of me.
“I suppose it’s true what they say,” she laughs. “You can take the girl out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the girl.”
years ago she became an Officer of the Order of Australia.
The ban, which still allows full-strength liquor in hotels, was extended to Halls Creek in 2009 amid an outcry over alcohol-fuelled violence, suicide and fetal alcohol syndrome.
William Johnston, a night patrol worker in Halls Creek, says in the hoteliers’ written submission that “there is no less grog in town since the restrictions, maybe more”. “Every day someone is driving to another town like Kununurra to buy full-strength grog like beer and spirits,” he says.
Catherine Ridley, a registered carer with the Department for Child Protection, says in the submission that “kids are being left hungry” as parents spend all their money buying in alcohol.
One local health worker said in a statement that residents, mostly Centrelink recipients, were paying $150 a carton for beer.
Three businesses — Martin Peirson-Jones’s Kimberley Accommodation that owns the main Halls Creek hotel, the Leedal corporation that owns a Fitzroy Crossing pub and supermarket, and the Halls Creek Store — want permission to sell mid-strength takeaway beer.
They acknowledge in their submission, complied by law firm Dwyer Durack, that crime and alcohol-related hospital admissions in Halls Creek and Fitzroy Crossing have decreased since the ban. “While the situation has improved, an unintended consequence of the liquor restrictions is the thriving black market of full-strength liquor and the regular practice of grog runs,” it states, arguing a relaxation might deter this.
However, Fitzroy Crossing’s Women’s Resource Centre has applied to oppose any change. June Oscar, one of the indigenous women supported by West Australian Police Commissioner Karl O’Callaghan to secure the ban on full-strength takeaway alcohol, said the restrictions needed support and time rather than winding back.
When state coroner Alastair Hope examined the drug and alcohol-related deaths of 22 Aboriginal men and women in the region in 2007, he heard evidence that hungry children, neglected by alcoholic parents, had been sucking the teats of dogs.
June Oscar, who helped to bring in an alcohol ban at her home of Fitzroy Crossing. Picture: Richard Hatherly