“We are expected to drink it and we are expected to die from it, but we are not expected
to have agency in it.” – William Tilmouth, 2001
By KIERAN FINNANE
The “it” is grog, the “we” are Aboriginal people. The history of their attempts to establish agency in their drinking is traced in an important new book, Teaching ‘Proper’ Drinking: Pubs and clubs in Indigenous Australia (ANU Press, 2017), by Maggie Brady. This history of course has always involved interaction with settler Australians who, as we learn in this book, have been not always of good will and hardly ever of much help.
Their failings have been by omission and commission. Brady goes back to the earliest days of the colony and earlier, to the evolution of drinking habits in Britain, from the pre-industrial period, when drinking among labourers was daily (at every break and meal) and communal, to the industrial era when alcohol had to be quarantined from the workplace and the idea emerged that ways of more controlled or ‘civilised’ drinking could be learned.
Right: May 1885, Adelaide. In a “corroboree’ in front of 20,000 people, Aboriginal members of a temperance society mimic drunkenness, “a little satire on civilisation”, as one observer saw it. (Reproduced p 18.)
However, on the streets of early Sydney Aboriginal people observed drinking by people of British and Irish stock that “was communal and collective, and it was very public; brawling and gambling were considered normal behaviours and disputes were settled in public, often in angry and violent confrontations”.
I fast forward from this fascinating early part of the book, with all of its obvious resonance for our own time and place, to pick up the story in the middle of the last century when, between 1957 and 1972, Australian states and territories lifted their ban on Aboriginal drinking. In the NT, this happened in 1964, when Aboriginal people ceased to be labelled “wards”, bringing to an end restrictions on their civil rights, including the right to possess and consume alcohol.
Brady writes that the transition to drinking rights took many Aboriginal people by surprise: in South Australia in 1965, for example, it was described as being “total prohibition one day, complete freedom the next”.
Unfortunately, it also coincided with changes in the drinking habits of mainstream Australia and in the alcohol industry. Between 1969 and 1975 per capita consumption nationwide increased by 20 per cent and there began to be a shift away from drinking in hotels to consuming takeaway alcohol. In this way, Brady writes, Aboriginal people missed out on getting used to drinking in a sociable and to some degree regulated environment and there seems to have been little attempt to make up for this. There were few, if any, health education programs, about alcohol and its risks. On missions and reserves the main strategy was to ration supplies (of beer).
The industry promoted packaged alcohol with innovation: canned beer arrived in 1962, followed by the ring-pull can and later rip-top stubbies of beer. The wine cask, an Australian invention, appeared in the 1970s. “For reasons of cheapness and convenience, takeaway cask wine became the drink of choice for Aboriginal drinkers,” writes Brady.
The rise in public drunkenness in towns like Alice Springs led to suggestions of wet canteens being established on Aboriginal settlements, which also aligned with the shift away from assimilation to self-determination in Aboriginal affairs.
A Board of Inquiry into the sale and consumption of liquor conducted by the Northern Territory Legislative Council in 1973 was frank in its assessment of Territorians generally as “Australia’s biggest drunks and roundly condemned poor drinking facilities and the irresponsible behaviour of licensees”, writes Brady. Its main focus though was on Aboriginal drinking and it recommended that licensed social clubs for Aboriginal people be established.
The attempts to do so, both in settlements and in towns, is the focus of Brady’s case studies.
Another influential inquiry was commissioned by the Australian Government in 1975. It was to examine the causes and effects of alcoholism among Aboriginal people, the first inquiry of its kind in Australia. It too endorsed the idea of providing beer to Aboriginal people in community-based clubs. Its members, including the now Senator Patrick Dodson, were all associated with the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart Mission at Port Keats, now Wadeye, where the Murrinh Patha Social Club was soon established. (It is interesting that Catholic missions held more liberal ideas around alcohol, reflected in the fact that today five of the eight licensed clubs on NT Aboriginal communities are on former Catholic missions.)
The story of the Murrinh Patha Social Club stands out as one where the agency that Aboriginal people achieved was ultimately expressed in the destruction of the club.
Left: Sound shell in the grounds of the Murrinh Patha Social Club. Photo taken in 2009. (Brady, p 113.)
Things started well: established in the late 1970s, the club became a social hub and its revenue provided the only untied income to the community. Opening hours were limited, the ambience pleasant and beer was rationed to between four and six full-strength cans per person.
Over time committed drinkers found ways around these restrictions. Groups of men formed “sixpack clubs” whose members would take turns to drink three cans only, giving the rest to another member so that person could get “full drunk” – this being the goal of drinking for many Aboriginal people and held as a positive value, “a particular kind of sociality around inebriation, rather than moderation”.
These sixpack clubs seem to be an interesting expression of something discussed analytically elsewhere in the book, that “any loss of control over the amount of alcohol consumed resided in the group, not the individual.” This insight was offered by an anthropologist, Rory O’Connor, working in Alice Springs town camps in the 1980s. He dismissed individualised notions of alcoholism in this context, representing problem drinking rather as group dependence. This understanding surely has implications for policy and programs, then as now.
Back in Wadeye, there was also a strong group of non-drinkers, including some clear-sighted people who never drank and people who had given up the grog and were supported by an active AA-style group. (The same Catholic brother had been behind both the formation of the social club and of this group.)
By the late 1980s heavy drinking at the club was getting out of control and the social unrest it caused culminated in a fatal stabbing in July 1988, which only increased the trouble. For months afterwards young men roamed the community with knives; people were afraid to go out; there were numerous break-ins and damage done to the school, clinic, store, houses and vehicles. When a group of young men broke the windows of the church, seen as an assault on “values that permeated the lives of the older generation”, it was the last straw.
A group of non-drinkers gathered outside the club, wielding axes and star pickets. Led by a senior man, Freddie Cumaiyi, who wore a ceremonial red naga (loin cloth) and carried a shovel-nosed spear and a woomera, they stormed inside and set about destroying the club’s fittings and equipment and as much of its supplies as they could. Some 200 people stood outside cheering. Police came but they were asked not to interfere and they agreed. No one was injured.
Right: Clippings from NT News, 5 December 1988, two days after the attack. (Reproduced p 122).
It is interesting to read Brady’s discussion of the role of Freddie Cumaiyi in this remarkable act of civil disobedience, especially in the light of constant appeals in Alice Springs for Elders here and in bush communities to exercise their authority.
Cumaiyi in his dress and with his weapons that day was obviously emphasising his status as a ceremonial man, but an intervention like this, says Brady, is neither common nor culturally acceptable for Aboriginal people, who are “distinctly reluctant to interfere in other people’s business, to criticise their behaviour or attempt to persuade them to do something—such as stop drinking or sniffing petrol”. She says this cultural feature has been documented by numerous social scientists working in Aboriginal communities, including herself as a social anthropologist.
Cumaiyi however had been repeatedly outspoken in the community about his worry for the safety of women and children, especially the children: this provided him with a socially acceptable justification; indeed it was unchallengeable, even by the drinkers (who by the way took advantage of the destruction of the club to help themselves to whatever beer they could lay their hands on; a few days of heavy drinking followed but without incident).
Although the police had refrained from interfering, two young men, non-drinkers, involved in the attack on the club were charged with illegal entry and criminal damage. It’s not clear if Freddie Cumaiyi was also charged but before the case could be heard in the following year he had died.
The story of what happened in court is striking for being an instance when authorities have helped. Senior Magistrate Alistair McGregor, who drily described Murrinh Patha as an “antisocial club” for its contribution to the drastic deterioration in the quality of life at Wadeye, dismissed the charges. He found the men had a right to be on the premises and as for the damage they had done, while proven, their motives were honourable: rather than a case of violence, it was a case of restoring peace.
Brady quotes one of the charged men, William Parmbuk, 22 years at the time of the attack, a health worker and never a drinker, looking back on the event 20 years later:
“I had a good lawyer, Colin McDonald. We had back-up from doctor, visiting doctor. In the magistrate [court] Alistair McGregor—I was a bit nervous—he said, ‘Stand up William! William! You are like Rajiv Gandhi! I will accept what you have done for the sake of the community. I now drop this charge. You may go’. Before that he asked me: ‘If the Club reopen again, would you do it again?’ and I said ‘Yes. It’s not for me it’s for the sake of the community’.”
Closer to home, there were no such triumphs for the Tyeweretye Club, the endeavour backed by Tangentyere Council to “have agency” in Aboriginal drinking, as described by William Tilmouth in the quote at the head of this article. He was arguing for support of the Aboriginal-owned social club to a parliamentary committee: “Learning to associate alcohol with food is something that has never been tried. Learning to use alcohol in an environment in which you own and control it or it is owned and controlled by other Aboriginal people is something that has never been tried.”
The idea had gained enough traction for premises to be built – thanks to a $250,000 loan from the ADC (later taken over by ATSIC) – but the club’s mode of operation had been constantly hampered by not only some of its inherent difficulties but also by licensing decisions of a resistant Liquor Commission and later ruthless competition from privately-owned hotels in the vicinity. One of the most cynical moves was the introduction by one of entertainment by Aboriginal bands to attract Aboriginal drinkers who might otherwise have stuck with Tyeweretye.
Left: Signs outside the club’s Len Kittle Road premises promoting soft drink. (Brady, p 153).
Relevant too of course was the strong opposition to the club from various quarters but most formidably from Aboriginal women outside Alice Springs, such as the NPY Women’s Council and women in Hermannsburg, Papunya and Yuendumu, who were staunch advocates of abstinence for Aboriginal people.
Such grassroots action is of course also an expression of trying to have agency in drinking. The women had fought a brave and persistent campaign, NPY women famously against the takeaway practices at Curtin Springs impacting on communities in the Lands. But in town, as Justice Sally Thomas had found in 1992 in a successful appeal by Tangentyere against a negative Liquor Commission decision, those “whose views mattered most was the community of people living or working within the township of Alice Springs”.
These local views though, not surprisingly, were also divided, often sharply and even within Tangentyere’s own Liquor Committee, with early member Doug Abbott eventually breaking away to found CAAAPU, an abstinence-oriented rehabilitation program.
Other pressures on Tyeweretye came from problems caused by people gathering outside the premises, attracted for instance by their band night, but staying on the public land outside with take-away grog and the many problems that can flow from unregulated drinking.
There was also the challenge of financial viability, and an eventual loss of credibility came when the club applied for a take-away license, seeing it as the only way out of imminent financial collapse, before it discovered that its constitution expressly forbade such a license.
In all the years of its operation, 1993 to 2005, the club’s on-premises model to foster moderate drinking never got to operate with clear air. But even if it had been allowed to, would it have been able to fulfil the needs of its Aboriginal clientele who “placed a high social and cultural value on the exchanges and interchanges that were made possible by takeaway alcohol”?
In a book full of insights I find this one of the most compelling:
“The bulk nature of takeaway alcohol (in cans, bottles or casks) makes it a malleable commodity, allowing it to become a form of symbolic capital through which people make and remake their social world. This dense network of sociality and exchange is essential to people’s sense of self … As a fluid, liquor can be divided into different amounts and shared in different ways—from a communal cup, by the gift of a bottle, or a swig from a flagon or cask: something that is not so easily achieved when drinking at a club or bar.”
Today in Alice Springs, we know that Aboriginal entities are involved in the sale of take-away alcohol, through the bottle shops associated with a number of suburban supermarkets. (This is not dealt with in Brady’s book, with its core focus on on-premises drinking in wet canteens and Aboriginal-owned hotels.) I mention it here because of the sentiment that arises whenever this is discussed, which is indignation if not condemnation that Aboriginal businesses should be involved in profiting from the sale of alcohol to ‘their own people’. Their ‘moral conscience’ should disallow this, the argument goes (see examples in the comment thread here).
Two questions: Are Aboriginal people, Australian citizens, not our own people? And are non-Aboriginal business entities somehow absolved from having a moral conscience?
Above: View of the Crossing Inn from the Leedal website. Leedal is a trust wholly owned by six Aboriginal communities.
This kind of discussion arises in Brady’s account of the Crossing Inn at Fitzroy Crossing in WA, probably the most distressing chapter of the book. This pub was eventually completely owned by Aboriginal interests, and while immensely successful financially, it became notoriously associated with widespread drunkenness and the many harms that flowed from it – including 13 alcohol-related deaths investigated by the Coroner and a high rate of FASD (Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder) amongst children of the area.
Brady herself frames the issue as ethically more acute for an Indigenous business. Commenting on the business awards the Crossing Inn attracted, she writes: “Rewarding this version of ‘success’ begs the question of whether an Indigenous business—more so, perhaps, than any other type of business—should be seeking to incorporate social benefits (or harms) as valid indicators of good (or less good) performance, or as part of their ‘normal’ commercial aspirations?”
This though is my only quibble with her extensive analysis of all the situations and experiences she has researched. They include some attempts to deal directly with the quandary of profiteering from a substance known to be dangerous when consumed to excess. These include the measures taken by community-owned hotels established in South Australia, some of which continue to exist. In their earlier iterations their commitment to restraint in consumption also applied to profits, seeing the two as inter-linked.
The strategy was to have the hotels managed by a salaried employee, who thus had no material interest in benefitting from higher volume sales. Profits were still made and these were distributed within the respective townships to projects of public benefit; eventually this revenue came to be what mattered most to the communities concerned and restricting profits as a way of actively pursuing moderation, based on the Gothenburg model first developed in 19th century Sweden, was abandoned (the loss of their monopolies in most cases was a contributing factor in this) .
One of the many sad points to emerge from Brady’s book is that there was no sharing of knowledge about the experience of these hotels in South Australia with the various Aboriginal communities attempting to establish on-premise environments that would moderate drinking. That this has been the case shows how entrenched is the separatist thinking when it comes to questions around grog.
As Alice Springs looks with renewed vigour at the pernicious problem of excessive drinking in our town – guided by a new Liquor Commission (just appointed) working with a new Liquor Act (rewriting underway) and a new reform framework (soon to be announced, based on the Riley Review) – anyone seeking to become involved, or to have an opinion, would do well to read Brady’s book.
It’s time for a more informed debate and there’s no excuse to remain ignorant. This is a rigorous book but it’s also very readable: the writing style is straightforward, the stories are compelling and the analysis is crystal clear. What’s more it is available to download for free from the Australian National University Press site, here (print versions can also be ordered).