Pub with no beer taps new spirit



Full-strength beer will be out­lawed at bot­tleshops in every town across the hard-drink­ing West Aus­tralian Pil­bara as part of a plan to try to end gen­er­a­tions of child ne­glect and abuse in the fron­tier town of Roe­bourne.

In an ex­tra­or­di­nary turn of events, the res­i­dents of Roe­bourne — a town of about 1200 mostly in­dige­nous res­i­dents that closed its pub to be­come the state’s first dry town in 2005 — have been told by Po­lice Com­mis­sioner Chris Daw­son that he is work­ing with the state’s liquor li­cens­ing com­mis­sion to cut off the free flow of full-strength al­co­hol into their com­mu­nity from nearby towns.

As Op­er­a­tion Fle­d­er­maus closes in on a fur­ther 124 sus­pected pe­dophiles in and around Roe­bourne — 36 men had been charged up to June — Mr Daw­son told a pub­lic meet­ing that there were clear links be­tween al­co­hol, drugs and child sex abuse. “Too much grog, too much harm,” he told them.

The child sex abuse in­ves­ti­ga­tion con­tin­ues but Mr Daw­son has con­firmed to The Aus­tralian that chil­dren from Roe­bourne — which has only 200 school-aged kids — are over-rep­re­sented among the 184 child vic­tims ini­tially iden­ti­fied. More al­leged vic­tims have come for­ward and the num­ber of ac­cused is grow­ing. The pro­posed liquor re­stric­tions in­clude lim­it­ing take­away al­co­hol sales to one car­ton of mid-strength beer per per­son per day.

The limit is less se­vere than the strict ban on any­thing but light take­away beer in the Kimberley towns of Fitzroy Cross­ing and Halls Creek, but it is con­sid­ered an im­por­tant step in Pil­bara towns where po­lice claim it is not un­com­mon for al­co­holics to pur­chase three car­tons of beer a day — one when the bot­tleshops open, an­other in the af­ter­noon and a third just be­fore clos­ing time so that drink­ing can con­tinue into the early hours of the next day.

The re­stric­tions were ini­tially pro­posed in Jan­uary only for the town of Port Hed­land, 200km north of Roe­bourne, where coun­cil CCTV footage cap­tured sick­en­ing vi­o­lence by drunk men against women and girls, in­clud­ing footage of a man stomp­ing on a teenager’s leg un­til it broke.

Po­lice now be­lieve the re­stric­tions must be re­gion-wide be­cause the amount of al­co­hol wash­ing through the Pil­bara.

They know the new plan to blan­ket the re­gion with these re­stric­tions — the pro­posal was sub­mit­ted to the state Di­rec­tor of Liquor Li­cens­ing last week — is likely to be con­tro­ver­sial in the iron ore hub of Kar­ratha, the port town of Dampier and in Wick­ham, which is the clos­est bot­tleshop to Roe­bourne.

The Pil­bara elec­torate of just un­der 18,000 res­i­dents in­cludes thou­sands of white mine work­ers. A com­mu­nity meet­ing of 300 mostly white res­i­dents in Port Hed­land has al­ready recorded op­po­si­tion with a re­sound­ing “No” vote, de­spite the pleas of an Abo­rig­i­nal elder and ev­i­dence from a vis­it­ing ex­pert on fe­tal al­co­hol spec­trum dis­or­der.

Pil­bara res­i­dents con­sis­tently drink more than the na­tional av­er­age of 10.4 litres of pure al­co­hol a year but Roe­bourne is in the western pocket of the re­gion where av­er­age con­sump­tion has been as­tound­ingly high. The last time the state Depart­ment of Liquor, Racing and Gam­ing pub­lished data for the west Pil­bara it showed each adult drank 25.84L of pure al­co­hol in 2007-08.

Roe­bourne’s al­co­holics are of­ten older men who be­gan drink­ing af­ter the 1967 ref­er­en­dum that granted cit­i­zen­ship and drink­ing rights.

By 1971, Roe­bourne’s only pub, the Vic­to­ria Ho­tel, had boosted its staff from 13 in 1969 to 64 be­cause of the rapid in­flux of con­struc­tion and min­ing work­ers who were bussed in. Beer was served only in jugs, not glasses, and Abo­rig­i­nal pa­trons drank sep­a­rately.

Last week, The Aus­tralian spoke to sev­eral in­dige­nous men who have been drink­ing hard since those days. Some were in­co­her­ent as they hitched or even drove to Wick­ham, 15 min­utes down the road from Roe­bourne, where one of the state’s busiest bot­tle shops ser­vices a well-paid work­force.

Two po­lice of­fi­cers were posted out­side the shop on the lo­cal grand fi­nal week­end of Septem­ber 10-11 to de­ter drunk peo­ple from try­ing to buy more grog. Non-Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple are big drinkers in the Pil­bara, too — The Aus­tralian saw dozens of white res­i­dents load­ing mul­ti­ple car­tons of full-strength beer, cider and pre-mixed drinks into their four-wheel drives.

The irony that Roe­bourne is poised to trig­ger rad­i­cal so­cial change is not lost on any­one who knows the town’s tragic his­tory.

In 1983, in­dige­nous teen John Pat was in a fight with Roe­bourne po­lice of­fi­cers out­side the Vic­to­ria Ho­tel. The 16-year-old died later in the po­lice lockup from head in­juries; four of­fi­cers were im­pli­cated but not con­victed of any crime. Pat’s death cre­ated head­lines across the na­tion and trig­gered the Royal Com­mis­sion into Abo­rig­i­nal Deaths in Cus­tody.

The scourge of al­co­hol is faced up to openly by many Roe­bourne res­i­dents. At the fu­neral of Pat’s mother, Mavis, this month, the or­der of service noted her sta­tus as a cul­tural leader and strong ed­u­ca­tor but also stated mat­ter-of­factly that she had fallen vic­tim at times to al­co­hol ad­dic­tion.

More telling is that the Vic­to­ria Ho­tel, the first Pil­bara pub to get a li­cence in 1866 but empty for years, will re­open next year with­out a drop of al­co­hol be­ing sold, as a di­rect re­sult of com­mu­nity de­ci­sion-mak­ing. Its owner, the Yind­jibarndi Abo­rig­i­nal Cor­po­ra­tion, has in­vested its own funds and $2 mil­lion in state and fed­eral as­sis­tance to help cre­ate shops, a tourism cen­tre and of­fices in­side.

Cor­po­ra­tion chief ex­ec­u­tive Michael Wood­ley says al­co­hol had had a dev­as­tat­ing im­pact on the town dur­ing the ho­tel’s his­tory, “and this is not some­thing that is look­ing to be re-es­tab­lished”.


Yind­jibarndi Abo­rig­i­nal Cor­po­ra­tion CEO Michael Wood­ley and Lor­raine Cop­pin out­side the Vic­to­ria Ho­tel in Roe­bourne

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