Pub with no beer taps new spirit
PILBARA-WIDE BAN ON FULL-STRENGTH ALCOHOL SALES
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