Power, not prohibition, is key for First Nation communities

Prohibition of alcohol has never worked in this country, or any other, and yet we continue to imagine that we can solve the individual and social problems that plague indigenous communities.

Meg Perkins The Courier-Mail 24 June 2013

The latest decision by the High Court of Australia upholds the legitimacy of alcohol management plans, which are bitterly resented by some indigenous people.

Premier Campbell Newman says prohibition won't work. Instead, he says: "We've got to target behaviour, not lay down (the law)."

When will Australia learn that "we" cannot target the behaviour of indigenous people?

Prohibition of alcohol has never worked in this country, or any other, and yet we continue to imagine that we can solve the individual and social problems that plague indigenous communities.

The Australian Psychological Society made it clear in a media release in 2007 that these problems, such as substance misuse, are the result of inter-generational trauma.

Indigenous people remember the stories told by their parents and grandparents and live the reality of disadvantage every day of their lives. And yet, there is more to the story than deficit and despair.

The Cook Islands and the island of Niue were annexed by New Zealand not long after the Torres Strait Islands were annexed by Australia.

The Cook Islands were under colonial rule until 1965, when they were offered self-government in free association with New Zealand.

This means Cook Islanders are New Zealand citizens, with the right to live and work in New Zealand and with the right to access all services, including schools, universities and hospitals.

However, they have their own parliament and make their own rules to deal with such matters as alcohol abuse.

Niue was offered the same arrangement in 1974.

There is no reason why the Torres Strait Islands and Palm Island could not enjoy self-government in free association with Australia, just as the Cook Islands and Niue do with New Zealand.

Australia could be responsible for foreign affairs and defence, just as New Zealand has been.

The resident population of the Torres Strait Islands is not very different from that of the Cook Islands and Niue is tiny, the smallest country in the world.

The residents of these Pacific islands are known to be friendly and hospitable to tourists, well-educated, enjoying life and living an independent lifestyle.

How different to the Palm Islanders' experience, being searched by armed police at ferry terminals.

Self-determination theory says all people have a need to enjoy autonomy, competence and relatedness if they are going to succeed in life.

These three factors are considered to be essential for emotional and social wellbeing.

Indigenous Australians did not die out; they have said that they do not want to assimilate and be "brown Aussies". Many talk about a treaty and sovereignty.

Autonomy is clearly something highly valued in the indigenous communities.

Studies in Canada have found those aboriginal communities that took responsibility for their own child welfare services experienced a drop in the suicide rates.

The more autonomy these communities had - the more they were able to deal with their own young people in their own way - the more successful the interventions were.

There are people who drink too much in the Cook Islands. There are some problems with domestic violence and child abuse.

The fact remains the rate of imprisonment is very low and there is no juvenile detention centre.

Children who are having problems due to ill, absent or addicted parents are almost always taken in by relatives or other members of their communities.

Nobody is paid to provide foster care. It is done because the children are "our children".

The United Nations declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples recognises their right to be different and to consider themselves different, as well as affirming "the fundamental importance" of their right to self-determination, to retain responsibility for the wellbeing of their children and to freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.

Prohibition of alcohol in indigenous communities, enforced by Australian courts and police, as a measure to "advance the life" of indigenous people is at best paternalistic.

Alcohol abuse in indigenous communities is an issue that can only be addressed by indigenous people. Autonomy is the key to sustainable social development.

Meg Perkins is a registered psychologist.


Police search ferry passengers from Townsville for alcohol.
(Source: Peter McAllister - The Australian)