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“The trouble is, you see, that they are two-can drunks ...”
Well, no they aren’t. Like most of the alcoholics that I’ve met, they work very, very hard at getting drunk. The quote is just one of the many things said to me during a couple of years of exposure to Australia’s running sore, the Aboriginal Question. The trouble is that even to begin to comment on it invites massive criticism, which is part of the reason that I’ve waited until after I’ve left Australia to try to write about it. The other reason is that you need a certain amount of perspective to try to address an issue this emotive. One Australian—an educated and talented colleague—told me that I had no right to hold an opinion in this area “until you’ve sorted out the problems in Northern Ireland”.
Recently a singer from the international pop group Yothu Yindi went into an outback pub and asked for a beer. She was refused service and told “We don’t serve Abos on Thirsty Thursday”—this being the day that welfare payments are made. In the ensuing furore it emerged that this had been an “understanding”—for which read illegal but nonetheless enforced—between the pub, the local police, and the tribal elders. The aim was to try to prevent the equivalent of Friday’s pay packet disappearing into the pub.
Your reaction to this depends on who and where you are. The law has to rule that this is illegal, and most thinking people would be comfortable with this. You cannot and should not make a discriminating judgement about someone based on their skin colour. However, you miss an important point if you assume that the driving force behind this understanding is base racism. I’d suggest that it is an attempt at pragmatism—ham fisted and ill thought out, but with positive intentions. Nevertheless, it rapidly and inevitably becomes racism.
The response of the law to this situation serves to emphasise to these rural folk that city folk don’t really understand their problems. The law is national, and therefore, essentially, city or urban law. Thus it is geographically and socially removed from the pub itself. The simple, emphatic: “Don’t be racist” paradoxically reinforces the racism because there is little indication that the city folk even understand the context of the problem. The rural community have tried to implement a simple solution to a huge problem and have been judged, to their minds, harshly. What, they ask, will your ruling do to address the alcoholism damaging our community?
And maybe there is the core of it. We’re dealing with a symptom, and not with the disease. Neither of these approaches do anything to address the underlying problem, which is why should whole communities of aboriginal people have such an enormous problem with alcohol abuse that it becomes possible to make crass generalisations like Thirsty Thursday?
Depending on your source the average aboriginal male has a life expectancy of between 49 and 56 years. He is part of the only population outside a war zone to have undergone a reduction in health and quality of life in the past 20 years. If this isn’t a paediatric health issue, then I’m not sure what is. These facts should fill all of us—Australian and non-Australian alike—with shame, and should lead us to more complex, imaginative, and useful places than righteous anger from city folk about the country bumpkin racism implicit in Thirsty Thursday.