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Alcoholism in Australia: The wives who said time, gentlemen...

The story of Fitzroy Crossing is a tragically common one among Australia's Aborigines: rampant binge-drinking and the appalling social problems that go with it. But then the town's women set about turning off the taps. Kathy Marks reports

On the banks of the Fitzroy river, in the remote Kimberley region of north-west Australia, stands the century-old Crossing Inn, a squat brick building with a facade adorned with paintings by local schoolchildren.

The Crossing Inn is a local landmark. It operates the only off-licence in the town, and is the source of most of the alcohol blamed for the appalling social problems that have ravaged the largely Aboriginal town of Fitzroy Crossing: domestic violence, child abuse, disease, dysfunction, premature death and suicide.

Indigenous communities across Australia suffer from such problems, indeed a recent official report blamed "rivers of grog" for a host of interconnected social ills. But few places suffer to the same extent as Fitzroy, a "forgotten" outback town of 1,500 people that barely figures on the national radar. Despite hand-wringing by politicians and media commentators, life rarely seems to gets better in such places.

But now Fitzroy may be proving the exception, thanks to the efforts of a group of local women. They decided that drastic action was needed and lobbied the state government for a 12-month ban on all takeaway alcohol sales from the Crossing Inn.

Last month, in a victory for the women, the licensing authority introduced a six-month ban on takeaway sales other than low-strength beer. These are now the toughest off-licence restrictions in Australia. Fitzroy Crossing has become the site of a social experiment. Does prohibition – even partial prohibition – work? Is it possible to break the cycle of despair and drinking that leads to violence and premature deaths, prompting yet more despair and drinking?

June Oscar, one of the women who campaigned determinedly for the ban, believes so. She says that the locals need a respite in which to put together a plan for the future. Otherwise, she warns, they may have no future. Doctors report that up to one-quarter of babies in the Fitzroy Valley – the town plus surrounding communities – are born with foetal alcohol syndrome.

"It's about our children," says Ms Oscar, the chief executive of the Marninwarntikura Women's Resource Centre, which runs a domestic violence refuge and other services. "What's happening here is not normal. It's about the survival of our people. What will we become if things continue getting worse? Our cultural traditions, our language and laws, will be lost. We are facing the destruction of our people through alcohol and drugs."

While the ban is supported by Aboriginal elders, it has met bitter opposition – from drinkers who claim that their "human rights" have been infringed, and, not surprisingly, from the liquor trade. Alcohol is only available from two outlets in the town: the Crossing Inn and the bar at the Fitzroy River Lodge, a motel complex. In a bizarre twist, both those businesses are Aboriginal-owned.

Most problem drinking takes place not inside the bars, but back at the communities, where large amounts of takeaway alcohol are consumed. Ms Oscar says the ban is already having positive effects. "People are getting a good night's sleep. There's been a reduction in the number of women coming into our refuge, and a reduction in alcohol-related trauma patients admitted to the hospital."

At the police station, Senior Sergeant Ron Boehm reports "a huge reduction in the amount of alcohol being consumed", and a marked decrease in after-hours call-outs to domestic assaults and antisocial behaviour, from about seven a week to one or two.

Vivien Gordon, a police liaison officer in the town, said alcohol had blighted countless lives in the area. "My hope now is for the next generation," she told The Australian newspaper.

But police in other Kimberley towns are not happy. They claim that up to one-quarter of the Fitzroy population has migrated in search of unlimited alcohol. Police in Broome, 250 miles away across sandhills and scrub, complain that Fitzroy residents are "running amok" there. Similar stories of binge-drinking and misbehaviour are emerging in two other "neighbouring" towns, Derby and Hall's Creek.

While some Fitzroy locals have moved, others are driving to Broome and Derby to pick up carloads of full-strength beer and cheap wine. June Oscar and her colleague, Emily Carter, the chair of the resource centre, have been threatened with dire consequences if any fatal accidents occur during the long road trip.

"I've been told that if that happens, it's all my fault, and there'll be tribal punishment and retribution against me," says Ms Oscar. "I say to them, 'go and put a curse on someone who's trafficking drugs and killing people, rather than someone who's trying to stand up and fight it'."

The premature death rate is so high in the Kimberley that the Western Australia state coroner, Alistair Hope, is conducting an inquest into 23 alcohol and drug-related deaths and suicides in recent years.

In Fitzroy, the average age of death is 47. There is a funeral nearly every week. There have been 13 suicides in 12 months – in a population totalling 3,000, if surrounding communities are included. There have also been 10 accidental deaths over the same period, by drowning or hit-and-run accidents.

Joe Ross, an Aboriginal elder, believes that more than 200 people have died in alcohol-related incidents in the Kimberley in recent years. Mr Ross wept as he told the inquest, sitting in Fitzroy, about a young relative who hanged herself on her third suicide attempt. A week before giving evidence, he lost a friend aged 47 who suffered a heart attack after a prolonged drinking session.

Mr Ross told the hearing: "We are not rubbish. We are human beings who want to live in this town and our community."

There were more tears when Selina Middleton, the mother of an 11-year-boy who hanged himself, appeared before the coroner. "We in this town are just rotting away," she said. "I hope the whole of Australia is listening ... and see that our town is crying for help. We're a forgotten town." Ms Middleton drew attention to the lack of services in Fitzroy, a complaint echoed by many locals. Fitzroy has no dentist, no mental health provision, no drug or alcohol counsellors. It does not even have a priest.

It has no banks and almost lost its post office. "It feels like we've been abandoned," says Wes Morris, the co-ordinator of the Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Culture Centre, which represents senior men and women.

It is a strange irony that the Crossing Inn and Fitzroy River Lodge are owned by the very people whom those businesses are "poisoning", as claimed by supporters of the ban. The two properties are 70 per cent owned by a private company, Leedal, in which local communities are major shareholders. When Leedal bought the pub and lodge nearly 20 years ago, it seemed like a good idea. Not only would they generate jobs for local people, it was argued, but Aboriginal ownership would bring with it a more responsible drinking regime. And profits would benefit the communities.

Wayne Bowen, who manages the businesses on behalf of Leedal, and also owns a small share, claims the pub promotes light and mid-strength beer, and has banned all sales of cask wine, which was a popular way of getting drunk cheaply. It has also reduced its opening hours.

Women such as June Oscar acknowledge these self-imposed measures, but say they have not made a significant impact. They know that from the evidence that they see around them every day, and from the 400 women passing through the refuge every year – a shocking statistic in such a small place, even if two-thirds are already exisitng clients.

John Boulton, Kimberley's senior regional paediatrician, points to the number of children born with foetal alcohol syndrome, which causes permanent brain damage, stunted growth and cognitive development, and leads to mental health problems.

In a letter supporting the ban, Dr Boulton described the phenomenon as "a civic tragedy and insult to society".

But Mr Bowen believes the problem cannot be solved by prohibition. "It's far more complex than that," he says. "We believe we were making significant progress in educating people to drink responsibly, and now that's been stopped. The solution that has been imposed is not working, and is not a solution. The problem has just been shifted to Broome and Derby."

He adds that responsible drinkers in Fitzroy are highly disgruntled. "You can't buy a bottle of Scotch. You can't buy a bottle of red wine. You have to drive 260km [160 miles] if you want to buy wine to drink with your meal. People are leaving town because of this. Businesses have lost workers and are finding it hard to replace them."

Campaigning for the ban began in July last year, following a "bush meeting" attended by 80 women from the four local language groups, which was held on traditional lands.

June Oscar says: "The women talked about the pain and suffering caused by alcohol-fuelled violence, and the constant state of despair and grieving that we find ourselves in. They said 'we've just got to do something ... enough is enough'."

Significantly, the women were supported by local elders in the community, including the men. Wes Morris of the Law and Culture Centre says: "There's hardly a family that hasn't been affected by alcohol-related suicide and death. Continually being in sorry business [traditional expressions of grief following bereavement], continually attending funerals, it just wears down the community."

Wayne Bowen says the Crossing Inn is now operating at a substantial loss, but "it's not about the money and it never has been". Leedal, he says, has provided grants for youth and sporting programmes, bought computers for the local school and funded a full-time tutor for promising pupils. "Though whether that can be afforded in future is now in question," he warns.

Sgt Boehm would like to see the ban extended and even tougher restrictions introduced. "Six months is nowhere near long enough," he says. "The window of opportunity is far too small."

He, too, feels that Fitzroy Crossing has in effective been abandoned by local and state governments. "There are no votes here," he says. "The place has no political clout." Sgt Boehm, who has spent 24 years in Fitzroy, says: "It's tragic to see a race of people destroying themselves through alcohol abuse."

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