Cover of book: Trouble

Kieran Finnane

A glass bottle flung in a drunken stupor at a car in mid-2009 ignited one of the most watched criminal cases in the Northern Territory since the 2001 murder of British tourist Peter Falconio.

It involved five white men accused of killing a 33-year-old Aboriginal man, after he attacked their car. That the most serious conviction ended up being for manslaughter, and that the presiding judge said this tragedy was “toward the lower end of the scale”, did not diminish the pain of the Alice Springs community.

It brought articles – many of them smug in tone and written by city-based commentators – likening the events to “gathering of Klansmen” in the segregated Deep South of the United States.

There was a strain of racism. The judge found that if a drunken white man had pitched a bottle at the men’s car, he would have copped a similar kicking, one intended to bruise and punish but not kill. He concluded that “the actions of some offenders ... were influenced, at least to some degree, by the fact that the deceased was an Aboriginal person”.

Overall, however, the city’s anguish was that Alice Springs had in recent decades become a place where racial barriers had eroded, gradually but perceptibly. If any major problem remained, it was the violence not motivated by racism but fuelled by alcohol.

Extreme alcohol abuse was one of the first things Kieran Finnane observed when she moved to Alice in 1986. She had been raised in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney but spent five years living in Paris. “I ... was still smoking French cigarettes,” she recalls in her book, Trouble: On Trial in Central Australia.

From the Left Bank to the Red Centre, she is a writer who enjoys extreme contrasts – in landscape, culture, even vocation. She met her second husband, an Austrian-born journalist and cinematographer, while making films in the bush. They teamed up, shooting and selling news footage to overseas television networks, and then started their own newspaper, the Alice Springs News.

Finnane is precisely the type of journalist Australia needs but who is often overlooked by the metropolitan elites. She is enmeshed in the news as it breaks around her in a community of 30,000 people.

Having graduated with a fine arts degree from Sydney University, and studied at the Sorbonne, she envisaged a career covering the flowering Central Australian art scene in the mid-’80s. But like many great reporters, she found the most poignant stories in the local courts. As is the way in a small city, she knew many of the people personally, friends of her children, or near neighbours.

And the recurring feature of so many stories was alcohol, particularly as the trigger for violence. The Northern Territory, she writes, “has the highest per capita alcohol consumption in the country: about one and a half times the national figure. Excessive consumption goes for black and white, although higher numbers are reported for Aboriginal drinkers compared with non-Aboriginal.”

Finnane mounts no neo-conservative indictment on the pathology of black families. She has no motive other than to illustrate the centrality of booze in most of the violence around her. Since 2010, territory police attribute up to 60 per cent of assaults to alcohol. In Alice Springs, the figure is about 70 per cent.

Victims of assault are often also drunk – 38 per cent nationally, but in the territory up to 56 per cent. And local Indigenous women are especially vulnerable, 80 times more likely to be hospitalised than non-Indigenous women.

That’s the data. Finnane also tells the stories.

One of the most frequent triggers of alcohol-fuelled violence in Indigenous Australia is, as an anthropologist tells Finnane, “jealousing”, not only in reference to other’s relationships, but also applying to envy of another’s property or standing in the community.

She also writes of a scale of drunkenness in which eight to nine cans of Victoria Bitter is a “little bit drunk”, but there’s often no limit on what constitutes “full drunk”.

Booze bans were imposed in some towns, particularly after the 2007 intervention. They are often initiated and enforced by truly heroic Aboriginal women. But they are subverted by the establishment of “drinking camps” at the intersection of major roads outside towns.

Finnane documented one such case in which two men died – “one of them slowly and not inevitably” – and six men pleaded guilty to manslaughter. Here’s how she captured it in just the first few, utterly telling paragraphs in a front-page story for the Alice Springs News: “Five out of six were drunk on the night. One out of six is a reformed heavy drinker, sober on the night. Two out of six are alcoholics.

“Four out of six had parents who were alcoholics or heavy drinkers. Two out of six are married to alcoholics and these couples have had children. The two victims of the six were drunk at the time of their deaths.”

This, in the drinking camps that some have likened to schoolies week in Bali because the drinkers are out of sight. 

You will despair but, throughout this challenging book, you find reason for optimism.

Alcohol restrictions can work. The head surgeon at Alice Springs hospital reported that the rate of stabbings – including often lethal stabbing injuries to the thigh inflicted as a traditional punishment – declined “dramatically” due to tougher restrictions.

Much of the drinking crisis is exacerbated by opportunistic licensees. In the front bar, they may turn away a noticeably drunk patron. But they will often serve them through a hatch or open window. Again, out of sight. There is potential for a tighter supervision.

And finally, Aboriginal people actually have higher rates of abstinence than non-Aboriginal Australians. As many as one third are teetotal.

It gives hope to the idea that, with the moral authority of the many elders who oppose drinking, and the extraordinary mothers, grandmothers and aunts willing to enforce dry communities, the crisis is not insurmountable.  PT

UQP, 296pp, $29.95

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 18, 2016 as "Kieran Finnane, Trouble".

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Reviewer: PT

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