Christmas in Borroloola

BY AMY MCQUIRE | Tracker Magazine


The seizure of alcohol from Borroloola, posted to the NT Police Force Facebook page just before Christmas.

NORTHERN TERRITORY: It’s almost a tradition in its own right.

The sound of truck horns heralding the delivery of Chrisco hampers across the country is an intrinsic part of the holiday season for many Australian families, a welcome relief before the rush of Christmas shopping and hurried hosting.

This is the same in the Northern Territory township of Borroloola, a community which is 90 percent Aboriginal, and where the white population live largely separate from the Garawa, Gudanji, Mara, Waanyi and Yanyuwa peoples.

Many community members pay off the hampers all year, despite the fact that those on welfare support have government controls on their finances – a blanket measure rolled out through the Northern Territory intervention’s controversial income management scheme.

Chrisco offers hampers ranging from food parcels, gift packages and household product hampers to packages solely or partially containing alcohol.

And it was these alcoholic hampers that brought the Grinch to Borroloola,

On December 10, Chrisco hampers were dropped off at the Pandion Haulage, where families began gathering to collect them in heat that typically reaches 40 degrees.

This would, in many other Australian communities, be a relatively drama-free exercise.

But Christmas is sometimes done differently in the small community of 800 people. Or perhaps, only if you are black.

Sean Kerins, from the ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences says that as people began gathering to collect their hampers, police were “tipped off”

“It’s not illegal to bring alcohol into the open town of Borroloola, but it is illegal to take it into the Prescribed Areas,” Mr Kerins wrote in just before Christmas.

The prescribed areas under the intervention have been renamed Alcohol Protected Areas under the new Stronger Futures laws. There are penalties for taking grog into the town camps around Borroloola, but not in the township itself.

“The police – in their designation as community police officers – could have informed Aboriginal people at the Pandion depot that they couldn’t take any hamper containing grog back to their homes, but instead they called in reinforcements from Katherine 670 kilometres away and waited,” Mr Kerins wrote.

“They waited until Aboriginal people brought their Christmas hampers into the Prescribed Areas and then conducted… a ‘detection and seizure operation’ that resulted in the seizure of ’18 bottles of assorted spirits and 106 assorted spirits cans, and three vehicles.”

The NT Police Force boasted of the seizure on its official Facebook page, posting a picture of the confiscated alcohol on the bonnet of one of the confiscated cars.

The picture incited a barrage of comments.

“If they weren’t irresponsible with their consumption of alcohol and the associated lawlessness perhaps they might get to keep it but they can’t control there (sic) own people and there (sic) attitude towards it so the government has to step in and control it for them,” one comment read.

“Poor things just want to be merry at Christmas like the rest of us,” another commenter wrote.

It is understood that several community members were charged, and will attend court.

“… The police waited until people went to the shipping site, in the open township. There, police could have told them that they couldn’t take them home but they just waited until
they returned to the prescribed areas. It’s entrapment. Why wait?,” Mr Kerins told Tracker.

“Aboriginal police officers were not involved in this. They brought people in from Katherine at a cost rather than police in Borroloola talking to Aboriginal police officers.

“It’s these small things which push Aboriginal people into the criminal justice system.”

The police tactics sent a tremor through the prescribed areas, and have raised concerns about the quality of community policing and the process of the draft Alcohol Management Plan currently being negotiated with the community.

Borroloola has long grappled with the effects of alcohol abuse and has in the past been defined by it through the media. For example, a 2006 report by Time Magazine painted a picture of “Green Can Dreaming” in the town.

Those sorts of representations are fundamentally unfair, because Aboriginal people have not sat idle. They’ve been proactive in trying to address the underlying causes of alcohol abuse, despite receiving little support from government.

The day after the alcohol was seized, community members met with police, disturbed and aggrieved at the tactics that mired what is supposed to be a joyous season for every other Australian.

Community member Daniel Mulholland told Tracker that while a police presence in the community didn’t bother him, they were “not actually setting a good example by working with community”.

“We had a community meeting and the sergeant said the law can’t change. Under the law you can’t take grog into prescribed areas and they basically said we’re going to continue to pull people up and take their gear off them, to basically harass people.

“… A lot of these mob paid all year to get groceries and alcohol, which was then confiscated.”

After the meeting, which occurred during a significant initiation ceremony, police erected a roadblock outside one of the town camps.

“(It’s) the place where the most articulate and vocal critics of top-down policing”, it’s said, live,” Mr Kerins wrote in Crikey.

“As a result, one community leader, on his way to an initiation ceremony with old men was punished for not carrying his driver’s license.”

That man was senior Garawa leader Jack Green, who spoke to Tracker earlier this month.

Mr Green said the police had set up station outside the Yanuwa town camp and pulled him up while he was picking up community members to take them to a ceremony.

“They asked me if I had my license, and I didn’t because it was in my private vehicle. He said ‘we can charge you for not carrying a license’. I said ‘fair enough, it’s in the other vehicle’ and I could have driven to show them.

“… I never lost my license but they charged me $170 for refusing to show it.

“In Borroloola it is very expensive to live…. the cost of food is very high and its very expensive to buy fuel. Everything is expensive.

“I don’t have a problem with the police charging me for the license, but there should have been a bit of leniency because this is a remote area… I tried to explain to them I was in a rush and it was in the other vehicle. My senior elders wanted me to go to the camp but they had their roadblock up.

“… I felt it was discrimination because police had set up the roadblock right outside the camp where senior mob had been talking to the local police about getting their grog taken off them.”

Mr Kerins says there is a lot of angst in the community over the draft Alcohol Management Plan being conducted.

Mr Mulholland told Tracker it sometimes feels there are two different laws –one for Aboriginal people and one for non-Aboriginal.

“(Police) could be a little more community minded. They shouldn’t spring it on people with ambushes.

“… We felt victimized.”

“They have been trying for years and years to manage the pub with very little support or anything at all, and now, all of a sudden, the government has stepped in making rules and doing things very quickly. It’s put people under a lot of pressure.”

He says that all community members must be “active collaborators in the effort to enhance the safety and quality” of the community, and that police shouldn’t be the “sole guardians of law and order.”

The NT Police Force didn’t respond to a list of questions at the time of press.

Sean Kearins writing in

“What was most offensive to Aboriginal leaders was that both the Northern Territory and the Commonwealth Governments are currently trying to draft Alcohol Management Plan, a “living progressing document”, and apparently desperately seeking the involvement of the “Aboriginal community” – some cynically say so the community consultation box can be ticked. Getting representative Aboriginal input is proving difficult.

“Aboriginal leader say there’s no point developing a plan that has no involvement from the people who drink. They also say the heavy-handed tactics are pushing grog consumption to the fringes o the township where people can’t be looked out for.

“It sends young men and women to their deaths as they drive outback roads dotted with wallabies and stock to the nearest roadhouse where they can buy the hot stuff.

“The carnage from these trips is leaving deep scars across all Garawa, Gudanji, Mara, Waanyi and Yanyuwa families.”

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