Inside Story

The wicked problem of alcohol management

As the experience of the Queensland community of Kowanyama shows, implementation – rather than the media, politicians or the public service – is the engine room of Indigenous affairs

Mark Moran 10 March 2016 5493 words

Vital service: the Kowanyama Justice Centre, built in 2000. Mark Moran

When Kowanyama’s first canteen opened in 1973 it was little more than a window, with a noisy throng of men outside, all flashing cans and elbows. Officers from Queensland’s Aboriginal affairs department rationed out the daily limit, which began at two cans per person, increased over time to four, and then settled on six. If there was any misbehaviour in the community, the ration was decreased for everyone. All six cans were opened and passed to you in one go, to be consumed before you left. You sat with your cargo, guarding it until it was gone.

Through the 1980s, the Bjelke-Petersen government promoted community canteens as a means for Aboriginal community councils to raise funds to pay for local services. Leading the way was the ubiquitous Russ Hinze, the “Minister for Everything,” with his diverse portfolio of local government, roads, racing and police.

When Duncan McKean began work as canteen manager early in 1993 his first task was to deal with the aftermath of riotous behaviour in the lounge bar on New Year’s Eve. He immediately set about making the place safe. The lounge bar was converted into a storage room for securing the booze. The drinking area became a “beer garden” under corrugated iron pergolas. Chairs and tables were bolted to the concrete floor for ease of hosing and to prevent them from being thrown.

The first nine months were the hardest. Early on, Duncan had to show strength several times in standoffs with half-cut men among politely seated onlookers. He wasn’t too forthcoming about what happened, but it was enough for him to earn the reputation of being capable with his hands. He needed that. The canteen in Kowanyama was now as well run as any in Queensland. People sat down to drink on high stools at high tables, mostly among their kin. If you mucked up, you were out, no exceptions. With obligations to kin and family at every turn, the local staff were grateful for Duncan.

Duncan’s wife, Dellis Gledhill, worked with the community council, first as training coordinator and then as coordinator of the Kowanyama Justice Group, for the first five years. She had been an athlete in her youth, and was no less quick of mind. Like her husband, she had a solid countenance and was hard but fair in her judgements. Duncan was involved in the managing the supply of alcohol; Dellis diligently managed its deleterious effects. Between them, they knew every family in Kowanyama, and while they steadfastly tried to not talk about work at home, their local knowledge and standing were pivotal to what was to unfold.

Dellis worked closely with a group of powerful community matriarchs, including Maycheltrrakvliy and Evelyn Josiah. Together they formed the nucleus of the Kowanyama Justice Group. Many of the women were trained justices of the peace, deciding on cases within the bounds of local government by-laws, or advising the visiting magistrates. At times they were under enormous pressure from family and kin demanding leniency or revenge. Disputes and family trauma frequently arrived at their doorstep. Several JPs resigned under the pressure, but May and Evelyn held strong.

May was a force of nature, with a durable and generous sense of humour. As a young woman, she had left Kowanyama for a time to live in the nearby town of Normanton. She knew how to deal with whitefellas, travelling outside Kowanyama, sitting on committees and in meetings of government departments and regional Indigenous organisations. Along with her three children, she’d raised ten of her nephews and nieces. She hated grog and blamed it for much that had gone wrong in her family and community. She stayed well clear of the drinking and gambling circles that dominated social life in Kowanyama, preferring privacy among family and friends.

Like May, Evelyn took in lots of kids and sheltered them. She was fiercely independent, always taking a moral stance, regardless of what others thought. An elder among her Kokomenjen people, she wielded considerable influence in traditional matters and politics. She was a woman of few words; when she spoke, people listened. Her family and grandchildren had all done well at school. She was wary of whitefellas, and had a stern frown that put you on notice.

When the Queensland government formed the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women’s Task Force on Violence, Evelyn was an obvious choice to represent Kowanyama, and one of fifty women chosen from around the state. Given the opportunity, she came out strongly against alcohol.

People constantly came to Evelyn, May and other community grandmothers for help, seeking shelter from the drunks and noise. The nights were the worst. May “slept with one eye open, and one eye shut.” Then the state government started to take kids away due to neglect and abuse at the hands of their family members. A tragic case of a neglected child removed from the community by the state government, in 2000, hardened the women’s resolve to stop the grog. Evelyn spoke up to the predominantly male drinkers in the community: “We only hear your voice come out when you’re drunk.”

At that time, Peter Beattie was well into his first term as Queensland premier. Faced with a damning report from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women’s Task Force on Violence, Beattie decided that it was time to act on alcohol-fuelled violence. In the lead-up to the 2001 state election, he appointed Queen’s Counsel Tony Fitzgerald to head up the Cape York Justice Study. It had been fifteen years since Fitzgerald had led the inquiry into police corruption in Queensland that toppled the conservative Bjelke-Petersen government. He was a big gun for Beattie to bring in, and obvious parallels were made to the scale of reform at hand.

It’s not that the Kowanyama Community Council hadn’t tried to limit the damaging effects of alcohol. Variations in trading hours and takeaway sales were tested through the 1990s. Takeaways were banned for a three-month period, but this resulted in binge drinking within the canteen opening hours. Then takeaways were limited to one carton per person, but then non-drinkers were pressured to buy booze for others. Light beer was trialled, but the canteen struggled to sell it. Most successfully, council supported collaboration between the canteen and the justice group. Through the diligence of Dellis, May and Evelyn, heavy drinkers and offenders under the influence of alcohol were banned from the canteen, which Duncan assiduously enforced.

Safe place: the canteen at Kowanyama. Mark Moran

Council also had a policy of directing most of the $1 million–plus profit from the canteen to social welfare programs. None targeted alcohol rehabilitation as such, but a mothers and babies centre, a women’s shelter, a school bus, an after-hours security service for nurses, and a ranger and family outstation program all benefited.

The alternative was the sly-grog trade, with young men taking moonlit bush runs to small liquor outlets hundreds of kilometres to the north or south. When the cargo arrived, sales, distribution and consumption were quickly expedited to avoid confiscation and prosecution. In Duncan’s view, the sensible choice was a well-run canteen rather than the chaos and tragedy of the sly-grog trade; the profits from the canteen being directed back to the community rather than going to neighbouring alcohol outlets and illegal grog runners.

Council had held three well-attended public meetings on the issue of curbing alcohol supply, whether by limiting opening hours at the canteen, restricting the sale of takeaways, or favouring the sale of heavy versus light beer. These were the largest community events in council’s recent history, with hundreds of attendees. On each occasion, the majority voted for business as usual. That was justification enough for Duncan, and the string of councillors and staff that flowed through council had no qualms that they were doing the right thing.

Fitzgerald took a different view. How could the council take profits from the operation of a canteen and then, at the same time, manage the social wellbeing of the community? He acknowledged that the councils was directing canteen profits to the wellbeing of the community, but he concluded that “to suggest that community councils running their own canteens are examples of self-determination is a travesty of the concept.”

Acting on Fitzgerald’s findings, the Queensland government began stripping community councils of their social wellbeing role, transforming them over a five-year period into shire councils firmly in the “rates, roads and rubbish” mainstream of local government. At the same time, it gave community justice groups powers to restrict alcohol through statutory alcohol management plans. Membership of a justice group was to be by ministerial appointment, open only to these without a criminal record.

By this time the Kowanyama justice group had been operating for close to a decade. It had been formed in the early 1990s with the help of John Adams, a respected community development facilitator. John kept it quiet, but he was a church minister who had lived in nearby Aurukun as a young man during the mission period. He was respected among the Aboriginal leadership in Queensland for having resisted the excesses of the Bjelke-Petersen era during the 1970s, and had pioneered different tools and methods for increasing community participation, bringing along those with limited literacy, numeracy or knowledge of government. When working his craft, John had a grace and calm confidence about him.

From 1991, John visited Kowanyama to facilitate a process of community-controlled justice. Through participatory methods and local research assistants, the justice group was formed and began operating with the assistance of a locally based coordinator. Its eighteen members were selected by elders from each of the three language groups, with equal numbers of men and women. The nomination process was culturally sanctioned, without elections. It was decided that the group would not incorporate, operating instead under a set of informal, locally sanctioned rules.

This early period of the justice group was closely tied to that of the Land Office, which managed the natural and cultural resources of all Kowanyama lands. The Land Office was governed by the elders group, with mostly men, but also some women, representing different traditional family homelands. Importantly for the changes in store, the justice group was effectively a more formal incarnation of the pre-existing elders group.

Over the first five years of its operation, from 1993 to 1998, the justice group monitored community service orders, visited prison inmates, supervised returning parolees, operated night patrols, monitored school attendance, and fined parents for breaches of community by-laws, including not sending their kids to school. It also dispensed culturally appropriate justice through nonviolent practices of public humiliation, known locally as “growling and shaming.” Offending juveniles were brought before the group, heads lowered, to be reminded of their ancestors, their responsibilities to family and kin, and how they were letting their people down. When the severity warranted it, the tone of conversation was often loud and deliberately intimidating. It worked. From 1994 to 1997, the number of court appearance for juveniles decreased fourfold.

This was the heyday of self-determination policies, and the trial was lauded as a victory of community-controlled justice. At the time, John wrote that the behaviour of juvenile and adult offenders “could not be divorced from the general life of the community, and that preventative and rehabilitative measures must be worked out in a community-wide process of dialogue and decision making. ”Through the late 1990s, the Queensland government rolled out a program of funding community justice groups across the state. Significantly, these groups were to be founded along cultural lines, to be broadly participatory forums for community deliberations.

The state government’s involvement in the initial success of the justice group was slight, but as attention grew and funding began flowing in, so too did the administrative demands. The Aboriginal affairs and corrections departments jointly funded the justice group, the latter on the proviso that the coordinator also fulfilled the statutory role of corrections officer. By the time Dellis took over the job of coordinator in 1997, the justice group was dominated by its court functions. Both departments demanded volumes of overlapping reports, and when Dellis fell behind, the corrections department wrote to council demanding that she focus on the backlog on the “corrections side.” The corrections department was instrumental in having the justice group incorporated separately from council, and promptly moved its grant to the new body. A new justice centre was built in 2000, with a courtroom as its centrepiece.

Unlike the large, informal group of old, the justice group was now controlled by a committee, and community members with a criminal record were prohibited from serving. Since most of the men in the community had criminal records, the management of justice effectively split along gender lines. The wider justice group still existed, but the controlling entity was the committee, with May as the chair and Evelyn her deputy. While the elders at the Land Office remained mostly male, the justice group was now mostly female.

By the time the alcohol management plan was being prepared in 2003, male elders were openly expressing concern that the justice group had gone quiet. “It used to be like up the Land Office,” said one. “Sit out back, talk it over coffee and biscuits, but no more, mostly court business now.” On the other side of the fence, female elders had no illusions about what they were doing. “We’re running it ourselves,” one of them said. “Us ladies are keeping it strong.”

For Colin Lawrence, the split was a worry. Colin had long been a leader of the elders group, mostly in its dealing with land matters through the Land Office, but also through its role in community justice. He was well-spoken and polite – a gentleman statesman of community affairs. He was still a regular at the elders meeting at the Land Office, and was always available to meet with visiting government officials. He had learnt how to work with whitefellas from his days as a ringer on nearby Dunbar Station. Mustering out bush, riding and reading the country by day and sharing campfires at night, he felt “as good as the next fella.”

Colin was also an on-and-off drinker, and on occasion was lost for days on a binge. During one of these binges, as a young man, he committed a serious crime. He carried this sadness with him. He had done his time and worked through his shame by doing what he could to help his community. He was always on hand for meetings, and would often be found at the Land Office, reading papers, reports and books. People were taken aback when they learned of his one-off criminal act. But as a convicted perpetrator, Colin didn’t need to ask if he would be allowed to sit on the newly legislated justice group.

The Aboriginal affairs department brought back John Adams to facilitate consultation for the alcohol plan. Colin pushed for a public meeting to “just talk about it,” but this was blocked by the department. The Land Office had an innovative way of shaping meeting attendances around cultural authority. If a topic came up and the right people were not present, the matter was deferred until they could be found. It advertised meeting agendas in advance, so the elders could self-select their attendance, or nominate others.

When the Land Office advertised its scheduled alcohol management meeting, a departmental officer demanded that the signs be pulled down. There were to be no more public meetings on the matter. Instead, an extended meeting spread over five days was held behind closed doors with the greater justice group, after which a draft plan was produced. This was the first time that there had been a meeting of the larger group in some time, but May, Evelyn and the other female elders held sway. Colin and other male elders walked out of the meeting in protest after his proposal for heavy beer was voted down: “Them five ladies were stronger than our voice.”

John separately received a strong petition from senior male elders in the council-operated aged persons’ hostel, many of whom he knew well from the early 1990s, but some of whom were now suffering from limited mobility. John was obliged to respect their wishes. He modified the plan to provide a three-month trial for pensioners to consume four cans of beer each, on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, but only within the confines of the hostel. The rationale was that these elderly pensioners would be humbugged in the canteen, and at risk of falling over on their way back home. When the alcohol management plan was finalised, the department removed this provision. Through what was referred to as a “zero carriage limit,” the plan prohibited takeaways from the canteen and the bringing in of any alcohol from outside the community. Canteen openings were restricted to five hours on weekdays, and alcohol sales limited to light beer. All Kowanyama community-owned land was declared dry, with the exception of the canteen grounds.

Given the lengths taken to orchestrate a participatory process with an accomplished facilitator, the department’s provision for vetting aged people came as a surprise. As it turned out, the community’s alcohol plan was just a recommendation for the department to consider rather than a delegation of decision-making authority. A departmental officer frankly summed it up as an “intervention process – John’s job was to bring the community along.”

John had been around long enough to read the politics, but he knew something had to be done about the grog. One thing that emerged from the meetings’ minutes was a list of the people who made up the greater justice group, which revived the large, extended forum of old. When the Queensland government gazetted the justice group on Christmas Eve 2003, it stipulated five members from each of the three language groups, plus one person from council – sixteen in total. The names closely resembled those who had attended the special planning meeting organised for John. Not surprisingly, more than a year later, there had been no meetings of this larger official justice group. May and the other female committee members continued to hold sway.

Relations between the community council and the justice group had never been good, but now they became a whole lot worse. With its growing influence, separate incorporation, statutory powers, and state government backing, the justice group was at the cutting edge of the council’s eroding power base. It charged council employees with poor management, nepotism and profiteering from grog. The council, meanwhile, questioned the group’s right to make decisions affecting the whole community, and charged it with not being democratically elected. As is usually the case, both positions were exaggerated but neither was without basis.

Dellis played a pivotal role in running the justice group within the Justice Centre. Her capability, commitment and longevity were unusual among her remote community peers. As the coordinator of the justice group, she was expected to be a facilitator of community-controlled justice, but as the corrections officer, she also had statutory obligations to the corrections department. Local Indigenous JPs could not reasonably be expected to judge their own relations, so Dellis frequently also acted as a JP, but only with a second, Indigenous JP beside her. Dellis thus brokered between the community and the legal system – squeezed between internal community demands for culturally appropriate justice and the external government demands of the legal justice system. Her job as justice group coordinator and corrections officer required her somehow to be simultaneously a community development facilitator and a legal enforcer, a confusing mix of responsibilities that pushed Dellis to her not inconsiderable limits.

The day-to-day operations of the Justice Centre came to provide a critical service in the community, dominated by the different court and mediation sessions in which the female JPs played a key role. At a moment’s notice, the centre would erupt into chaos as an argument spilled into its chambers. There was just not the time to collect and assemble the large justice group, let alone wait for their deliberations along informal cultural lines of consensus and deferral. A narrow committee structure was quicker to mobilise.

In addition to these practical operational pressures, Dellis, May and Evelyn also faced a much more political matter. If they were to govern the negative effects of alcohol, they could not take the lead from the majority of Kowanyama residents, and certainly not from the majority of male elders, as most were opposed to curbing the supply of alcohol. If a full participatory process had been followed, including a popular vote or public meeting, alcohol restrictions would not likely have been forthcoming. It was the female elders in the community who had the determination to do something. They were the ones copping the abuse, struggling to find the cash to feed their families, bearing the household impact of kin seeking refuge or rummaging for food in the small hours of the night.

By 2004, disgruntlement about the alcohol management plan was entrenched. Many people blamed the limitations on alcohol supply for a number of fatal car accidents during sly-grog runs, and for an increase in petrol sniffing and marijuana use. Others cited the number of people who had left Kowanyama, or who were on extended visits to nearby towns with pubs. Others raised their concern about the unpredictability with which sly grog arrived, and the intensity of the binge drinking that ensued. Some argued that without majority support, the plan would never reach its objectives.

Colin saw the proposed restrictions as an infringement of his rights, hard won since the 1967 constitutional referendum granting the federal government powers to override the states in Indigenous affairs. “We’re back to the old days of Killoran,” he lamented. Patrick (Paddy) Killoran had ruled “native affairs” in Queensland with an iron fist from the 1960s to the early 1980s, ensuring Aboriginal people were prohibited from gambling, swearing, practising their culture, indulging in adultery, travelling freely, and drinking alcohol.

Yet local service providers were attesting to the early benefits of the new rules. After a year of zero carriage and limited canteen-trading conditions, clinic records showed a significant reduction in after-hours trauma. The coordinator of the women’s centre told the Courier-Mail that the level of domestic violence had declined so far that they were running out of business. Police statistics confirmed that the severity of domestic violence had decreased. Academic research recorded a decline in medical evacuations by the Royal Flying Doctor Service across the state. Kowanyama was certainly a whole lot quieter and cleaner, to the point that some people were complaining that it was boring. This was especially evident during the wet season, when road closures inhibited the sly-grog trade.

The manager of the aged persons’ hostel was happy with the final arrangement, confirming that her elderly charges were making their way to and from the canteen without incident. These positive results were confirmed by an internal departmental review of the Kowanyama Alcohol Management Plan, released in late 2005. Clinic records indicated that the number of assaults had declined by more than half. Over the five years from 2003 to 2008, the number of assault-related hospital admissions decreased threefold.

An unexpected outcome was an increase in private vehicle ownership. A significant proportion of the money that had previously passed through the canteen to the council was now going directly into private Kowanyama households. With the going rate of $10 a can, the profits from sly grogging were huge, and top-of-the-range, off-road vehicles began to appear. The grog runners aside, many families came to see the sense of buying a car, as they could travel legally to an adjoining town for a drink. They might as well take out a loan and pay off a car, as give all their money to sly groggers.

Over the first five years of the alcohol management plan to 2008, the community settled into the new regime. In the background was a growing number of police to enforce the restrictions. The number of police stationed in Kowanyama doubled, from four in 2003 to eight in 2007. With Duncan’s diligent management and limited trading conditions, the bigger issue for the police was not the canteen, but rather the sly-grog trade.

Such was the extent of the trade that police resorted to the extraordinary tactic of breathalysing patrons as they tried to enter the canteen. As the canteen now only served light beer, people were “preloading” before they arrived. In scenes worthy of a newspaper cartoonist, police earnestly barred the entrance gate, with a queue of sheepish-looking patrons waiting to enter. Those with any alcohol on board were turned away. In between police visits, Duncan purchased a breathalyser to use on anyone he suspected of preloading. Problems in the canteen decreased substantially.

Between 2005 and 2007, the Queensland government completed reviews of all nineteen alcohol management plans across the state. The degree of alcohol restriction varied widely. Only a third had the same zero carriage limits as Kowanyama; the remainder imposed much more generous limits of up to three cartons of beer and two litres of wine. And few of the canteens were as well run as Duncan’s.

Unsurprisingly, the bigger picture that emerged was not as positive: according to report, eventually released under FOI laws, “levels of harm remain grossly and unacceptably high compared to the Queensland average.” Petrol sniffing, marijuana use and home-brewing had increased in most communities. Drinking camps had sprung up outside the restricted zones. All communities had problems with sly grog. In Aurukun, people were using the diversionary tactics of fake brawls to tie up police while they sold grog on the side. In Napranum, people were wading across crocodile-infested waters to get to the pub in Weipa.

Not long after Beattie handed her the premiership, Anna Bligh had to face up to this negative publicity. As a social worker and former minister for families services, she had no illusions about the impact of domestic violence on women and children. Prominent Aboriginal female leaders, including those involved in the original women’s task force on violence, complained that too little had been done. National leaders, including Noel Pearson, gave her their support.

Bligh had the option of overhauling the policy, or of highlighting where it was successful, but she chose instead to deepen its reach. She told the Courier-Mail that the alcohol management plans had failed to “restore law and order to the state average… and there are few that are even close to that.” Shortly after the new Aboriginal shire councils were elected in March 2008, she moved to strip them of their canteen licences. Legislative amendments were passed preventing any local government in Queensland from holding a liquor licence, including all mainstream local authorities. Bligh initially left the door open for private hoteliers to run the canteens, but when the Kowanyama Shire arranged for this, their application was refused. Late in 2008, the doors to the canteen closed. In combination with the zero carriage limit, this effectively introduced local prohibition.

After more than fourteen years, Duncan and Dellis left Kowanyama in late 2007 to work in another community. For the twelve months that the canteen remained open after they left, the shire council went through not one but two different canteen managers. In the Justice Centre, the roles of coordinator and corrections officer were split because no one could be found to reasonably carry out both roles. There was no ready pool of candidates like Duncan and Dellis to draw from.

More internal government meetings and community consultations were held. New transparency measures were introduced, including quarterly public reports against key indicators. A $100 million joint federal–state alcohol reform package targeted people with alcohol and drug problems. Untied funds were provided to shire councils to replace prior canteen profits, with Kowanyama receiving three-quarters of a million dollars, the highest in the state. Stronger powers were given to the police to stop sly grogging and home-brewing, but their fears were far from allayed. Faced with an inevitable surge in the sly-grog trade, the police sergeant in the nearby community of Aurukun came out publicly opposing closure of the canteens. True to his predictions, the number of people charged in Kowanyama doubled in the year after the canteen closed, although it stabilised again the year after. Police numbers were increased even further. Kowanyama police station became an eleven-person operation, more than double the ratio for an equivalent general Australian population. The frequency of sly grog ebbed and flowed with the efficacy of their efforts.

Together with Aurukun, Kowanyama Shire spearheaded an unsuccessful legal challenge to the alcohol restrictions on the grounds of racial discrimination. They lost the challenge in the Queensland Supreme Court in 2009, and then again on appeal in 2010. Later that year, they unsuccessfully tried to take the case to the High Court in Canberra. Growing numbers of Aboriginal shires across Queensland raised their voices in opposition to the restrictions. Colin remained a vocal opponent. He remembered how “people were happy then, everyone met at the canteen, the teachers and workers and families all together – now people are driving out of the community, carting grog back – you can’t stop them.”

In the lead-up to his 2012 state election victory, Campbell Newman criticised the Labor government’s “paternalistic approach to alcohol management,” committing a Liberal National Party, or LNP, government to undertake another review, and opening the door to a possible overhaul of the restrictions. Newman publicly posed the question: “Why is it that an Aboriginal worker cannot come home to a home they own and have a beer on their front porch and watch the TV news with their family?” There was an unprecedented swing to the LNP candidate in the Kowanyama polling booth and in other communities on the cape with a zero carriage limit.

The following month, a new shire council was elected in Kowanyama, with every intention of holding Newman to his word. A review was launched late in 2012, and by mid 2014 the Queensland government was considering cabinet submissions from councils for alternative alcohol management plans. Government minister Glen Elmes weighed the strong support for removing restrictions against the remaining strong opposition among many women: “I have sat down and talked to these women, they remember the rapes, they remember the bashings, they remember child abuse and there is no way in the world they want that back.”

In July 2014, the Kowanyama Sports and Recreation Association opened a clubhouse in the canteen, initially licensed to operate two days a week. After they demonstrated their good management, this was increased to three days, then to four. Sales were restricted to registered members, with a limit of six cans of mid-strength drinks per person per session, with takeaways prohibited. Security staff used breathalysers at their discretion and problematic drinkers were barred for weeks when necessary. Kowanyama thus used its collective experience in effective canteen management, and remaining problems were blamed on the sly grog trade. After the Newman government lost power in early 2015, the new Labor government drew on the Kowanyama trial as a viable alternative to compulsory alcohol restrictions.

It has been thirty years since the first canteen opened in Kowanyama. Over a twenty-year period, different alcohol management regimes overlapped and intermingled, including participatory community justice, restrictions through a well-managed canteen, a statutory female-dominated justice group, local prohibition, and then finally a licensed sports club. Lessons were learned, but all the experiments fell short of being a solution. If you are to have a canteen, ensure that it is well managed. If you are to take a participatory approach, then respect cultural practices and privilege women. If you are to enforce alcohol restrictions, then increase police numbers.

But the underlying causes of the problem have not gone away. Whatever the attempts to limit supply, there were always empty cans of beer littering the streets. People kept home-brewing and finding new ways to bring grog in. The Queensland police and the Aboriginal affairs department kept thinking up new ways to enforce the restrictions. Every attempt, in its own way, succeeded and failed. Because of its resistance to resolution, alcohol management in Kowanyama is what is known in social science as a wicked problem. Complex interdependencies mean that efforts to solve one aspect of the problem only reveal others.

While policymakers set the field of play, what occurred in practice was largely beyond their gaze and quite magnificently different to their predictions. It was on the rocks of practical implementation that people in Kowanyama determined the outcomes. Implementation is ultimately the engine room of Indigenous affairs, not the media, politicians and commentators that so often dominate.

Sadly, Evelyn Josiah passed away in 2011. Many of the other female elders are either too sick or aged to participate. Her sister May isn’t going anywhere, though, and is steadying herself for another round. Other women are coming up strong. Her position is plain enough: “Children come first, not alcohol.” •