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Articles - Minorities
Written by Pat O'Malley   
Sunday, 17 December 1995 00:00


Pat O'Malley considers dilemmas of well-meaning cross-cultural intervention in the management of petrol sniffing in Aboriginal communities in Western Australia.

This paper is a greatly abbreviated version of a working paper by the author, and of two Reports to the western Australian Department of Community Services (O'Malley, I 992a.b).

The level of autonomy increasingly accorded to traditional legal orders of indigenous people in countries, such as Australia, the USA and Canada, clearly creates policy dilemmas of extraordinary complexity. This is especially so in the field of welfare policies, not least because historically they have been associated with a considerable array of (arguably) well-meaning interventions which have ultimately appeared cruel, incapacitating and often socially disastrous. Removal of children from their parents - 'for their own good', modification and government of the 'lax' morals of adults, interference in cultural ceremonials on 'health grounds' - all these are familiar and highly problematic welfare measures in many colonial contexts. They have left behind them a legacy of bitterness and resentment among formerly colonised peoples. and soul-searching among welfare officials.

More recently, however, a new generation of critics and commentators has begun to re-examine in a more positive light current dilemmas of 'welfare colonialism' in post-colonial contexts (e.g. Rowse, 1993). In particular they have begun to address the dilemmas posed by the politics of welfare and self determination. Among these dilemmas are included questions of balance between an obligation to respect the autonomy of indigenous peoples versus the obligation to provide welfare to those in need - dilemmas all the more acute where disputes arise in the indigenous communities over the need to call for aid.

Increasingly, an acceptable compromise is being forged which gives management of welfare interventions to the indigenous people, and/or which recognises the importance of directing assistance through indigenous institutions rather than those of the aid agencies themselves. For example, extended families may provide 'traditional' structures through which government aid may be managed and distributed. Such approaches, it is argued, resolve key dilemmas because they support the indigenous social order while also providing welfare assistance - even though the 'particularism' of these networks may offend bureaucratic conceptions of fairness in distribution (Palmer and Collard, 1993). In such ways, welfare colonialism is moving toward providing aid through circuits which encourage self management, if not self government. However, a new set of dilemmas is being created around the extent to which such aid may unintentionally be appropriating traditional structures in a process of reinstating colonial rule, a pattern graphically summed up by the term 'governing at a distance' (Miller and Rose, 1990).

This paper attempts to aid in sensitising workers in the field of cross-cultural drug policy to some of the dilemmas created by such interventions. It does so by critically examining an innovative attempt to assist with the management of petrol (gasoline) sniffing among young, mainly male, Ngaanyatjarra people in remote Australian desert communities. Current estimates suggest that about 11% of young males (the main user group) are persistent petrol sniffers. In excess of 100 cases per year are referred to Magistrates' and Children's Courts, out of a total Ngaanyatjarra community population of about 1500 people. Although numerically small, the problem is extraordinarily disruptive and traumatic in the desert communities. The programme, developed by the Western Australian Department of Community Services (DCS), sought to deal with the problem by providing Aboriginal mentors to young petrol sniffers. Such mentors would be selected from among the kin of the user, provided with basic training and support, and encouraged to draw the youth away from the sniffing peer group and into an array of traditional and other activities. This mentor, or Marlba, was understood to parallel a role in traditional Ngaanyatjarra society. The programme overall was thought not only to give 'ownership of the problem' to these Aboriginal people, but also to restore the traditional authority relations believed to have been shattered by the impact of colonialism. Such views are increasingly criticised by Aboriginal people who note that, among other disempowering effects, they deny the viability of most contemporary indigenous organisations. This shattering of social organisation, in turn, is held to be one of the major causes of petrol sniffing.

When set against the primary form of existing control through criminal justice enforcement, the programme was seen to offer many advantages, including:

  • Reduction of dependence on white agencies and diminution of trauma involved in separation from kin and community.
  • Redevelopment of traditional authority relations and faith in Aboriginal practical autonomy.
  • Introduction of more effective measures in place of largely coercive, arbitrary and non-therapeutic interventions.
  • The development of a strategy not reliant on police action for its mobilisation.

Prima facie, this was a humane and ingenious solution to the dilemmas of recognising autonomy and welfare, and none can doubt the good intentions and efforts of those promoting the scheme. Yet it confronts several key difficulties, the implications of which became clear as the programme developed. Perhaps the root difficulty may be understood most readily as embedded in the received truth of what constituted 'tradition'. By and large, this programme assumed the commonly accepted view promoted by Western anthropology, which envisaged Aboriginal tradition as fixed, consensual and authoritative (Cowlishaw, 1993 ) . Of late, however, such views have been questioned by those who suggest that such cultures are highly pragmatic and adaptable, and internally as political as any other. Therefore, they, no less than European societies, experience disputes and dilemmas over which courses of action should be adopted in the face of shared problems. Even where there is agreement about what the 'tradition' is (and this cannot be taken for granted), there are bound to be problems locating which aspect of tradition is appropriate to mobilise, and - once agreed upon - what constitutes the best way of translating this into concrete practice (see, for example, Rowse 1990, 1993; Minitjukur and Divakaran-Brown, 1991; Dickson-Gilmore, 1992).

To the extent that this is so, it could be anticipated that unforeseen difficulties are almost bound to confront interventions by state agencies aimed at mobilising or restoring 'traditional' order to deal with social problems. In the Marlba scheme these appear both in a series of dilemmas and in the tactical responses to them by government officials. The latter effectively placed DCS in the position of mobilising, suppressing or interpreting Ngaanyatjarra tradition in accordance with its goals. This may be understood through examining the programme's orientation to specific aspects or features of 'tradition'.


Violent retribution is understood to have been an appropriate traditional Ngaanyatjarra response to many categories of prohibited or intolerable behaviour. (The reference to tradition here makes no assumptions about what is 'genuinely' traditional. This is a matter about which this article must be agnostic. Its usage throughout refers to that which is believed to be, or is claimed as, traditional by one or other parties involved in the scheme. ) It is commonly stated by Ngaanyatjarra that many of the actions of petrol sniffers in the past would ultimately have been dealt with by beating, spearing, clubbing, banishment or even death. Although not all Ngaanyatjarra people believe that this 'traditional' response should be used against sniffers, many people commented that 'in the old days' there would have been no problem with such young people. The sense was clear that, even if a few had to suffer and even die, other young people would quickly learn the lesson and the problem would disappear.

Physical violence as a response to petrol sniffing was often of concern to DCS workers, and they were aware that it is regarded as a viable tradition and is resorted to from time to time. Yet this confronted DCS staff with an acute dilemma. Although the traditionalist claim of violent responses has to be recognised, DCS workers adopted the view that violence solved nothing, and that the young people concerned needed care and attention . This was shored up by the observation that, in the eyes of some DCS workers, the violent reactions were not 'traditional' responses of a 'legal form', but rather were the irrational outbursts of irate men (and sometimes, women). Obviously the matter is complex, because against this is the point that 'traditional' law often appears this way to Europeans, as there are no formal agencies of 'neutral' control (Keen, 1989). On the other hand, it is sometimes pointed out that alcohol is often a significant stimulus to the violent responses, and that has little to do with tradition. Finally, DCS has an institutionalised aversion to violence in controlling petrol sniffing, because of its watching brief over young people's welfare. In this respect, it has a clear legal responsibility to intervene preventively, for example, per medium of Child 'Care and Protection' Orders.

It is thus not surprising that organisational imperatives won out, and that tradition is either refused ( i.e . 'this is traditional, but it is unacceptable'), or it is denied (i.e. 'this is not really traditional'). However, the fact remains that, although tradition and the restoration of traditional social authority are invoked in support of the programme, this version of traditional response is over-ruled. DCS promotes preferred alternatives as being more effective, as more empowering, and as representing other facets of traditional order. Yet the dilemma remains clear and powerful, and DCS cannot escape the fact that while setting out to shore up Ngaanyatjarra cultural and social autonomy, paradoxically it is setting itself as the arbiter of another people's traditions.


Another traditional Ngaanyatjarra response to petrol sniffing, frequently cited by DCS staff and often referred to in the literature (e.g. Menzies School of Health Research, 1991; Brady, 1992), is that of toleration. It is argued that in Aboriginal society there is a profound respect for the autonomy of others, so much so that is regarded as extremely rude to interfere in another's life. This version or facet of tradition is used to account for a pervading and persistent problem which confronts DCS staff and others - the apparent social tolerance of petrol sniffing. Although by no means universal, DCS workers find this response perplexing, and accounts of tolerant traditionalism are raised to explain the lack of kin intervention. The argument relating to the culture of personal autonomy here is usually backed up with a second account of tradition - that Ngaanyatjarra children are subject to a regime of upbringing at odds with that of white Australians. Whereas the modern culture exposes the children to constant disciplinary surveillance and corrective training. Aboriginal children are given much greater freedom. Children become adults by virtue of initiation rather than by virtue of discipline and so pre-initiates are given great lee way. The tolerance of sniffing is argued to reflect this 'laissez-faire' approach to childhood (see, for example, Brady, 1992).

The point here is not whether these accounts are accurate or inaccurate constructions of traditional culture, but that they are used selectively, albeit with good intent, to justify DCS intervention. Frequently it is argued, both by those Ngaanyatjarra people seeking intervention and by the DCS, that petrol sniffing is a new problem and 'therefore' is beyond the containing powers of traditional child rearing. Although tolerance of children's peculiarities, and non disciplinary child-rearing, are conditionally admired, they are understood to be inadequate to deal with petrol sniffing. Unlike violence, therefore, there is no prohibition or abhorrence of this particular 'traditional' pattern. However it is regarded as relating to a world that is passed, one overtaken by new problems for which people must take active responsibility. Although neither denied nor rejected, this aspect of traditional order is passed over in favour of other 'more suitable' ways.


In spite of what may be read into this account, the introduction of the Marlba scheme was carried out with considerable care and sensitivity. It was recognised that there was no possibility of introducing any such a scheme in the Ngaanyatjarra lands without the approval of the Ngaanyatjarra people and their organisations, and patience and consultation were the order of proceeding. In spite of this stress on consultation, the actual patterns of conferring between DCS and Ngaanyatjarra people were very selective. Overwhelmingly, the negotiations were held with senior male elders, thus excluding two key groups: women and young men.

In part, the exclusion of women followed from the observations that women and men form very distinct spheres of social organisation in traditional order. Consequently, it was taken for granted, in the development of the Marlba scheme, that women's role in group politics must have been fairly limited to that thought of as 'women's business'. It was assumed that, as most of the (visible) petrol sniffing occurred among young men, then it followed that controlling this activity was 'men's business' and women had no place in it. This view was reinforced by a commonly held view among DCS staff that the young men concerned are too physically strong to be controlled by women.

Although plausible, this account overlooks three important matters. The first is that, without exception, the people who remain longest in contact with the petrol sniffers are women. 'Mothers' and 'aunts' (both much wider categories of people than in European society) provide shelter and food long after the adult men appear to have lost interest. The second point is that 'men's' solutions - such as the ritual initiation of sniffers to bring them into adulthood - had been tried, and failed.

The third point concerns the power of women in community decision-making. This has no parallel in Ngaanyatjarra history, for (whatever the power of women in the nomadic order) residential communities were formed only with the arrival of the missionaries and government over the last half century (O'Malley, 1993 ) . It is thus meaningless to construct any explanation of how 'collective decision-making' of this kind worked in the traditional order. However, to European eyes, one of the features of contemporary community decision-making generally appears to be the power of women. Although most decision-making may be dominated by men, women clearly have a decisive say. Yet among DCS officials, beliefs in the gender separation in traditional society and/or of the overarching power of male elders were clearly of overriding influence. On no occasion did I witness a woman being consulted about the Marlba scheme. Yet the attributed gender separation proved to be far from a matter unproblematically traditional and immutable because, in October 1992, Ngaanyatjarra women formally protested the lack of consultation by DCS. The Marlba scheme was based on a vision of male kinship roles which, although no doubt appropriate in many respects, was not as immutable and universally accepted as was assumed by DCS.


In spite of this stress on reinforcing male authority, it was not the case that male elders unanimously threw their combined weight behind the scheme. Rather, there was considerable reserve, and some direct opposition voiced by these people.

The first set of oppositions came from men and women who sought criminal justice solutions. For many people, petrol sniffers were a source of tension and danger, and they wanted nothing better than to be rid of these pests. The solution was simple. The police would take these boys away, the magistrates would convict them and they would be put away ( in Kalgoorlie or Perth) for 3 months. To spend a few days in a community with a serious petrol-sniffing episode is to understand immediately why this course of action is preferred by some people to any 'traditional' solution.

The second set of oppositions was quite different, and stemmed from those Ngaanyatjarra who argued that the problems of petrol sniffing have been blown out of all proportion. These men claimed that petrol sniffing only rarely has long-term effects - witness the number of ex-sniffers who are now leading community members (often this comment was self-referential). Further, petrol sniffing was seen as an expression of young people's resistance to authority, rather than a problem sui generis.

From DCS's position these are all counterproductive arguments which need to be neutralised. The 'law and order' response is denied traditional status, and is defined as not in conformity with the goal of self government. The laissez-faire approach is stated to be wrong about the real effects of sniffing on the bodies of the young. Those advocating these positions are to be neutralised rather than drawn into the scheme. They join a whole range of people not credentialled to represent traditional values or regarded as outside the project's vision of relevant tradition - women, tolerant adults, violently punitive elders. None of these is accredited as a plausible representative of relevant tradition.


The term Marlba was not known to the originators of the scheme until after its inception. Its closest parallel appears to be that of an older 'brother' who keeps an eye on the sibling. Of course it is not objectionable to give a role a title that makes sense in the recipient culture, and no doubt that was the purpose here. Nevertheless it is indicative of the search for naturalism, for the imputed embeddedness of this (government) programme in the Aboriginal setting. Of all the wide variety of traditional ideas and institutions which could have been invoked, only some of which have been outlined above, the Marlba is what emerged. It was created by the work of DCS officials: work to select, sort and interpret, to find and accentuate those traditions consistent with the nature of the scheme. Thus, by a considerable effort of cultural work, a form of governance that everyone knows is external to the culture is made palatable by locating it within 'tradition'.


One reading of this paper is that it is a condemnation of the interference by government officials who resorted to spurious accounts of tradition to foist an alien programme on an unsuspecting people. However, this view cannot be sustained, for the Ngaanyatjarra are not naive or the officials narrowly calculating. All acted in good faith, addressing a generally acknowledged problem, working with interpretations of a body of beliefs and practices no less open, ambiguous and complex than those to which government normally applies itself. As this paper argues, attempts to circumvent a key dilemma of cross-cultural policy work may unintentionally resolve themselves into more subtle forms of government described as 'government at a distance'. In such instances, as here, techniques of self-management bestowed by governing interests teach the subjects to practise apparently 'independently' -but actually in accordance with policy makers' preferences.

The answer to such dilemmas is not to withdraw on the basis of claims that only the indigenous people concerned may make the decisions or that all attempts at non-directive intervention must inevitably prove to be false (compare Dickson-Gilmore, 1992). This may appear to be ethnically unimpeachable, but it is ethically dubious. Dilemmas must be confronted rather than evaded, and the ethic of care is not automatically inferior to that of self-determination. Moreover, many of the indigenous people concerned may seek intervention - sometimes ( as with petrol sniffing in Western Australia) on the moral grounds that white people were responsible for introducing the problem and thus have responsibility for resolving it. Many Europeans would agree with this. For such reasons, workers in the drug area will continue to be involved in interventions involving indigenous peo ples. It follows that a practical and reasonable step is to sensitise those researching and practising in this and comparable fields, to the complex dilemmas confronting even the most sincere attempts to assist indigenous peoples with self-management of drug problems. That, essentially, is what this paper has been about.


I would like to thank the WADCS for its cooperation and unstinting assistance without which this project would have been impossible. Thanks are also due to Dr Garry Coventry who accompanied me on the first field trip, and to the Commonwealth Department of Employment, Education and Training, which assisted with the funding of the research.

Pat O'Malley, Professor and Head of School of Law and Legal Studies, Faculty of Economics, Education and Social Sciences, La Trobe University, Bundoora, Victoria, Australia 3083.


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O'Malley, P. (1993). Satan's Virgin Territory. Governing the Central Australian Reserve. Paper presented at the Australian Law and Society Conference, Melbourne, December 1993.

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Rowse, T. (1990) . Aborigines as historical actors. In S. Janson

and S. Maclntyre ( Eds), Through White Eyes. Sydney: Allen &Unwin

Rowse, T. (1 993) . Strehlow's strap. In B. Attwood and J. Arnold (Eds), Power, Knowledge and Aborigines. Melbourne: La Trobe University Press.


Our valuable member Pat O'Malley has been with us since Sunday, 19 December 2010.

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