Australian Aborigines Turn to Anti-Drinking Programs

Article excerpt

TWENTY-SIX years ago, at the age of 19, Bobby McLeod had the dubious ability to consume a pint of beer in six seconds. Today, Mr. McLeod, an Aborigine, is a nondrinker, and is also helping other native Australians get "off the grog."

Instead of handing out jail sentences, judges are sending Aborigines to McLeod's beach-side "self-healing" center, called Doonooch. McLeod says all the Aborigines who have gone through his treatment "properly" are now nondrinkers.

McLeod is part of a refreshing wind shift within the Aboriginal community. Grass-roots movements now are springing up as Aborigines become increasingly distressed by the violence and damage excessive alcoholic consumption causes their communities. This revulsion has resulted in women patrolling the streets at night to discourage drinking, concerts designated as grog-free, Aboriginal sports days and, in some cases, the shutting down of beer canteens.

These grass-roots efforts are likely to receive some financial backing March 31, when the government is due to release its response to a Royal Commission that looked into the deaths in custody of 99 Aborigines. The commission singled out alcohol abuse as an issue the government must address.

Tourists visiting Alice Springs look out at groups of Aborigines drinking on the town's fringes. In February, drunken rioters in Queensland caused $80,000 (Australian; US$61,160) worth of damage and menaced police with spears and axes.

Anti-grog groups, inspired by the success of Canadian Indians at Alkalai Lake in British Columbia, now say change is possible. Residents used to call the community "Alcohol Lake." Both Native Americans and Aborigines developed patterns of binge drinking in groups, imbibing as long as they had money. Neither culture had much experience with alcohol and did not receive the right to drink until the 1960s.

About 15 years ago, Canadian Indians began returning to tribal customs and developed 28-day Alcoholics Anonymous-type programs. A key feature of their programs is the continuous training of instructors to prevent burn-out.

The founder of a number of those programs, Eric Shirt, has been hired by at least two Aboriginal groups as a consultant, and several anti-grog activists have gone through Mr. Shirt's training programs in Canada.

The movement coincides with some changes taking place in governmental attitudes. In November 1991, Marshall Perron, chief minister of Australia's Northern Territory, announced a major crackdown on alcohol sales. Among the measures was a new tax, a tightening of liquor license laws, and an education program. …