Back to All News

Low Aromatic Fuel Bill - Debate

Video & Multimedia
Rachel Siewert 22 Nov 2012


I am very pleased that this chamber is finally able to debate the Low Aromatic Fuel Bill 2012 because unfortunately, despite the very serious and sustained efforts to end it, petrol sniffing is still persistent in some areas of Australia.

Over the past 20 years it has been the subject of reports, inquiries, coronial inquiries and research projects. The impact of petrol sniffing on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander individuals and communities is very well documented and well known. The petrol-sniffing inquiry, in fact, was one of the first committee inquiries that I participated in in this place back in 2005-2006. The committee recognised that the situation with petrol sniffing in Australia was dire, and since that inquiry I am very pleased that there has been considerable movement on this issue.

We do now have a petrol-sniffing strategy and we have seen great progress all over Central Australia in dealing with this problem. There are very good programs that are supporting communities in their goal to eradicate petrol sniffing. Most fuel stations in the targeted areas have switched to low-aromatic, non-sniffable or, as it is known, Opal fuel, resulting in a 94 per cent drop in petrol sniffing. That is according to the government's assessment of the success of the program.

But, unfortunately, there is still petrol sniffing occurring, and there are re-occurring outbreaks. One example that CAYLUS, which is the Central Australian Youth Link Up Service, spoke to Lateline about when they were presenting submissions and evidence to the latest inquiry, the inquiry into this bill, is:

There was one outbreak that sort of spread like wildfire through the Western Desert, which was 12-year-olds, the average age was 11 or 12. A kid came in and showed other kids how to do it and off it took.

When it was managed to be stopped in one community, one of the kids went to the next community and started it up there, and there were another 12 kids sniffing there. It took a couple of months of serious work by a lot of people to bring that one back under control.

And that was some of the evidence that CAYLUS gave to the inquiry.

This occurred because, unfortunately, sniffable fuel is still readily available in some places. These outbreaks are very closely linked to gaps in the rollout of a non-sniffable fuel. These gaps exist because up until now we have relied on suppliers signing up to this process voluntarily. Currently, the government designates target areas under the strategy for non-sniffable fuel use, and then works and lobbies petrol station owners to have Opal or non-sniffable fuel replace regular unleaded fuel. Of course communities and service stations can also receive Opal on request, and this is part of the strategy for rolling it out.

However, where petrol suppliers fail or refuse to collaborate the problem of petrol sniffing and its associated horrors is more likely to occur; in communities close to those petrol stations that refuse to engage with supplying Opal fuel you can track outbreaks.

CAYLUS provided an example from my home state of Western Australia where, up until the rollout of Opal in Laverton, the owner of one particular service station there had been refusing to stock Opal for a number of years. Fortunately, there was a change of ownership and the new owners agreed to stock Opal. That has had a dramatic impact in reducing the number of sniffers. The association between dealing with petrol sniffing and the rolling out of Opal is very clear.

We have been gathering evidence on this for quite some time. The Senate inquiry into this bill has clearly documented the success of the rollout of the Opal fuel program. But it has also shown firsthand that the categorical rejection of Opal fuel by a small minority, with what some witnesses called a 'pig-headed response', is where we have been struggling. As I have articulated, that is where we have the gaps. This is why we believe that it is very important that the government has the power to mandate the use of low-aromatic fuel. We believe it is essential, because we absolutely need that power to be able to do this so that we plug these gaps in the sniffing strategy.

As of February this year, there were at least eight, and possibly more, retailers who have consistently refused to stock low-aromatic fuel. Evidence collected by the Central Australian Youth Link Up Service, CAYLUS, suggests that these refusals have resulted in further sniffing incidents. We heard about those during the Senate inquiry.

According to CAYLUS there have been areas of concern in Papunya, Lake Nash, Titjikala, Alice Springs, Kintore, Ti Tree, Canting Creek and a number of other places. These are the current places where, we understand, the evidence has come in over the last six months that there have been sniffing outbreaks. For example, Lake Nash is very close to a pub over the border in Queensland, Urandangi, which stocks sniffable fuel. That is, sniffable fuel is run into Lake Nash, which is trying really hard to deal with issues around petrol sniffing. Because cars can carry it across the border, it is really easy to bring it into Lake Nash. Because petrol sniffing does not contain itself within state borders, there needs to be a national approach to mandating fuel supply in designated zones rather than leaving it up to individual states and territories, as the federal government has previously proposed. We believe that it is essential to have a nationally coordinated response.

The Senate inquiry heard evidence to this effect from the Warlpiri Youth Development Aboriginal Corporation who said:

Warlpiri families come and go across state borders so, for maximum impact, we would like to see this legislation applied to Western Australia, Queensland and South Australia as well as the Northern Territory. We know that Opal fuel has proven effective but, unless the sale of Opal is mandated, and across the broader region, there is a real danger of sniffing outbreaks and devastating consequences.

The evidence I have heard for over seven years now clearly shows that controlling access to sniffable fuel can have, and does have, a significant impact on the ability of communities to prevent harm coming to their young people. Organisations in Central Australia, health and drug services and individuals from affected communities have all voiced their support for this particular legislative approach, and that was very clear through the inquiry process but also from sustained lobbying over a number of years. This has been on the cards for a long time because we know there have been significant gaps in the strategy. 

I am not for one minute at all trying to run down what has been achieved so far. It has been an outstanding program of success. It is one of those programs where we can all stand really proudly and say that there has been multiparty support for this and it has been a success. So why not capitalise on that success? We are almost there in dealing with this problem of petrol sniffing.

Although we have had this comprehensive program provided, there are gaps. We know that Opal fuel on its own cannot alone achieve the stamping out of petrol sniffing. We know that it has to be part of a comprehensive approach. It is absolutely crucial, because it buys time in order to get in with youth diversionary programs and the other support programs such as drug and alcohol support programs. We know that it is successful, but we also know that unless we deal with these areas of outbreak associated with sniffable fuel, we will continue to undermine that success. 

As has been articulated to the Senate inquiry and to me personally, the gains achieved to date through the rollout of Opal fuel are critical and crucial, but they are also fragile. We currently have a generation of children in much of the region who have grown up free of a sniffing culture. However, due to what we believe are the irresponsible decisions of some retailers, the sniffing culture appears to be once again rearing its head in some sites. We know from hard experience that sniffing, once established in an affected community, can rapidly spread. It is an epidemic we do not wish to relive. Again, that was evidence from CAYLUS during the Senate inquiry.

Though the provision of low-aromatic fuel is not on its own a solution, it is absolutely critical to a holistic approach. CAYLUS has had long experience in the field—and I think senators who have had any dealings with CAYLUS will know that they are one of the most respected youth services in Central Australia and that they have played a critical role in dealing with the issue of petrol sniffing. As CAYLUS said, 

We were doing this before Opal, and we would try all the other measures. You could start a youth program in a community and you would get a lot of the sniffers to stop but not all of them. But once you have Opal in a community the sniffing stops and then the youth programs can really go because they are not competing against people who are off their faces all the time. 

The importance of Opal has been clearly demonstrated. All it has lacked is the final part to ensure that the petrol sniffing strategy has the capacity to proceed in the face of consistent denial from the petrol station owners. As Andrew Stojanovski, who was awarded the Order of Australia Medal for his work at Yuendumu in setting up the Mount Theo Petrol Sniffing Prevention Program, told the committee: 

Opal is a solution that governments and communities can readily  implement. Its use in Central Australia has really taken the pressure off communities and provides a breathing space where community workers can actually focus on programs that address the personal and social issues underlying petrol sniffing. When sniffing is rife in a community it is near impossible to do this, the power, violence and dysfunction caused by sniffing is too overwhelming.

This is why I have introduced this bill as a private member's bill, because we have spent so long working on this issue as a collective effort to address the issues of petrol sniffing. This is the element that the communities have said is missing from the strategy. They have been lobbying for a long time for this. We have had three Senate inquiries. The Senate inquiry in 2009 found that the Opal program was overwhelmingly successful but it identified this gap and said that if retailers were refusing to stock Opal fuel or low-aromatic fuel the government should proceed to mandate the requirement to stock Opal fuel. 

This is why I am bringing this bill to the chamber. The government has not brought it on. There is overwhelming support. I was lobbied very heavily by the communities Central Australia who need this vital element to make sure that they can control petrol sniffing in their communities. This is also a very powerful tool. The communities have also been lobbying heavily for this so that they can then implement their other youth programs, the diversionary programs, and work to really address the underlying causes of petrol sniffing. 

This bill will give the minister the power to mandate low-aromatic fuel and make it an offence to supply regular fuel in these places. It will also give the minister the power to create fuel control areas by legislative instrument, which will give the minister the capacity to tailor the measures to the particular community—after consulting them.

Consultation and flexibility are at the heart of these measures because this bill is about helping communities affected by petrol sniffing by complementing the existing strategies and programs. Consultation has been a very big part of the development of this bill. I believe this has been an effective process. We developed the bill in consultation with and with feedback from communities. We made sure it got referred to Senate inquiry. The overwhelming number of submissions to the Senate inquiry supported this bill and very strongly endorsed this approach. We have taken on board the feedback from the Senate inquiry and subsequently will amend the bill. We have consulted again on those measures. We have talked to as many of the stakeholders as we possibly can and, as I said, we have received overwhelming support for these measures.

I will discuss the purpose of the amendments in the committee stage, but I want to acknowledge the many people who participated in the Senate inquiry. We were pleased to see the proper process of consultation and committee inquiry work here, the idea being that, when you bring a bill to the Senate, it goes off to inquiry, you get feedback and you make amendments in response to that feedback. So, where a bill is not perfect, in response to very sensible review and comment you can make amendments that reflect the feedback from the community. I stress again: this bill has the strong support of Aboriginal organisations, health organisations, community organisations, individuals and communities. They want the minister to have the power to mandate the supply of low-aromatic fuel, because it is absolutely critical to dealing with the scourge of petrol sniffing.

I have been in communities and seen for myself the impact that taking away sniffable fuel has. As CAYLUS said, it provides the window of opportunity for people to get in and deal with the other underlying causes of petrol sniffing. During the committee inquiry, some of the concern was that, if you take away sniffable fuel, people will switch to other forms of substance abuse. The evidence in fact does not support that. The evidence supports the idea that this does provide a window of opportunity to give youth in particular another chance to address those underlying causes and have sufficient diversionary programs so that these youth can move completely away from substance abuse.

When petrol stations just pig-headedly refuse to stock Opal fuel, this bill gives the government or the minister, after they have carefully consulted, the capacity to say, 'You know what? You really need to stock non-sniffable fuel.' As the evidence to the committee inquiry overwhelmingly demonstrated, when people can get access to sniffable fuel and run that into communities, that is where you get petrol-sniffing outbreaks. Again, the evidence overwhelmingly shows that that is the case. Once somebody starts petrol sniffing in a community, it is very easy to get other kids sniffing, and then it moves on to other communities.

As I said, this bill has the overwhelming support of the community organisations that we have consulted. We have consulted them extensively and, under the bill, the minister will be required to consult as well. So it is not as if this is something that the minister can apply willy-nilly over the states and territories in Australia. The minister will need to consult under this bill. It is the missing piece to finally dealing with petrol sniffing, which can so devastate our communities. Petrol sniffing has largely occurred in Central Australia, but it does occur elsewhere and it is increasingly occurring in the north of the Northern Territory and in Western Australia around Warburton, Laverton, which I have already discussed, and in some places in the Kimberley. We need for the minister to have the power of mandate where we see this sort of thing happening and where service stations are simply refusing to stock Opal. It is not good enough that these pigheaded service station owners can undermine the effectiveness of what is such a good program where Australia can rightly hold its head up high and say, 'We took action to address this issue.'

Amendments will be circulated in the chamber and will be discussed in the committee stage. I very strongly commend this bill to the chamber. It is that final link in addressing the issues around petrol sniffing, and it has the overwhelming support of the community. I am absolutely and totally convinced of that.

Back to All News