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Monday 30 September 2013

Special Edition 51

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New grog bans for Coober Pedy

By Karen Ashford
Source: World News Australia Radio, 26 September

Alcohol bans which could possibly be the toughest in the country are being imposed at Coober Pedy, to tackle what's been described as a grog crisis.

The tiny South Australian mining town 850 kilometres north west of Adelaide has a small population, but a big drinking problem, with almost 40,000 casks and bottles sold there in 11 months.
Normally home to just 1700 people, Coober Pedy has become a magnet for drinkers escaping alcohol bans across the border in Northern Territory and Western Australia.
It's prompted a crackdown by Liquor and Gambling Commissioner Paul White.
From next Monday it's going to be a lot harder to get a drink in Coober Pedy.
"I've imposed a condition that says if you reside at one of the prescribed lands, which roughly speaking is the APY Lands, or some of the Northern Territory communities close to the South Australian border or Western Australia, then you cannot purchase take away alcohol from the outlets in Coober Pedy."
Liquor and Gambling Commissioner Paul White says while the focus is mainly on people from prescribed areas, they're not the only ones who'll be affected.
"Anyone suspected of travelling to those lands, those prescribed lands, cannot be sold liquor. Photographic identification is going to be required, there'll be a limit on the hours for take away from 11am to 8pm each day, and the sale of liquor such as wine, port wine and spirits will be limited to one 750 ml bottle per person per day."
And Mr White says the most popular drink in town will be forbidden.
"Cask wine will be banned. That is referred to in Coober Pedy as the drink of choice by a lot of people that come to Coober Pedy to buy take-away. So there'll be no sales of cask wine."
It's taken 18 months of consultations to get to this point, and while Paul White acknowledges liquor retailers weren't exactly happy with the changes, he says the community's social needs were the priority.
"I'm hopeful that these conditions will go towards making for a much safer environment for Coober Pedy and for the APY Lands and those other communities. Clearly the reason for the conditions is the overwhelming evidence that I've received that public safety, public order is a major, major concern within the communities and that something needs to be done to stem the supply of alcohol to these communities. They were seeking my support, if you like, to assist in reducing the inflow of grog into these communities."
Coober Pedy Mayor Steve Baines says the sheer scale of alcohol abuse has been taking a toll on health agencies, police and social services, struggling to deal with fighting, domestic violence, car accidents and illness.
"In the last 11 months there's been 18,200 casks of wine sold. Now we've got a population of 1700 people. That's 500 casks of wine per week, on top of 18,400 bottles."
Aboriginal leader George Cooley say the changes are courageous and potentially lifesaving.
As chairman of the Umoona Aboriginal Council, Mr Cooley is concerned services that are intended for locals are being stretched beyond capacity by outsiders.
"As the restrictions for the purchase and take away of alcohol that has happened in the Norther Territory, say from Alice Springs all the way down to the border and down to Marla, it sort of moved a lot of the people coming off the communities further north from us or even west of us, coming more and more into Coober Pedy to purchase alcohol. It caused an influx and overflow of people and we've spent years developing the community, building the infrastructure, building houses, building all our facilities and it's got more and more overused by other people."
Christopher Charles from the state's Aboriginal Legal service, thinks a statewide approach to alcohol management in indigenous communities is needed.
He's coordinating a summit, hopefully before the end of the year.
"The illnesses that people get, the alcohol related violence that flows from liquor getting into dry communities is really very severe and a very serious problem, and we think that an important impulse to stop this is to get a summit of all communities, get them all together at the same table and talking to government authorities about more effective rule to stop the liquor getting into dry communities because that's what they want."
However, there are also concerns that bans alone won't solve the cause of drinking, nor help those with addiction to kick the habit.
Commissioner White, a former Territory police officer who's seen the devastation alcohol brings, acknowledges some people might be concerned that the changes target indigenous people.
But he argues that's the point.
He says he will revisit the changes in six months, to gauge their effectiveness.
"Nobody would suggest there is a silver bullet answer to any of the conditions affecting some of these communities, and the unsafe environment in which they find themselves, however I believe that the conditions taken together will have an effect - we'll wait and see."
Two officers from the liquor licensing commission will be in Coober Pedy next week for the introduction of the new restrictions.
Posters in English and Pitjantjatjara are also on their way to the printer.

Does a Faltering Opal Market Spell Doom For Coober Pedy?

By Melissa Paine.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the uncertain future of opal mining in Australia. Years of a booming mining sector draining young talent, uncertain and sometimes stifling business and regulatory conditions, and competition from synthetic opals have all contributed to the local industry's gradual decline. Towns that were built and thrived on the opal industry such as New South Wales' Lightening Ridge are now wondering what the future holds. The Lightening Ridge Mining Association even held a public meeting earlier this year to rally support for their town and its opal industry.
In Coober Pedy, the “Opal Capital of the World”, it is important to realise these issues exist – even with a council that prioritises keeping an opal industry as vital. The town already has a declining population according to the 2011 Census, as well as a relatively high unemployment rate. Could a faltering Australian opal industry be the last straw for one of Australia's most recognised opal bases.
Almost a Century of Opal Discoveries
Coober Pedy has been associated with opals and opal mining since they were first discovered in February 1915 by a group of prospectors searching for gold. The arrival of a railway line combined with the migration of construction worker and returned soldier miners cemented the town's future, as the famous dugout mining method developed. Today, with more than 70 opal fields Coober Pedy is the largest opal mining area in the world and supplies roughly 80 per cent of the world's opals. However, there are increasing worries that Australia's historic opal mining industry is in deep trouble. Something that could have drastic implications for Coober Pedy.
Losing Talent, Too Many Regulations
Most opal miners are self-employed – searching for, digging out and selling opals as they go. While this maximises profit by eliminating any middlemen or bosses, it can result in unstable pay checks. Compare this to the huge, $100,000-plus pay rates being offered by mining companies and it is easy to understand why many younger people have left opal mining. Some industry insiders now estimate the average age of opal miners is 60 years old as a result. Compounding this, many opal miners in Australia are complaining that increasing costs and regulatory frameworks are making opal mining harder than ever. Kev Phillips, who has been mining opals in Queensland since the 1980s, told the ABC that “mountains of fees and paperwork imposed by state governments” was pushing people out of the industry. It goes without saying that anything pushing people from the industry will equally discourage the next generation from joining – furthering the exodus of young blood. Add to this mix the impact of synthetic opals, introduced to the market from the mid 1970s and now estimated by some to be impacting by as much as $300 million, and it is easy to understand why Australia's industry may be in trouble. With opals acknowledged as the backbone of the Coober Pedy economy, there is a real danger for the town's economic future.
Hope in Oil and Gas
Paradoxically, for Coober Pedy the mining, oil and gas industry which drained much of the opal industry's young blood is the very thing that could provide a foundation for future prosperity. At the start of this year Brisbane-based company Linc Energy released oil drilling reports estimating there could be between 3.5 billion and 233 billion barrels of oil in the Coober Pedy's Arckaringa Basin, worth trillions of dollars. Linc engaged Barclays Bank to find an investment partner to help fund the staggering $150-$300 million cost of the project's next stage. Finding the money should not be problematic, with the outlook for oil stocks good and promising with “robust” earnings and dividend streams, according to money.co.uk. This shale oil find alone could spark a new boom in Coober Pedy reminiscent of the town's opal exploration boom of the 1960s and 1970s.
Looking Towards Tourism
Tourism could be Coober Pedy's other economic saviour. The town's world-famous reputation as the Opal Capital of the World has created a strong local tourism industry, and given it the sort of international exposure many other isolated Australian towns would love to have. In fact, tourism has developed so much that it is one of Coober Pedy's biggest industries these days – equal to opals. Although it is important to recognise that this tourism is intrinsically linked to opals, including events such as the annual gem shows and opal festivals. Without maintaining this strong link, Coober Pedy's tourism industry would surely suffer despite attractions such as underground houses, churches and museums. By 2007, the Coober Pedy district was averaging more than 100,000 international and domestic visitors a year injecting tens of millions into the local economy. While this has been impacted by 2008's global financial meltdown tourism remains a strong local industry. This was recently recognised by the District Council of Coober Pedy, which named tourism a primary economic driver for the area that was critical for the future in its Strategic Plan 2013/14–2017/18.
Diversification Essential
This year's major oil revelations mean Coober Pedy is particularly well placed to survive any drastic downturn in the opal industry. However, as recognised by the council, tourism and opal mining are both essential to a prosperous future for the town. It is an important step for government to recognise and act on this. More must be done to preserve the historic opal industry, lest Coober Pedy risk putting all its eggs in the oil and gas industry – and risk facing an eventual Lightening Ridge situation. A vital first step for this is to attract young blood back into a dying art.

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