I am working in my general practice in the CBD when the phone rings. The receptionist’s voice is urgent: Howard, there’s a man collapsed outside on the street. Can you go?
I can. Grabbing a few tools, I race out into the street where a small crowd is gathering around a man in a suit. He lies flat on his back on the footpath outside the bookshop. Behind his head is a cylindrical object in a brown paper bag. Liquor leaks through the brown paper.
The man lies hard against the foot of a large window displaying the cream of our written culture. The man would have leaned against the window for support, fallen and stayed where he fell.
The man lies, motionless. The authority of my stethoscope opens a space for me between spectators, ambulance callers, vociferous suggesters, silent gawkers, head cradlers. The stethoscope reassures, the suggesters fall silent.
The man we all regard, the man we all fear, does not respond to questions. Nor to deep pressure of my thumb against his forehead. He lies insensible in Martin Place, grunting his shallow breaths, creased face purpled and puffy, grey hair, grey suit awry. Beneath my finger a thin pulse beats, fast and feeble.
His breath is a brewery. The wrist in my hand is criss-crossed with ancient slash marks, white against ashen skin.
It is 10.00 a.m.
This is a human person of my age, nameless to us, nameless to himself, his being reduced by alcohol and secret griefs.
The ambulance arrives and I go back inside.
In the course of fifty working visits to outback communities, I have seen this man before. He lies on the streets of memory in Alice, in Katherine – those soft reassuring feminine names – he is there in Nhullunbuy, in Halls Creek, in Broome, Balgo and Jabiru.
He lies there, mon frere, mon semblable, stupefied, reduced by griefs secret and patent.
Here is one whose charred trousers conceal a burned leg. The flesh falls away in my hands as I examine him. In his deep insensibility he rolled into the ashes of his campfire and he did not awaken.
In the late Howard era, I am working outback where I awaken one morning to news of Intervention. The army arrives, charged with fighting sexual abuse, alcohol abuse, pornography and the drug trade. There is talk of dismantling the permit system. Some places in the Territory will have grog. Others will be restricted.
It appears there’ll be one law for some Australians, another for the rest. I recall the Nuremburg Laws and I am troubled. Will this be goodbye to equality?
Blackfella Australia is not confused: on local radio the
talkback lines burn with anger. People feel betrayed.
Soon, however, we notice a dramatic fall in road trauma and in assaults in areas where the grog tide recedes. Casualty departments are suddenly quieter places.
A local copper explains: “You can’t drink here unless you have a grog permit. Anyone can get one. You keep it until you’ve been violent or you’ve driven under the influence. Then you lose your permit; you can’t buy grog and no one is allowed to supply grog to you.”
Elsewhere, however, in the towns where the grog tides ebb and flow in the old cycles of pension payments, humans are wrecked as before.
In Alice Springs, Halls Creek, Melbourne, in all the grog towns of this nation, we need Intervention.