An extraordinary story about personal responsibility
It is not the done thing for one reporter to quote vast slabs of another reporter’s work. There’s one’s own ego to think of, not to mention copyright.
But Darwin ABC’s morning presenter, Julia Christensen, has given her blessing to The Punch to reproduce great slabs of her interview with the Country Liberals’ member for Port Darwin, John Elferink, conducted on local radio yesterday morning.
We do this as a public service. Chances are that never in your life will you have heard such a bizarre set of admissions from a public figure. Unless you were listening when the Elf, as he is known up here in the Northern Territory, last turned up on radio.
The context is this: a debate in the Territory parliament on proposed alcohol-control laws – which the Elf reckons won’t work. The Elf told the House on Tuesday night that he’d had his first drink when he was five - and only came to his senses many years later when he fell out of an air-conditioning vent at the Darwin casino.
The Elf is a troubled but likeable soul. He never lies – but he does confess. He is a former NT copper who crossed into right-wing politics. That’s often enough to set off alarm bells, but the Elf is cool. Sort of.
He’s never been never tarnished by allegations of hatefulness or corruption – though we do recall the allegations of him pork-barrelling central Australian Aboriginal constituents with frozen kangaroo tails. (Denied, of course.)
For those who don’t know the Elf, imagine a Roman senator parading in the far-north sweatshop: decent, logical, dignified, robust – and given to talking to his horse.
Christensen: Tell me firstly about your drinking history. I mean, you know, a lot of us starting drinking when we were reasonably young, but five is very young.
The Elf: Oh, look, I believe that, as unlikely as it’ll sound to many of your listeners, I had a predisposition to become an addict or an alcoholic or whatever from day one. I remember one very distinct thing about that occasion, in fact I remember the occasion very well, I saw it almost as a rite of passage. But, the thing I remember is that I looked to that small amount of Carlton Draught in the bottom of that plastic cup as something that was going to change me.
I was already at that age conscious enough to be insecure about who I was and already having those preliminary feelings of isolation in life, those sorts of things. As my drinking progressed through my young teens, the binge-drinking started. I stole often to support my liquor habit, no problem there, and, as a consequence of that, you end up going to a place, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, which is a very dark and ugly place to be.
By the time I was 21, hallucinations had been visited upon me, I had the delirium tremors, and, on occasion, I would find myself standing in front of a toilet bowl, asking myself which end to I point at the toilet bowl first. And I know it’s a bit graphic, but it was an ugly place to be. What was worse was the perpetual feeling of guilt and remorse in amongst a seething resentment against the world. Finally, that calamitous night back in 1986 where I made a complete fool of myself at the casino.
Christensen: How did you end up in an air-conditioning vent?
The Elf: It’s a little bit chequered, but I was wearing a pair of shorts and singlet when they finally, sort of, found me. So, I’d obviously come in from outside, I’d found some way into the building and, basically, was crawling around in the air-conditioning ducts. I was in such a bad state that the casino didn’t even proffer charges.
I mean, there would have been some trespass charges and those sorts of things they could have flowed from it. But, what I was confronted with was you have to become responsible for yourself, John, you have to deal with these issues, and I was a mess.
I think that if a doctor had seen me at that point he may well have determined it was some sort of psychotic episode, I would say that that’s possibly fair because of the condition I was in.
Christensen: But it was actually a police officer that provided the jolt, if you like, wasn’t it?
The Elf: Oh, look, whilst I was very, very fortunate, there were several people who I was working with, police officers, who pulled me aside and said, “You are kidding, sunshine, if you think this job is going to last 10 minutes longer with your attitudes”.
Christensen: You were in the police at the time?
The Elf: Yes, I was. I joined as a police cadet. I basically fudged my way through the entrance process and it became a regular source of income, which then supplied a liquor habit and I drank for one reason only, to get drunk, to get wasted, to become something else and so when I was finally confronted with the enormity of what I was and what I was becoming and where I was headed, it was a horrible, ugly place to be.
But, I realised at that point - and realise to this day - is that government couldn’t fix it. If I’d determined at that point that there was no problem and, you know, it was all the rest of the world’s fault, then there’s nothing that government could have done to stop that. The current government’s policies are aimed at trying to tell these people, “You’re actually a victim, there’s something wrong with you and it’s somebody else’s fault.”
My childhood details are matter of public note nowadays [he was sexually assaulted by an employee when he was a teenager], none of that’s a secret, I could blame that and people would all sit around and say, “Oh, yes, it’s poor dreadful John. He went though all those dreadful things in his childhood.”
The fact is that, whether it’s fair or not isn’t the issue, it’s what am I going to do about it? By telling these people that it’s somebody else’s fault, you’re actually giving them excuses to continue with the same conduct and that’s essentially where the Government’s policy is going.
We have to start confronting drunks, particularly those regular drunks, the ones that we see in our parks and gardens, with the conduct that they’re engaged in and saying to them “The buck stops with you, mate, it’s up to you to start fixing these problems. We’ll help you, if you decide to do it, but we’re not going to sit there and champion your cause and tell you that you’re a victim.”
Christensen: That is an incredible story that you’ve just told us and very revealing. But, aren’t you basically telling us that you did see yourself as a victim through your childhood circumstances?
The Elf: Ah, yes, in many respects I was a victim. I was a victim of a profound sexual assault, that’s not anything new, when I was a child, that’s well know, it’s well established, the fellow responsible for that’s gone to jail, he’s served his time.
But, the point is, is that that can either become an excuse to sustain my bad behaviour, let’s say I continued drinking and continued to drink to this day and I was sitting in a park somewhere and still saying “Oh, it’s not fair that 35 years ago or 30 years ago I was sexually assaulted as a child.”
The causal link is now so remote that it doesn’t really make sense; it’s just an excuse to continue conduct. The fact is that if I’m drinking, I picked up that drink that day, and that’s my responsibility, not some paedophile from 30 years ago.
Christensen: But, there was somebody there to say to you “This has got to stop, sunshine.”
The Elf: Yep.
Christensen: Does the community need to take that responsibility, to some extent?
The Elf: Well, that’s what the Country Liberals are advocating—-
Unfortunately, that’s where we have to leave the interview. Certainly, thereafter it goes into the important bits about what the debate is all about, but if you want to learn about that, check Hansard from Tuesday, in the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly.
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