Blair McFarland has been named the Northern Territory Australian of the Year for 2024, in an acknowledgement of his decades of work stamping out petrol-sniffing in Central Australia.

Initially humbled and embarrassed by his nomination, Mr McFarland said the award places important value on significant contributions in challenging circumstances.

“I do see it as a recognition of the capacity to really take on serious, seemingly intractable problems and overcome them,” Mr McFarlane said.

Mr McFarland moved to Central Australia in 1986, and as he came to understand the lives and culture of Indigenous people in the region, he also witnessed petrol sniffing take hold.

“It got beyond the scale where communities could actually deal with it,” said Mr McFarland.

“I was working with night patrols at that stage, and they were saying, ‘It’s just impossible. Good blokes are sniffing now.’

“It wasn’t anything that they could deal with. We needed a more coordinated response, and we needed a response that actually drew everybody into the tent to fix it.”

Solutions to sniffing

Committed to addressing the problem of petrol sniffing, Mr McFarland founded the Central Australian Youth Link-Up Service (CAYLUS) in 2002.

“For a number of years, we tried improving youth programs and improving and supporting local Indigenous rehab outstations which helped a bit,” he said.

However, stopping the problem at the source by restricting access to high-risk substances was crucial.

CAYLUS was instrumental in orchestrating the rollout of Opal fuel in Central Australia, working with grassroots communities, local government, the Northern Territory government, and the federal government.

“The government, to its credit, rolled out Opal into communities including Alice Springs eventually. And sniffing went down by 95 per cent pretty much overnight,” Mr McFarland said.

“It was like stopping a haemorrhage,” he said.

CAYLUS continues to support communities across the bottom half of the Northern Territory, establishing rehabilitation services, youth programs, night patrols, youth worker traineeships, and film and radio projects in local languages.

“There’s a lot more work to do, and it’s about making lives better for kids,” said Mr McFarlane.

The organisation is a division of Tangentyere Council, and only works in communities at the request of local people and agencies.

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