Sarah Barr and Chips Mackinolty write:
Grog has long been a part of life in the Northern Territory—with the NT having a per capita consumption twice the rate of the rest of the nation.
The “rivers of grog” described by Pat Anderson, co-author of the Little Children are Sacred (PDF alert) report into child abuse, has barely abated since the release of that report in 2007. Grog, and its impact on Aboriginal communities—particularly women and children—led in turn to the Northern Territory Emergency Response in the same year.
The election of a new government in the Northern Territory, with a mandate to wind back on alcohol controls, and supportive of opening alcohol outlets in remote communities, sent a sharp message to the bush electorates that voted in the new government: unless they spoke out, their views on alcohol on communities might be wiped out.
In announcing the Grog Summit, North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency CEO Priscilla Collins summed up the widespread fears about the devastating effects of alcohol on Aboriginal communities in the NT.
“The effects of grog on our people here in the Territory cannot be denied. It is reflected in the health of our people, in the levels of alcohol-related family and communal violence, and our encounters with the justice and jail systems,” she said.
“Yes, the so-called right to drink alcohol can be—and is—touted still as a civil rights issue. Our people still get refused service in pubs and clubs because of the colour of their skin.
“But missing from the debate is our peoples’ right, collectively and individually, to choose not to suffer the ill effects of grog.
“We believe that if we were to balance the scales of so-called drinking rights with the damage caused by ‘the rivers of grog’, we come out on the side of the women and kids.”
The Grog Summit is one of a series of forums being organised by APO NT, but one that was rushed ahead of schedule to get Aboriginal views in front of the public before key sittings of the new parliament.
APO NT holds the position that alcohol disproportionately affects Aboriginal families and communities. Those sittings involved the abolition of the previous Labor government’s Banned Drinkers Register, and laying the groundwork for the CLP’s proposals to establish mandatory rehabilitation “farms” to get drunks off the suburban streets of Territory towns.
June Oscar and Emily Carter of the Marninwarntikura Womens Resource Centre and Patrick Davies from the Fitzroy Crossing Men’s Shed travelled from Fitzroy Crossing in Western Australia to share their story. The group opened up about the appalling alcohol-related harm in their community. “There was a cloud of alcohol which prevented our community moving forward,” said Ms Oscar.
“Aboriginal families are most affected by the destructive impacts of alcohol. This includes domestic violence, suicide, and removal of children from their families in high levels.”
The Fitzroy mob described the positive impacts which alcohol restrictions had on their small community. They were, however, careful to point out that restrictions were just the start of their journey.
“The restrictions are just to start the healing, and act as a ‘circuit breaker’ to start conversations about alcohol,” said Ms Oscar.
“Restrictions are only one part of the approach in Fitzroy Crossing. But you also need programs to assist the community in recovery, healing and to get back in touch with culture.”
Fitzroy Crossing now has programs for men and boys, such as the run by Patrick Davies. The community also have improved relationships with police. The Police in Fitzroy Crossing have expanded their role to community policing, not just law enforcement.
June Oscar noted that: “There was a chronic over-supply of alcohol, and their community felt different after restrictions. The restrictions allowed for a bit of respite and grieving time to consider how they move forward.”
The theme of breaking the cycle—and not giving in to pressures to bring grog into Aboriginal communities—was strong through the Summit.
The problem of drinkers dominating discussions on alcohol was a recurring refrain. “Drinkers always out vote the non-drinkers,” said Samuel Bush-Blanasi from Wugularr, and a member of the Northern Land Council Executive. “Drinkers always win – and the kids and the non-drinkers are the ones being hurt. The kids don’t get to vote.”
A key resolution from the Summit was to ensure that community consultation processes are not dominated by drinkers but give voice to women, non-drinkers, elders and particularly children—and a push towards community control over the process.
Marius Puruntatameri from the Tiwi Islands spoke passionately about the need for Aboriginal community control.
“We need to empower our people to solve our own problems,” said Mr Puruntatameri.
“We need to include Aboriginal people – be genuine and engage Aboriginal peoples in these processes.”
“Aboriginal people know their communities and we need to resolve problems in our own way”.
This sentiment was echoed by Peter d’Abbs from the Menzies School of Health. Professor d’Abb has extensive experience of the alcohol problems in the NT. He conducted evaluations of alcohol management plans and other initiatives to reduce alcohol problems in Tennant Creek, Katherine, Groote Eylandt and Gove Peninsula.
He said: “Whatever Government does around alcohol must be done with Aboriginal people, not for them, for it to be effective.”
A strong theme running through the meeting was the need to consider children and future generations. As Helen Fejo-Frith from Bagot Community pointed out, “We need to think about our kids and the next generation.”
Dr John Boffa, Public Health Medical Officer at Central Australian Aboriginal Congress spoke about the importance of early intervention. “The scientific rationale for early intervention is overwhelming,” he said.
“Adults who had adverse childhoods showed higher levels of violence and antisocial behaviour, adult mental health problems, school underperformance and lower IQs, economic underperformance and poor physical health,” said Dr Boffa.
Dr Boffa described the Nurse Family Partnerships program operating at Congress. The program aims to improve pregnancy outcomes, child health and development and parent’s economic self-sufficiency. The program is already having positive results.
There are no easy solutions to the complex problem of alcohol in NT communities. What is clear is a new approach is needed. A key message from the Summit is that alcohol restrictions will break through the haze, but what happens next is vital. And whatever happens, Aboriginal people need to be in control.
The alternatives are unthinkable, according to Mildred Inkamala from Ntaria in Central Australia.
“Grog is killing our people,” she told the summit.
“It means people no longer show respect for each other and culture. Grog is affecting their brains, and connection to culture.”
A further Grog Summit will be held in Alice Springs in the new year.