Closing the Gap PM speech today:The rivers of grog must not be reopened, says Julia Gillard

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Picture and Article The Australian 6 February: the morning of the close the Gap Speech

JULIA Gillard will today declare that “rivers of grog” are returning to indigenous communities and commit her government to take action against the Northern Territory and Queensland governments over “any irresponsible policy changes” to overturn alcohol bans.

The Prime Minister will use her annual Closing the Gap statement to parliament today to warn that the disadvantage gap confronting Aborigines cannot be closed if alcohol is allowed back into their communities.

“I have a real fear that the rivers of grog that wreaked such havoc among indigenous communities are starting to flow once again,” Ms Gillard will say.

“The government will take action in response to any irresponsible policy changes that threaten to forfeit our hard-won gains.”

The speech comes two weeks after the Prime Minister intervened to recruit Olympian Nova Peris as the Northern Territory’s Senate candidate for the September election, overriding the rank-and-file members’ right to vote for their own candidate and dumping sitting senator Trish Crossin.

Ms Gillard argued that the break from process was necessary to parachute the first indigenous woman into federal parliament to represent the Labor Party, and elevate the party’s commitment to indigenous representation.

And at a function in Canberra last night, the Prime Minister announced that Labor would commit $14.4 million in funding over the next four years to Reconciliation Australia – the national body that promotes reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians.

Ms Gillard will use today’s speech to call on the Territory’s Country Liberal Party government to reinstate the Banned Drinkers Register, which it dumped four days after it was elected last year, and for the Queensland Liberal National Party government to exercise “extreme caution” in reviewing remote community alcohol restrictions in Queensland.

The measures prompted an outcry from figures such as Noel Pearson, former ALP national president Warren Mundine and academic Marcia Langton, who warned that 20 years of efforts to contain the devastating effects of alcohol abuse would be destroyed.

Ms Gillard will cite Mr Pearson’s use of the word “tragedy” to describe the Newman government’s plans for Queensland indigenous communities.

She will argue that closing the gap between black and white Australians is already a difficult task and will be made impossible if alcohol is allowed to return in places where it has created dysfunction and robbed people of normality and safety.

“Progress on Closing the Gap is hard enough without taking retrograde steps and undoing the good work that has already been accomplished,” she will say.

“This is why I am very concerned about the alcohol policies adopted by the Country Liberal Party since it came to government in the Northern Territory.

“I am concerned about plans touted by the Liberal National Party in Queensland to wind back restrictions in that state, too.”

She will say she was concerned that the Banned Drinkers Register was dismantled by the Northern Territory government on August 29 last year, four days after the NT election.

Ms Gillard will say the Territory’s Banned Drinkers Register was working.

“After its first year of operation, alcohol-related assaults dropped in Darwin, Palmerston, Alice Springs and Katherine,” Ms Gillard will tell parliament. “According to the then Northern Territory government, there were 10,000 fewer anti-social instances reported. People felt safer walking around their home towns.

“Now, since it was pulled down by the Country Liberal Party in the Northern Territory, we’re hearing worrying reports about the rise in admissions to the emergency department at Alice Springs Hospital due to alcohol-related accidents and abuse.”

Ms Gillard will assert that people are witnessing more alcohol-related violence. “In and around Alice Springs over the Christmas-New Year period, there were at least five alcohol-related deaths,” she will say.

“Former banned drinkers are now again on the long list of alcohol-related offences coming before the Alice Springs Magistrates Court each day. Today I call on the Country Liberal Party to reinstate the Banned Drinkers Register, immediately.

“I call on the Liberal National Party to exercise extreme caution in reviewing remote community alcohol restrictions in Queensland, too.

“Every Australian who puts the interests of indigenous children first and the alcohol industry second will support this call,” she will say.

“Let’s always remember: closing the gap is not inevitable. Keeping it closed is not inevitable either.

“We must guard our gains and never allow a backward step.”

The Closing the Gap report, to be released today, will detail more widely the government’s progress in areas including health and employment.

Its release comes after The Australian reported that policies to close the gap between black and white Australia in employment were working. New data had revealed employment growth for Aborigines increased dramatically, predominantly in remote areas thanks to actions in the private sector.

The Australian National University offered the first major analysis of the nation’s Closing the Gap strategy. It showed that between 2006 and 2011, the indigenous employment rate increased by 13 per cent in remote areas and 3 per cent in non-remote areas.

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