NACCHO Aboriginal health debate:Was Gillard wrong? Can bans stop those ‘rivers of grog ?

“Aboriginal communities have the governance and the capacity to make their own decisions

The days of grand pronouncements from the ivory towers of Canberra must end.”


The article below is not NACCHO policy but provided to inform and generate debate

We encourage our members to respond in the COMMENTS section below

NACCHO thanks Chris Graham for permission to republish

He is the former and founding editor of the National Indigenous Times, and Tracker magazine. He’s a freelance writer based in Sydney

Gillard is wrong, bans won’t stop those ‘rivers of grog’

There’s no question grog kills a lot of Aboriginal people and destroys a lot of Aboriginal lives. But for all the damage grog can do to an Aboriginal community, it’s nothing compared to the damage wrought by politics.

Earlier this week, Prime Minister Julia Gillard delivered her “closing the gap speech on indigenous disadvantage.

After the declaring that the gap was closing (it isn’t), she lined up conservative governments in Queensland and the Northern Territory over their moves against alcohol bans: “I have a real fear that the rivers of grog that wreaked such havoc among indigenous communities are starting to flow once again.”

I’m not sure where Gillard has been spending her time recently, but I do recall her visiting Alice Springs last year. So what did she see?

The rivers of grog in the Territory have never dried up. At best, you could say they’ve changed course slightly. In the first six months of 2010, the Substance Abuse Intelligence Desk (an initiative of the Northern Territory intervention) reported seizing 404 litres of alcohol from Aboriginal communities.

By July 2011 that figure increased 1233 litres, climbing to 1445 by the end of the year. This is four years AFTER government intervention and grog bans. At the same time, alcohol infractions went through the roof.

The bi-annual intervention monitoring report concedes that in 2007, there were 1784 “alcohol related incidents”; by 2011 it was 4101. Alcohol-related domestic violence incidents also rose, from 387 in 2007 to 1109 in 2011.

The federal government likes to claim the increase in crime statistics is a result of more police. So, more coppers, more reporting. Yet while assault rates have more than doubled since 2007, the number of lodgements (charges that flow from an incident) is virtually the same in 2011 as in 2008 (548 in 2011 versus 537 in 2008).

The federal government also likes to claim the policies of the Northern Territory intervention need time to bite. After all, it’s only been five years.

Fortuitously, we have more than a decade of grog bans in Cape York on which to judge (the statistics I’ve used are assault rates, because proponents of grog bans routinely use them to justify banning alcohol). During 2000/01, the assault rate in Cape York communities was almost three times the state average (at a rate of 1419 assaults per 100,000 people). In 2001/02, the rate dropped to 1382. The following year, it dropped to 1216.

Enter the Beattie government, and a new policy of alcohol management plans, or AMPs. Over the next two years, the drop in assault rates slowed dramatically, then plateaued. Within two years, it jumped substantially, and then slowly climbed its way back down.

The net result was that after a decade of grog bans, assault rates in Cape York reduced by 15% — the same drop that occurred in the two years prior to grog bans. Why? Beyond the fact that grog bans don’t work, no one really knows. But know assault rates in Cape York — while certainly much higher than the state average — mirrored almost precisely the rise and falls of assault rates across Queensland. And you could hardly suggest that’s a dry community.

Government-imposed grog bans don’t work. Indeed, they’ve never worked. Not for Aboriginal people, not for non-Aboriginal people. All grog bans do is frame a behaviour that should be treated as a health problem as a law and order issue. Which of course helps fill our jails.

In Cape York in 2000/01, prior to the grog bans, “liquor offence rates” — which include illegal possession of alcohol — were at 142 per 100,000 people. By 2009/10 they’d increased more than seven fold to 1087, and “good order” offences also increased markedly over the same period.

“Aboriginal communities have the governance and the capacity to make their own decisions … The days of grand pronouncements from the ivory towers of Canberra must end.”

So grog bans had no real impact on assault rates on Cape York, but they were a raging success in the criminalisation of Aboriginal drinkers.

So there’s the facts, now back to the politics. The CLP’s motivation to drop the grog bans in the NT is one part “they don’t work” and nine parts “voters in Alice Springs — home to four CLP seats — are sick and tired of Aboriginal drinkers pouring into town to escape grog bans on their communities”.

Whatever their motivation, the CLP’s opposition to broad-brush grog bans across whole swathes of the Territory is the right policy. With one caveat. The CLP has abolished the banned drinkers register, drawing the ire of the Prime Minister. ”Since it was pulled down by the Country Liberal Party… we’re hearing worrying reports about the rise in admissions in the emergency department at Alice Springs Hospital due to alcohol-related accidents and abuse,” she said.

I don’t consider “we’re hearing worrying reports” to be an evidence-based discussion. If our Prime Minister is going to defend a policy, she should work in some hard stats. Even so, there is strong support for the banned drinkers register in Alice Springs.

Unlike blanket grog bans across communities, the BDR is a small, manageable policy. It targets individuals who are repeat offenders and have significant drinking problems, as opposed to targeting a whole race of people based on the colour of their skin.

Dr John Boffa, an Alice Springs doctor who has worked in Aboriginal health for 20 years, defends the BDR: “This is one strategy that’s working. And we’ve got the highest alcohol-related harm in Australia. It’s not acceptable to not implement all possible measures that we know are having an effect.”

Which brings me back to the politics. If all politics are local, then why is all policy created in Canberra? The solution to these problems lie in the communities where the drinking occurs. Many communities later targeted by the intervention were already dry, courtesy of local decision-making.

With support, Aboriginal communities have the governance and the capacity to make their own decisions. In Queensland, that’s where the Newman government is heading, to their enormous credit. And it’s what Gillard rails against. What Campbell Newman has apparently realised is that control of Aboriginal lives needs to be put into the hands of Aboriginal people. The days of grand pronouncements from the ivory towers of Canberra must end.

Gillard said: “The government will take action in response to any irresponsible policy changes that threaten to forfeit our hard-won gains.” Great news. And does the same government have the courage to take action in response to its own irresponsible policies which have been shown time and again to fail?

*Chris Graham is the former and founding editor of the National Indigenous Times, and Tracker magazine. He’s a freelance writer based in Sydney

2 comments on “NACCHO Aboriginal health debate:Was Gillard wrong? Can bans stop those ‘rivers of grog ?

  1. NACCHO presenting a wide range of views in the debate
    This time from Green Left weekly

    Let Aboriginal people manage their own affairs

    Saturday, February 9, 2013

    The open letter below was released by the Aboriginal Tent Embassies in Canberra and Brisbane of February 8.


    We are disappointed and outraged at the racist message conveyed in the Australian article “Rivers of Grog” on February 6. Those of us gathered at the Aboriginal tent embassy in Canberra, in preparation for the protest against legislative changes, completely reject the stereotypes being used as wedge politics by the Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard.

    The prime minister should know better than to make cheap political attacks on the world’s oldest culture. Our rivers are sacred to our people. “Rivers of Grog” is a derogatory term that maligns our sacred rivers.

    Gamilaraay elder, Uncle Paul Spearim, and Brisbane Aboriginal sovereign embassy youth representative, Boe Spearim, have expressed their concerns that Aboriginal people in Queensland and the Northern Territory will now suffer the consequences of increased hostility and suspicion about alcohol consumption.

    The truth is 85% of all Aboriginal people choose not to drink alcohol, whereas it is the reverse in the non-Aboriginal population.

    What is even more insulting is that the largest purchaser of alcohol in the Australian Capital Territory is Australia’s parliament, where these ill-considered comments were made last Wednesday.

    Instead of criticising the move towards self-determination, which the elimination of the barred drinkers list represents, Gillard is showing her true colours by resorting to paternalistic and authoritarian measures.

    Why has she closed the rehabilitation centres and cut health funds for drug and alcohol services in Moree and many other communities?

    At the same time as cutting services, the government is building prisons that profit from the pain and misery of the criminalisation of our human suffering. This strategy ensures that jails remain full of Aboriginal people who are incarcerated at a rate far higher than any other group in the world.

    TV news headlines are already showing images of alcohol affected people and violence to report the “Close the Gap” talks, which in our view is actually widening the gap between black and white Australia as the misunderstanding and stereotypes of wedge politics are designed to do.

    Instead of punitive measures being applied where help is needed — whether amongst the minority of blacks or the majority of whites who consume alcohol — perhaps a sincere commitment to the wellbeing of the population could be reported in the next Close the Gap report.

    We remain as committed to the wellbeing of our people now as when the embassy was founded 41 years ago. A sovereign treaty is the last step to be taken in the long road towards the modern Australian state’s identity.

    Such a step is long overdue, and our message to Gillard is that it is time to end tokenism and wedge politics; it is time to dismantle the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples and for the Aboriginal members to resign with some measure of cultural dignity and cultural respect.

    We have come of age, and our politics have come of age. Aboriginal people can manage our own affairs, on our own terms. We are ready to treaty … can you Close that Gap Julia?

    Paul Spearim
    Graham Merritt
    Anthony Kumbah Coombes
    Lara Pullin
    Alice Haines
    Serene Fernando
    Bo Spearim

  2. John Boffa (People’s Alcohol Action Coalition)
    Reproduced from

    Late on the evening of Friday 8th February, the night of the AFL Indigenous All Stars vs. Richmond Tigers pre-season game in Alice Springs, several PAAC members went walking in the town. One rambled along the river bank paths with his dog. Another jogged down to the game at Traeger Park oval, and afterwards back to his home in the suburbs. A third left the oval after the match and visited popular drinking spots in the CBD, before heading home along the Mall and across the Todd River.

    All three noted the remarkable quiet and calm in the town, very different from a normal Friday night, let alone one of the busiest nights of the year, with several thousand extra people from remote communities in Alice to enjoy the game and have a break from bush life.

    None of them saw any incidents involving violence or requiring the presence of police. Drunken revellers were conspicuous by their absence. This atmosphere was the same at the game itself, where there were a lot of families with children having fun, and very few obvious incidents of drunken violence. Taxis and the casino and bars were busy, but ambulances were not.

    Over the last week there has been a steady build-up of young people in town looking for a good time. Police and youth workers, the Youth Street Outreach Service team and social workers, drinkers and bush visitors, public servants and politicians, hospital staff and ambulance workers, the licensees and the Licensing Commission, Town Council Rangers and family leaders all did their bit, conducted themselves patiently, and worked well together to keep the public scene calm, respectful and reasonably sober.

    There have been few violent incidents, and hardly any arrests. Police had one of their slowest nights on record with only one Domestic Violence call-out on Thursday night (the first of three days of additional restrictions) compared with thirteen on the previous Monday night.

    This shows what can be achieved when agreement is reached on a set of evidence-based, sensible alcohol restrictions, with all the key players co-operating to prevent problems.

    Alcohol supply reduction measures from 7th to 9th February included:

    1. An effective floor price at $1 per standard drink, because cheap two-litre wine casks and fortified wines were not on sale at all.

    2. A reduction in total of nine hours in take-away alcohol trading time over three days.

    3. The use of photo ID scanning to prevent large volume purchases of beer and mixed drinks (limited to one slab per person per day.)

    4. An increased police presence and full-time monitoring of all take-away outlets, with confiscation of alcohol purchased for consumption in prohibited areas.

    This package combines what that we know works well, in one town at one time, and it produced a moment to celebrate and be proud of for all of us. It shows it is really possible to make a very big difference with supply reduction measures that most people would live with quite easily.

    Maybe from this experience we can all learn about how we can find a way forward, together, to make the town better for everybody, every day.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *