One new policy that does appear effective is stationing police officers outside bottleshops. Regrettably this has also stirred up racial tension. The officers check drinkers’ IDs to see if they live in a proscribed area, and confiscate their purchases if they do. John Boffa (Congress Aboriginal Health ) a spokesman for the People’s Alcohol Action Coalition, estimates reductions in domestic violence of up to 50 per cent in Alice Springs when police cover all 11 liquor outlets at once.
Priscilla Collins, chief executive of the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency, thinks both AMT and APOs unfairly target the most disadvantaged, who are often also the most visible. “They will probably end up going back to the long grass,”
IF the Northern Territory were a country, it would rank alongside vodka-soaked ex-Soviet republics in terms of per capita alcohol consumption; not long ago it would have been second in the world.
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PICTURE :Police on duty outside a Northern Territory bottleshop. ‘The (alcohol) industry is now being propped up by the Alice Springs police force,’ says head of the police union Vince Kelly. Picture: Amos Aikman Source: News Limited
Alcohol abuse costs the NT about $642 million annually in police time, corrections, judicial support, medical treatment and lost productivity – equivalent to roughly $4000 per person or 4 1/2times the national average – according to research quoted by the government last year. The latest figures show per capita alcohol consumption is again on the rise, ending a six-year decline.
Territory drivers are 20 times more likely than the national average to be caught over the limit; booze is a factor in many road deaths. A majority of Territory assaults involve alcohol and the Territory’s assault victimisation rate is more than 50 per cent above the rest of the nation’s.
In 2011-12, indigenous women were 18 times more likely to be bashed than non-indigenous women, and four times more likely than the Territory average.
Last financial year saw almost 40 per cent more alcohol-related assaults and almost 60 per cent more domestic violence related assaults than the equivalent period five years ago.
Since the Country Liberals took office 18 months ago, Aboriginal groups and legal and health policy experts have accused the Territory government of criminalising drunkenness, ignoring evidence and favouring the interests of the alcohol industry.
The government insists its policies are both appropriate and working, though many cracks have emerged. The CLP campaigned on a pledge to cut crime by 10 per cent annually – which by a slip of the tongue quickly became 10 per cent in a four-year term once it took office. CLP backbencher Gary Higgins recently acknowledged MPs are receiving a “barrage of complaints” about alcohol abuse from the community. His comments drew a quick rebuke from Chief Minister Adam Giles, who said: “We know that there are issues with alcohol in our society, but anyone who has a good look at the statistics will see that things are getting better.”
After repeatedly dodging questions about the saga unfolding on his doorstep, federal Indigenous Affairs Minister and NT senator Nigel Scullion proposed a sweeping national inquiry into drinking habits. The following day he appeared to have been overruled by his colleagues in favour of a tighter probe into Aboriginal drinking that will scrutinise the CLP policies more closely. Giles has already suggested any inquiry would be “navel gazing”. Nevertheless, the process offers his government an opportunity to gracefully adjust its course.
The CLP’s first act in office was to abolish Labor’s Banned Drinker Register, a point-of-sale supply restriction designed to curb heavy drinking. For almost a year, while the new government convulsed with internal ructions, nothing replaced the BDR. Then less than a month after Giles took power in a coup in March, his government unveiled a forced alcohol rehabilitation program called Alcohol Mandatory Treatment. The scheme, which has been running for seven months, involves locking up habitual drinkers in treatment centres with fences and guards.
Associated legislation was passed in the face of vocal opposition. At about $43,000 per drinker treated, AMT is more expensive than many private rehabilitation clinics. Experts think 5 per cent success would be good going. More than 150 people have completed the program; the government has established 120 beds. Alcohol Rehabilitation Minister Robyn Lambley says some patients have had their lives changed, but others are known to have relapsed.
Before Christmas a system of on-the-spot alcohol bans, Alcohol Protection Orders, was also legislated, again despite opposition. These affect people charged with, but not necessarily convicted of, offences in which alcohol was deemed a factor.
The government argues these policies transfer responsibility from society to drinkers, but important figures, such as head of the NT police union Vince Kelly, argue that is a furphy. “If you’re an alcoholic you haven’t got (personal responsibility) in the first place, and if you’re an intergenerational alcoholic you probably don’t know what the concept means.”
Not long ago a doctor who played a key role in establishing AMT, Lee Nixon, walked out in disgust. “A large number of (AMT patients) had little understanding of the process, and at the end of the time when they were there, were still asking, ‘Why am I here?’,” Nixon told ABC’s Lateline. “At the outset it was clear that we were introducing a program with no evidential base for effectiveness.” One drinker had her treatment order overturned by a court on the grounds she received it without proper legal representation. Justice groups say few drinkers appear before the AMT Tribunal with a lawyer.
Priscilla Collins, chief executive of the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency, thinks both AMT and APOs unfairly target the most disadvantaged, who are often also the most visible. “They will probably end up going back to the long grass,” she says.
Shortly after taking up his post, Alcohol Policy Minister Dave Tollner openly acknowledged one of AMT’s goals was to push drinkers to “go and hide out in the scrub”. AMT is now being reviewed.
The CLP has trenchantly refused to contemplate imposing any new supply restrictions. Giles told a gathering of hoteliers drinking was a “core social value”, while Tollner said Labor had treated publicans “akin to heroin traffickers”. The latest round of annual political returns to the Australian Electoral Commission reveal the alcohol industry’s main lobby, the Australian Hotels Association, has emerged as the Territory’s largest political donor. The organisation contributed $300,000, split between the major parties in the lead up to the August 2012 Territory election. According to an analysis of declared donations, the lobby donated almost 14 times as much per head of population in the Territory while the BDR was in place than it has in any other jurisdiction in the past decade.
At the time it was abolished there was little evidence clearly supporting the BDR. However it has since become clearer that although policy did not turn around increases in alcohol-related harm and violence as promised, it may have blunted them. Some quite senior CLP figures talk privately about bringing the BDR back.
One new policy that does appear effective is stationing police officers outside bottleshops. Regrettably this has also stirred up racial tension. The officers check drinkers’ IDs to see if they live in a proscribed area, and confiscate their purchases if they do. John Boffa, a spokesman for the People’s Alcohol Action Coalition, estimates reductions in domestic violence of up to 50 per cent in Alice Springs when police cover all 11 liquor outlets at once.
However the approach is a de facto supply restriction, with responsibility for enforcement transferred from the liquor retailer to the public service, as Kelly points out: “The (alcohol) industry is now being propped up by the Alice Springs police force.”
Combined with AMT’s high price tag, the government’s measures do not look at all cost effective. Assuming the number of people taking up drinking is proportional to population growth overall, the government would need at least five times the present number of AMT beds just to keep the number of alcoholics stable. The cost of that would exceed $1 billion by the end of the decade, or roughly 20 per cent of last year’s Territory budget.
Higgins called for a bipartisan inquiry with measures his government officially opposes – an alcohol floor price, shorter opening hours and BDR-like supply controls – put back on the table. “While they do inconvenience a lot of people, all of them should be considered,” he said. Kelly thinks there is a “gaping hole” in public policy around alcohol supply issues. “Neither the Labor government or the CLP government has covered itself in glory when it comes to that type of thing because they’re simply too close to the industry,” he says.
“There has got to be some serious question about whether (an inquiry) is warranted.”
A serious investigation would need to consider not just the efficacy of a range of policies, but the circumstances in which they are applied. Alcohol bans in remote communities push drinkers into towns, where their drinking often worsens. Proscribed urban areas leave residents who can legally buy takeaway alcohol unable to legally drink it. Stationing police outside bottleshops increases familial pressure on those living in non-proscribed areas to become involved in the alcohol supply trade; anecdotal evidence suggests the black market is thriving.
Some federally administered draft alcohol management plans are stuck in limbo, in part because it is unclear what the basic requirements are for Aboriginal communities to responsibly manage alcohol themselves. Community leaders often blame disenfranchisement for their giving up on the task. Many people familiar with these issues say the solutions lie not in textbooks or boardroom chats, but in the lives of Aboriginal people; another desktop study will not help.
It is also worth considering whether alcohol-related harm can be reduced to acceptable levels soon, or just mitigated and hidden. Not even the last of those has been accomplished so far. NT Attorney General John Elferink argues for stricter controls on welfare to break the link between welfare dependency and drinking: “We can build massive institutions to deal with alcoholism, but while the federal government pours free money into our jurisdiction, spending millions of dollars every fortnight, we as a government are going to be spending millions of dollars every fortnight cleaning up the mess.” Without action on several of these fronts, the NT’s alcohol abuse crisis looks likely to get worse.