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New singers, old songs: alcohol bans in Aboriginal communities

A sign outside an Aboriginal community near Darwin, noting the ban on consuming alcohol in the area. AAP/Xavier La Canna

The newly elected conservative governments in Queensland and the Northern Territory have opened the way to relaxing laws restricting access to alcohol in Aboriginal communities.

In Queensland, a number of observers including Aboriginal leaders Noel Pearson, Marcia Langton and Warren Mundine, have expressed their dismay and argued the case against plans to dismantle the restrictions, pointing to the high levels of alcohol-related violence and social dysfunction prevalent prior to the restrictions being introduced from 2002 onwards, and to evidence of improvements in areas such as assaults and school attendance.

In order for these improvements to become embedded in sustained cultural and social change, they argue, restrictions must be retained at least for the time being.

Now the Northern Territory’s new Chief Minister Terry Mills has signalled his government’s intention to roll back restrictions on alcohol in NT Aboriginal communities, with an argument that obfuscates the history of alcohol controls in NT Aboriginal communities.

Mills invokes that most sacred value of a consumerist society – “choice” – and is quoted as stating that “alcohol bans and other restrictions set by outsiders were trapping indigenous people in a cycle of disempowerment and dependency”.

Leaving aside the question of how banning alcohol fosters dependency, a key point in his argument is his phrase “set by outsiders”.

The complex history of alcohol bans

Current blanket bans on consumption or possession of alcohol anywhere on any land designated under the NT Aboriginal Land Rights Act were indeed set by outsiders: specifically by Mal Brough and John Howard under the 2007 NT Emergency Response (NTER), in response to allegations of widespread alcohol-fuelled violence in communities in the report Little Children Are Sacred.

Although the unilateral and blanket geographical coverage of these restrictions angered many Aboriginal (and other) people, the principle of banning alcohol was not new.

On the contrary, prior to the NTER, most Aboriginal communities in the NT had already banned or heavily restricted alcohol access in their communities – at their own request. They had done so under Section VIII of the NT Liquor Act which, from its introduction in 1979 until the Act was partially over-ridden by the NTER, empowered communities to ban or limit alcohol use in defined areas, and to have those decisions enshrined in NT law.

Sparse police resources in some areas, and the ingenuity of grog-runners ensured that the restrictions were more effective in some places than others, but they nonetheless represented exercises in considered decision-making on the part of Aboriginal community residents.

The current situation

In July this year a sunset clause written into the NTER took effect. The Gillard Government has since introduced its own legislation. Entitled Stronger Futures, the new legislation retains the framework of the NTER alcohol restrictions, while seeking to return decision-making power back to individual communities by encouraging and supporting them to formulate their own alcohol management plans.

How this policy will work in practice, and how it will articulate with NT legislation remains to be seen, but to suggest – as Mills implies – that most residents of Aboriginal communities are chafing for greater access to alcohol is misleading.

Further, it is difficult to imagine that he and his government do not know this.

So what is really at issue here? Two factors appear relevant. The election-winning strategies of both the LNP under Campbell Newman and the CLP in the NT involved forming alliances with individual Aboriginal leaders, some of whom are opposed to restrictions in communities.

Moreover, in both the NT and north Queensland, opposition to restrictions in communities stems in part from a belief that the restrictions aggravate levels of public drunkenness by Aboriginal drinkers in towns.

Federal and state governments have tried to combat the problem of alcohol in remote Aboriginal communities. AAP/Terry Trewin

In the NT, successive governments have grappled with this by endlessly refining law enforcement measures such as the Two Kilometre Law, which legally bans drinking in public just about anywhere in towns.

But in the absence of any willingness to impose serious limitations on the retailers who profit from serving the appetites of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal drinkers alike, these measures have generally had limited effect.

Another favoured policy response has been to urge remote communities to establish licensed clubs (as the Bjelke-Petersen government did in Cape York in the 1980s), in the belief that communities with clubs will export fewer drinkers to towns. The limited evidence available to test this proposition does not support it, but its plausibility to urban voters is obvious. The real problem for NT governments, however, has been that most communities have repeatedly made it clear that they do not want clubs. Out of more than 100 Aboriginal communities in the NT, just seven currently operate licensed clubs, and one has a licensed store. All of these are located in the Top End.

A few other communities have run clubs in the past, only to abandon them as too much trouble. In two or three other communities, discussions are currently under way that may or may not lead to those communities applying to the NT Licensing Commission for club licenses.

More is not less. It is more and more

Aboriginal public drunkenness in towns is – at least to many non-Aboriginal people – the most visible manifestation of a complex and distressing problem that needs to be addressed at multiple levels, including law enforcement, supply reduction and the creation of opportunities and incentives for less self-destructive lifestyles.

To suggest that it can be addressed by opening up availability of alcohol in Aboriginal communities, particularly in communities that have indicated that they do not want alcohol, is a cruel hoax.

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