Should dry Indigenous communities lift grog bans?

Debate is raging in the NT after a suggestion from the Chief Minister that alcohol bans in dry Indigenous communities could be lifted.


Indigenous alcohol ban

(Transcript from )

Debate is raging in the NT after a suggestion from the Chief Minister that alcohol bans in dry Indigenous communities could be lifted.

Alcohol, the social disfunction it's blamed for causing, and to what degree access to it should be controlled have long been issues of debate in the Northern Territory.

High levels of violence and anti-social behaviour have led to complete bans in most Indigenous communities across the Territory.

But the NT's new Chief Minister Terry Mills has set off a fresh round of debate through his suggestion that alcohol bans in dry communities could be eased if the communities show they want that.

The Country Liberal Party won government in the Northern Territory in August on the back of promises to restore some decision-making power to Indigenous communities who felt they'd essentially lost any control through territory and federal government reforms, notably through The Intervention.


Consistent with that theme, Chief Minister Terry Mills says communities in the Territory should have a say in the grog bans that most of them live under.

Many people have pointed out that most communities themselves chose to ban alcohol within their boundaries.

Mr Mills' comments though have raised concerns among some people that the bans could be lifted and the consumption and sale of alcohol permitted again.

It's a concern Emeritus Professor at Charles Darwin University Professor Mary-Ann Bin Sallik shares.


A major contributor to the advancement of Indigenous education throughout her career, Professor Bin Sallik says any roll back of alcohol laws would be irresponsible.

She says Mr Mills is yet to introduce rehabilitation centres he promised during the recent election campaign, which would treat people who already have alcohol problems.

"He has not implemented or looked at implementing the rehabilitation centres and the mandatory rehabilitation and I would have thought that before he made such a big decision about that that he would set in place these things, but furthermore, I think that he has not considered the women and children and the grandmothers and the grandfathers in those communities who will be taking the brunt of the lifting of the ban."

Doris Lewis lives in the remote community of Lajamanu about 900 kilometres south of Darwin.

She says residents in Lajamanu are familiar with what happens when alcohol does get into the community.

"It's no good for us. People start fighting in the community and the kids see the parents or family drinking and I think grog shouldn't be around children and so close to the kids and other people who don't drink."


Although Lajamanu is a dry community, about 100 kilometres to its north a wet canteen operates in the Kalkaringi community.

The canteen has a licence to sell alcohol at certain times of the day and night, allowing people to consume alcohol.

It's a model that Chief Minister Terry Mills has suggested might be introduced if communities ask for grog bans to be eased.

But Ms Lewis says she would not like it introduced to Lajamanu.

"I think we don't want a wet canteen here. What I think is a wet canteen would bring biggest problems to our community. It will create big problems like what it's doing in Kalkaringi sometimes I mean. After the club, after the wet canteen (closes) people at Kalkaringi go home, not everybody, but some, I think for us, it might cause problems."

The Central Land Council, which is made up of 90 elected members from Aboriginal communities across the southern half of the Northern Territory, says it's supporting research that is considering the effects of alcohol in remote regions.

Director David Ross says the CLC's research partners are the federal Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs department and the Northern Territory Government.

He says Mr Mills should wait for the research his own Department of Justice is undertaking before his government takes any action.

"The study itself is due to finish in about mid-2013 so we need to have some proper research done to have a look at what the impacts may or may not be to Aboriginal people over a period so until these things are done and done properly then we'd suggest that the Northern Territory leaves these sorts of things alone."


The Menzies School of Health Research is based in the Northern Territory and has already carried out a wide range of research into alcohol-related harm in remote areas.

Professor of Substance Misuse Studies at Menzies Peter d'Abbs says the facts clearly illustrate how much harm alcohol contributes to in the Territory.

"Well, I think the single most striking figure if you like and if you like the most horrifying one is that Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory are between nine and 10 times as likely to die of alcohol related causes as other ordinary Australians. I might add that non-Aboriginal Territorians are also twice as likely to die of alcohol-related causes, which I think shows two things, one is tragic levels of alcohol-related harm amongst Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory, but it also shows that it is not purely an Aboriginal issue and I think we need to keep that in mind."

When the former Howard Government introduced it's Northern Territory Emergency Response, or "intervention", in 2007, then federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough made a point of saying alcohol would be banned in all Aboriginal communities.

But the director of the Central Land Council, David Ross, says that announcement ignored the brave decisions most communities had already made to make the possession and consumption of alcohol illegal within their boundaries.

"Man, we live and breath in Alice Springs and Central Australia. We've seen more damage from alcohol abuse to Aboriginal people and others throughout Central Australia than anywhere else and the majority of problems for Aboriginal people in Central Australia is caused through the abuse and misuse of alcohol, so you know it's nothing new. Everyone knows about it. Let's stop being silly before people really get silly with alcohol, so you know, the less supply in Aboriginal communities then the better off people will be."


Professor d'Abbs from the Menzies School of Health Research says studies carried out in the 1980s, when most Aboriginal communities chose to ban alcohol, showed the move brought some health benefits.

"If we're talking about bans on alcohol in communities, which as I say were initially self-imposed, most of the research that was done is dated research from the 1980s because most of those restrictions came in around 1981 so although it's dated, that research demonstrated a significant drop in alcohol-related violence and related problems in those communities. It also demonstrated that those restrictions still had popular support. It didn't mean they worked perfectly or everyboyd liked them, but that the weight of community support was clearly there for them."

Professor d'Abbs questions the suggestion that wet canteens in communities could discourage people travelling into town centres to binge drink by encouraging them to stay in their own communities and drink moderately.

He says there's strong research to suggest that isn't the case.

"Some years ago I did some work looking at the sales figures from alcohol outlets in communities with licensed clubs and what that showed was that with one exception, there was one honourable if you like exception, that most of those communities with licensed clubs had per capita consumption figures way above the Northern Territory average and the Northern Territory average is already 50 per cent higher than the national average."Aff

Some people in the Northern Territory have claimed moves to reintroduce alcohol to remote communities can be interpreted as simply attempts to push problem Aboriginal drinkers out of towns and back into their home regions.

Professor d'Abbs says people go to town for more reasons than just to drink.

"The few instances where we've been able to compare Aboriginal drinking in towns from communities with and without licensed clubs actually demonstrated no effect. That is, there were just as many per capita Aboriginal people from communities with licensed clubs coming to town and drinking and getting picked up for drunkeness as there were from communities without licensed clubs."

Central Land Council director David Ross is quick to dismiss the argument that Aboriginal people living in remote communities have the right to access alcohol like anyone else living in any other centre around the country.

"Well, it's not really a right is it? I mean wherever you go anywhere in the world there are rules and laws that govern the supply, the use etc of alcohol and you know it's got nothing to do with your right to want to drink alcohol or make a mess of yourself with alcohol or whatever it is that you want to do with alcohol. It's not a right, it's governed by laws, set by other people and generally by governments and people who advise them and generally you know the wishes of the majority of the community rather than you know a few noisy people from a particular community."

Opposition to any increase in the availability of alcohol in remote Northern Territory communities has also come from Federal Opposition Indigenous affairs spokesman Nigel Scullion, who has said that would be an unmitigated disaster.

The Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin says Indigenous Territorians don't want alcohol in their communities.

9 min read
Published 25 October 2012 at 9:01am
By Murray Silby
Source: SBS