Drink Tank

The right to drink? Wrong

Back in 1972, when I was 19, after my first day of work in a little Western Australian country town I went to the pub with a friendly bloke I’d just met, for a beer. Even though I was underage, I had no trouble getting served, but my new mate did: he was a blackfella.

I learnt a big lesson that day, in the year Gough Whitlam came to power promising land rights and self-determination: Indigenous people have rights, but racism stops them exercising those rights.

Ten years later, by now living in Alice Springs, I was taught another lesson by a group of old ladies. At the time I had no idea they were senior leaders of some of the most important families in Central Australia. Anyway, they sat me down and told me that things used to be all right, until everything changed when drinking rights came in, along with citizenship, and land rights and all the rest of it.

Of course, with my university education and vast life experience – I was almost 30 – I knew better. I knew that Indigenous Aboriginal people were heading in the right direction – fighting to end racism, for the right to be served in pubs, to end the paternalism of missions and reserves. I didn’t blame those old ladies for not understanding this. After all, they were uneducated.

It took me another 15 years living in Alice for their lesson to sink in. They had been right all along, and no one was listening.

Grog is ruining families, particularly Indigenous families, in the Northern Territory. And yes, everyone has the right to equal treatment, but there’s something deeply wrong with this idea of ‘the right to drink’.

In Alice Springs the offender in 90 per cent of assaults committed against an intimate partner is drunk. And the victim in 90 per cent of those assaults is an Indigenous woman. In most of those cases, she is drunk too.

So, about 20 years ago we formed the Alice Springs People’s Alcohol Action Coalition (PAAC). We have two guiding principles: firstly, a whole of community approach – everyone is entitled to the same service – everyone in a community should be subject to the same rules. And secondly, we support what works, whether it’s popular or not. Look at the evidence, and be guided by it.

Two of our successes which follow these principles – they apply to everyone, and they work – have been raising the price of cheap grog, and the Banned Drinkers Register (or BDR).

Alice Springs became notorious as the stabbing capital of the world: by 2005, we were admitting more than 200 stab injury victims to hospital annually. The following year, supply restrictions were imposed that effectively increased the price of a standard drink by 30 per cent, which in turn reduced alcohol consumption by 18 per cent. Over the next four years, Alice Springs Hospital alcohol-attributable admissions, which had been on track to double, levelled out. Stabbings dropped sharply, in both number and severity.

The second measure, which started in Alice Springs in 2008, was the requirement to show photo identification in order to buy takeaway alcohol. For the first year or so people whinged about the inconvenience of having to bring their ID with them when they went down to the bottle shop. Then they got used to it. This scheme was rolled out across the whole of the Territory in 2011, because it worked. It meant that when a problem drinker was banned from drinking, for good reason, there was a way of enforcing that ban without turning that person into a criminal. Tragically, it was abolished by a new lot of politicians who thought there’d be votes in getting rid of it. When they did so, monthly alcohol-attributable presentations to the Alice Springs Hospital shot up from 160 to 360 in six months.

We’ve just had another change of government in the Northern Territory, and they’ve promised to bring the BDR back in, thank goodness. We now have a golden opportunity to make it stronger, smarter and more effective. Let’s put people on Domestic Violence Orders on the BDR, and refer them for assessment and treatment. The BDR should also apply to the parents of kids who are placed in care; and drink drivers; and anyone who chooses to drink with mates who they know are banned from drinking.

Once the new system is in place, we won’t need to keep police on patrol outside our bottle shops. This policing measure has reduced drunken violence, but it is expensive, discriminatory, and divisive.

The reformed BDR will be another step along the road to burying that old, very dangerous myth of ‘the right to drink’, the lesson those far-sighted wise women were trying to teach me 35 years ago.

Drinking isn’t a right, it’s a privilege. Abuse it, and you lose it.

Russell Goldflam

Russell is the President of the Criminal Lawyers Association of the Northern Territory (CLANT).


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