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.

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Russell Goldflam

Russell is the President of the Criminal Lawyers Association of the Northern Territory (CLANT) and tweets from @Crim_Lawyers_NT.

This article has 8 comments

  1. J. McFarland Reply

    Spot on Russell. Conflation of citizenship and drinking rights is an all too common misperception. Too many sad stories from grog.

  2. Helen webb Reply

    Thanks for your perseverance and common sense approach to improve our community.

  3. Warren Snowdon Reply

    Well said Russell, your experience is mine and your observations are informed and timely. Thank goodness we can look forward to a far more measured approach to the blight of alcohol driven violence in our community.

  4. Lex Silvester Reply

    Well said Russell. BDR was a proven success in managing the effects of alcohol in the NT. So much more could have been done if there had been policy continuity but the failed and thankfully now departed former government smashed any chance of that. Let us now hope for an early renewal of purpose.

  5. Kerry Walker Reply

    It’s so easy to blame access to alcohol for the root cause of all the problems being experienced in the Northern Territory. Research actually shows that throughout Australia less Aboriginal people consume alcohol than their non-indigenous counterparts. Unfortunately research also indicates that for “some” Aboriginal people their consumption is at more problematic consumption. So why do people consume alcohol, or even drugs for that matter,at levels harmful to them.
    A number of factors contribute to risky alcohol use among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, including economic marginalisation, discrimination, cultural dispossession and cultural assimilation difficulties, family conflict and/or violence and
    family history of alcohol misuse (Kelly & Kowalyszyn 2003; Saggers & Gray 1998). Lack of employment and boredom is also a contributing factor.

    It more logical to address the root causes for the over-consumption of alcohol use in the first place, rather than imposing bans on a race of people in targeted communities; this ban also impacts on individuals who have no problematic substance use. Prohibition doesn’t work, actually creates a market for illegal trade; and the problems that lead to alcohol abuse remains.

    • Russell Goldflam Reply

      Kerry Walker, if you have an achievable, affordable and effective plan to eliminate economic marginalisation, discrimination, cultural dispossession, cultural assimilation difficulties, family conflict and/or violence and family history of alcohol misuse, boredom and unemployment, please let the relevant authorities know what it is.

      Seriously, of course we need to keep working on all of these profoundly important issues, but we can’t afford to wait while the alcohol-fuelled carnage continues. Moteover, although as you rightly say, alcohol is not the root cause of the enormous social problems in the NT, unless and until we do something effective about grog, there is no prospect of making good progress in addressing the root problems.

      I’m not a fan of externally imposed prohibition either, but the fact is, before the Intervention declared 73 NT bush communities ‘dry’, they had already all been declared dry under the NT Liquor Act, at the request of the communities themselves.

      The Intervention also banned drinking in town camps. That has been a dismal failure, and I have never supported it.

      The measures I propose are not aimed at a particular race of at people who live in a particular place. They are aimed at making it harder for harmful drinkers to drink harmfully, whoever they are, and wherever they live.

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