Drink Tank

Ending the NT’s alcohol epidemic at long last? Watch out for Woolies

After 50 years of ad-hoc effort, Australia’s Northern Territory has become a bit-of-a ‘rough diamond’ case study on how to comprehensively respond to an alcohol problem of epidemic proportions.

If you carved out the NT as a single country, its per capita alcohol consumption puts it in the top 10 drinking nations on the planet, costing the community more than one billion dollars every year.

This is a cost expressed through the many faces of neglected children, abused partners, youngsters self-harming, road crash fatalities, victims of community violence and the intoxicated perpetrators of crime and destruction.

The Gunner Government is fortifying the Top End against this toxic problem and accepting political risk to address the soaring rates of alcohol harm. Last week saw the introduction of the latest initiative in the significant suite of Riley Review reforms.

The Government released an independent needs assessment of alcohol treatment services, which found that every day 117 Territorians are seeking treatment or counselling. The study was conducted by the Menzies School of Health Research (Menzies) and the University of New South Wales, in partnership with the Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance of the NT (AMSANT).

The study found the bulk of alcohol treatment services are provided through Aboriginal community-controlled health services, GPs, self-help groups and Sobering Up Shelters. The report says this is a signal that these settings are vital for picking up and referring people into more intensive specialist alcohol treatment pathways.

Menzies researcher Professor James Smith says the study reinforces the need for intersectoral planning and integration of these services with child protection, corrections, housing, and mental health service systems. The study provides an important evidence base to inform the development of an Alcohol Treatment Services Plan for the NT.

Integration is the key to the Gunner Government’s success to date.

Over the decades, the Territory has been subject to countless reviews and inquiries aimed at reducing the burden of alcohol harm. Time and time again these reviews failed to translate recommendations into action. They also failed to address the underlying factors required for an effective alcohol harm reduction framework.

Different NT governments introduced an assortment of measures, including product and trading restrictions; voluntary minimum pricing by supermarkets; a targeted levy on alcohol; Alcohol Mandatory Treatment; Alcohol Protection Orders; Banned Drinker Register; dry areas; and attempts to teach so-called ‘responsible drinking’. Other governments have acted irresponsibly – more interested in the next poll than preventive health and reducing alcohol harm.

Tried and succeeded. Tried and failed. Didn’t try hard enough. Try again.

While there has been mixed results in reducing harm over the years, there has been a consistent problem of fragmentation, which boils down to having multiple and disparate measures and disjointed implementation across jurisdictions and service providers.

This is where former Chief Justice Trevor Riley may have achieved the seemingly impossible by providing the NT Government and community with an integrated map, along with prescriptive, complementary recommendations on how to best implement reform.

The Riley Review has offered the NT the best ever chance of success that promises lasting impact.

In 2018, the Gunner Government backed the advice of the Expert Advisory Panel and is now a long way into the journey of executing Riley’s plan, showing leadership and maintaining the appetite for reform, despite loud opposition every step of the way from vested interests who seek to profit from alcohol harm in the Territory.

Almost all of the Riley Review’s recommendations are either being actioned or are scheduled for implementation. Measures include the Minimum Unit Price on alcohol; creating the Alcohol Policing Unit with additional frontline police and liquor inspectors; extending the moratorium on new liquor licensing; new powers for the Police Commissioner to suspend liquor licenses and target secondary supply; the Banned Drinkers Register; rewrite of the Liquor Act; and re-establishment of the Liquor Commission.   

This year, validation began emerging that the combined evidence-based measures recommended by Riley are working, with significant reductions in alcohol-fuelled assault, domestic violence, anti-social behaviour and emergency department presentations.

So far so good. Yet there is a very disturbing stumbling block emerging that could derail the success of the NT’s alcohol reforms.

Australia’s biggest alcohol retailer, Woolworths, is wielding money and influence to push big-box liquor outlets into the Top End. This would dramatically increase the supply of alcohol in Darwin and surrounding communities and open the flood-gates for packaged liquor warehouses right across the Territory.

The newly-formed NT Liquor Commission has commenced hearings for Woolworths’ application to build a Dan Murphy’s close to Darwin Indigenous communities. Woolworths claims that its application is a licence transfer, but FARE and other objectors are arguing that it’s a blatant attempt to circumvent the NT moratorium on new bottle shop licences.

There is compelling research linking big-box liquor outlets with a range of issues, such as a flood of cheap alcohol in the area leading to a greater number of people drinking more alcohol, the site and surrounds becoming a social drinking destination, and an increase in crime and violence.

FARE has directly pleaded with Woolworths to not cause more alcohol harm in the NT, and we are briefing the NT Liquor Commission on the scientific evidence. In arguing that Woolworths should not be allowed to expand in the NT, we are also arguing that Woolworths is not ‘fit and proper’.

Woolworths and its associated entities have been under investigation by liquor and gambling regulators in Qld, NSW and SA for alleged illegal behaviour.  Liquor & Gaming NSW is investigating more than 50 Woolworths pubs over claims staff illegally provided free drinks to pokie players to keep them gambling, with a former staff member alleging staff were also instructed on how to cover up the practice.

Woolworths is the biggest purveyor of harmful, addictive products in Australia and it should not be granted licence to continue profiting from harm in the NT, which already has the highest rates of alcohol-related deaths and hospitalisations in the country.

The Liquor Commission has a duty of care to all Territorians and the NT Government is encouraged to stay strong and stay the course with its Alcohol Harm Minimisation Action Plan.

This case is a watershed moment for the NT Government to complete the gargantuan challenge of overturning the NT’s alcohol epidemic and prove to the world that good public policy cannot be sold down the drain for commercial gain.

Michael Thorn

Michael was was Chief Executive of the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE) from January 2011 until November 2019

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