Inside Story

The “right to drink” in Alice Springs

The NT government’s abolition of the Banned Drinkers Register has divided opinion in Central Australia, writes Eleanor Hogan

Eleanor Hogan 9 May 2013 4608 words

Early opener: Alice Springs’s Gap View Hotel. Eleanor Hogan


LOUD music blares from the Riverside Bar at the back of the Todd Tavern as a security guard passes a metal-detection wand over each person seeking to enter. It’s 1.45 on a weekday afternoon in Alice Springs, and the bar has been open for nearly four hours.

Minutes later, the guard ushers out a jumble of people, all Aboriginal, who then congregate around the edges of the pub’s driveway as if waiting for a public event. By five to two, about eight vehicles are lined up in the driveway of the bottleshop. First in the queue are two eight-seater minibuses, full of Aboriginal people. “We accept BasicsCard,” a small green sign announces on the side of one of the vehicles. On the other side of the pub, Aboriginal people wave down taxicabs coming off Todd Causeway so they can buy grog from the drive-through bottleshop. Entry on foot is prohibited.

At two, the roller doors rattle up and the sales commence. The door of the Riverside Bar is locked, as the next shift selling cheap grog begins.

THE Todd Tavern’s Riverside Bar and the Gap View Hotel’s side bar are probably the most notorious public expressions of problem drinking in Alice Springs. A hangover from the days of racially segregated drinking, the two “animal bars,” as locals call them, serve a crush of mainly Aboriginal drinkers excluded by the dress regulations and prices from the pubs’ main bars. Drinking at the animal bars begins at 10 am – they are the only places in town where alcohol is served this early – and continues until the small stampede to the bottleshop at 2 pm.

The Gap View and Todd Tavern were the only two liquor outlets that refused to join the retailers’ accord signed in mid 2011 by Coles, Woolworths and the IGA supermarkets in Alice Springs to reduce harmful drinking in town. The accord introduced a floor price of $1.20 per standard drink for takeaway alcohol and removed casks, cleanskins and some fortified wines from the shelves.

Along with the Heavitree Gap Tavern, the two pubs did agree a couple of years ago to refuse entry to anyone on the Banned Drinkers Register, but business took a dive. Introduced in 2008 as part of the Alice Springs Alcohol Management Plan, which had been in operation since 2006, the BDR supported existing measures to reduce takeaway alcohol – 70 per cent of alcohol sales in Alice Springs – by restricting the sale of wine in containers of more than two litres, and bottles of fortified wine, to one purchase per person per day between the hours of 6 and 9 pm. The BDR listed people who had been taken into police custody drunk and disorderly three times in three months or had committed an alcohol-related offence. Alcohol could be bought at takeaway outlets only after a driver’s licence or photo identification was scanned in order to check whether the buyer had exceeded his or her quota of alcohol products, or was on the BDR.

With 800 of Central Australia’s drinkers listed on the register and unable to purchase alcohol, the impact on the animal bars was undoubtedly significant. “I was in those bars in September after the BDR was scrapped,” says Bob Durnan, a community development worker in Central Australia for over thirty years, “and you’d ask the security blokes how many people had been on the BDR, and they would say, ‘Oh yeah. Twenty, or fifty, or lots of people.’”

In May 2011, as part of its “Enough Is Enough” alcohol reforms, the Territory’s former Labor government extended the operation of the BDR beyond the alcohol management plans of Alice Springs, Gove and Groote Eylandt to include 2500 drinkers across the Territory. Announcing the package, the Labor attorney-general, Delia Lawrie, acknowledged that “alcohol is the biggest cause of crime in the Territory with 60 per cent of all assaults and 67 per cent of all domestic violence incidents involving alcohol, costing our community an estimated $642 million a year.” That figure represents $4197 for every adult Territorian, almost four-and-a-half times the national figure of $944 per adult, and includes costs incurred by health and medical emergency services, police, the courts and corrective services, and loss of workplace productivity, but not the social cost of alcohol abuse’s contribution to intergenerational poverty and disadvantage.

Alcohol consumption in the Northern Territory, and in Alice Springs in particular, has long been notoriously high. In 2000, prior to the implementation of a series of alcohol management initiatives in Alice Springs, Central Australians drank an average of 17.65 litres of pure alcohol per person each year, 1.76 times the national average. But by 2008, according to a study conducted last year by the National Drug Research Institute, that figure had decreased to an estimated 13.75 litres of pure alcohol per person, 1.25 times the national average, and alcohol-related assaults and hospital admissions had also fallen. The study attributed these trends to the effectiveness of price-related strategies in Alice Springs to reduce overall alcohol consumption by facilitating a switch from cask wine to beer.

The study also found that at least one of three other initiatives – enforcement of the “one per person per day” restriction, the introduction of ID cards, and the alcopops tax – had significant effects in reducing consumption, but the coincidence of these reforms made it hard to say which had been most effective. Nevertheless, the use of ID scans accompanying the BDR appeared to have reinforced measures to limit the quantity of specific alcohol products purchased by individuals each day.

ALCOHOL is a focus of public policy and media attention in the Territory to an extent that is unknown in any other state. It plays a central role in defining the Territorian identity and lifestyle, and underpins the local tourism and hospitality industries. But on the other side of this coin are the massive personal, social and economic costs incurred by excessive drinking. These costs make alcohol one of the trigger points, along with the related issues of crime and public disorder, that Territorian politicians use to galvanise and polarise local opinion.

In the lead-up to last year’s Territory election, the BDR became a rallying point after opposition leader Terry Mills announced that scrapping the register would form the centrepiece of the law-and-order platform of the Country Liberal Party, or CLP. In a sense, the BDR became emblematic of the ideological schism in Territorian policy debates between an approach that favours liberalising alcohol sales and slating responsibility for alcohol reform to the individual, and an approach that involves community-wide measures to minimise the harms and social costs accompanying heavy drinking. Labor’s Enough Is Enough package and other locally based strategies reflected the alternative view to the CLP’s.

Appealing to populist, libertarian sentiment, the CLP presented the BDR as an encroachment on the civil liberties of the average Territorian. In reality, the ID scans accompanying the BDR were a minor inconvenience, especially given that carrying a licence was already a prerequisite for driving through a bottleshop in the Territory. The CLP claimed, however, that the BDR unfairly affected the majority of responsible drinkers and “not just the problem drunks” – a euphemism for Aboriginal drinkers. But problem drinking, according to the National Drug Research Institute’s Dennis Gray, extends across the Centralian population. “If Indigenous drinking is factored out per capita, consumption by the non-Indigenous people in Central Australia is still about 52 per cent higher than the national average,” says Gray. “Rates would still be up there, if every Aboriginal person stopped drinking in the NT tomorrow.”

Russell Goldflam, president of the Criminal Lawyers Association of the Northern Territory, says, “The BDR, so the CLP claimed, was nanny-state interference with the right to drink. Had they been elected by suburban voters, they’d be fairly entitled to claim that they were elected with a mandate to protect and restore this purported right to drink.” But that wasn’t the case, says Goldflam. “They won the election by winning a swag of bush seats, seats in which the great majority of voters live in dry areas, communities which at the request of local residents had been declared dry by the Licensing Commission years before the Intervention imposed similar restrictions on them.”

“It was aiming at the bloke in the pub, whom they thought would give them his vote,” says Gerry Wood, the independent MP for the Top End electorate of Nelson. “Perhaps they were hoping that it would be part of a combination of sweeteners, including reform of local government and some money for outstations, that would win them the bush seat.”

The day after the CLP’s election win, the new chief minister began making good on his party’s “number one pledge” to dismantle the BDR. Ostensibly, this gesture was meant to usher in a new focus on tackling alcohol-fuelled crime and anti-social behaviour. Plans included increasing policing, rolling out a “genuine mandatory rehabilitation program” using prison farms for alcohol detoxification and treatment, and potentially relaxing restrictions in remote Indigenous communities to reintroduce licensed social clubs.

The need for a crackdown on crime and public disorder, especially drunkenness, and admonitions for increased policing and tougher sentencing are familiar CLP catch-cries. But beyond the reasonable request for citizens to live in safe and secure houses and streets, what these law-and-order platforms often hide is the reluctance of Territory and local governments to provide adequate accommodation for itinerant Aboriginal people, particularly from remote communities, in cities and regional centres. The CLP’s proposals for building prison farms for drunks and boot camps for offending youths also has uncomfortable echoes of the expansion of jails in the United States to accommodate lower socioeconomic groups.

THE dismantling of the Banned Drinkers Register has been accompanied by reports of increases in public drunkenness. Proponents of the BDR claim these add to the mountain of anecdotal evidence about its effectiveness in conjunction with other alcohol measures previously applied by Labor, and that this strengthens the case for further evaluation of the scheme.

“They’re drinking like hell. Young kids, grown-ups, older people. They’re going mad on drinks now,” says Christobel Swan, a Central Arrernte elder. “It’s still happening. They’re just going in there, whatever time they want, to get grog. Whereas before they used to have those things [licence scans], you know.”

Many of the complaints have come from the Top End, especially from shopkeepers and publicans in Darwin, as public drunkenness and humbugging became noticeable around supermarkets and hotels again. In March this year, the Anglican Dean of Darwin announced he was leaving his position because “the situation changed overnight” after the BDR was abolished, making life around the cathedral grounds intolerable. Trevor Riley, the chief justice of the Northern Territory Supreme Court, made what some interpreted as a veiled reference to the scrapping of the BDR by requesting further restrictions in his sentencing remarks in an alcohol-related domestic violence case in Central Australia.

“Regrettably, based upon my experience in the courts, the situation is getting worse rather than improving,” said the chief justice. “It is unfortunate and terribly sad, that genuine efforts to curb the flow of alcohol that could address the problems of those who suffer from abuse of alcohol are not pursued.”

Beyond asserting that it was ineffective and displaying sly grog hauls to show that it could be circumvented, the CLP gave few reasons for the removal of the BDR. On-supply of grog by relatives to banned drinkers was frequently claimed to be one of the register’s major loopholes.

“It just didn’t work at all because people still managed to drink,” says Bess Nungarrayi Price, the CLP member for Stuart. “They got other relatives to buy for them. And they just give someone money and say, ‘Look, if you’re going to buy grog, could you buy me a bottle of rum as well? And I’ll give you the money for it.’ That’s how it was worked out.”

Supporters of the BDR, including People’s Alcohol Action Coalition spokesperson and 2012 NT Australian of the Year John Boffa, dispute these claims, arguing that the register was beginning to make a dint in local problem drinking. “People were still buying for their relatives, but the penalties were severe,” says Boffa. “As more and more people got banned, the drinkers’ circles were being affected.”

Once the BDR was abolished, the problem drinkers returned to the animal bars and the bottleshops, and policing outside takeaway outlets became the main response to alcohol abuse. Given the CLP’s emphasis on law and order, this was hardly surprising. Police have the power under a combination of local and federal legislation in Alice Springs to confiscate grog from anyone who can’t provide an adequate explanation of where they’re going to consume it: that is, if it appears that they are likely to drink it in a restricted area such as a town camp or a public place. This power mainly targets Aboriginal people.

“Getting rid of the BDR didn’t decrease the police’s load – it probably increased and spread it further,” says Vince Kelly, president of the NT Police Association. “The view of most police was that it probably didn’t necessarily work in terms of completely stopping access to alcohol or getting people out of the system, but it was just one of a variety of tools that the police had to try and do something about the problem.”

Bob Durnan agrees. “Before the election there was an effective multi-pronged approach, which was starting to look like it might be a very significant part of the answer,” he observes, citing the combined impact of measures – some specific to Alice Springs – such as the BDR, the drug-and-alcohol-focused SMART Court, the Alcohol and Other Drugs Tribunal and the retailers’ accord. “People were saying, now all these programs, like the Safe and Sober program and getting people to do training for jobs and other prevention and intervention and community development programs, they were starting to be effective,” says Durnan. “There were enough people from the core problem group who were now sober enough, much of the time, that you could actually work with them, with some chance to achieve the aims of the programs with them. But now that has slipped right back.”

PART of the problem is that the BDR was scrapped too hastily to permit proper evaluation. As retrospective proof that the CLP had been right to abolish the register, the Territory’s new chief minister, Adam Giles, produced crime statistics for the December 2012 quarter which indicated that alcohol-fuelled assaults had dropped by almost 6 per cent compared to the same quarter the previous year, when the BDR was still in operation. Delia Lawrie had made a similar gesture after Labor’s Territory-wide introduction of the BDR, pointing to a quarter’s crime statistics indicating decreases in alcohol-related consumption and harms. Either way, a single quarter isn’t a sufficient period over which to measure the effectiveness of any approach to addressing alcohol abuse.

That much-touted police data also has its limitations, according to John Boffa, because it “responds largely to police activity and not to the incidence and prevalence of alcohol-related crime and problems in the community.” Acting Victoria Police Commissioner Lucinda Nolan has observed that statewide increases in offences against people and property were “driven by us.” In other words, the police were more active and crimes more likely to be reported.

Other data sets, particularly hospital admissions, are needed to give a more comprehensive picture of the impact of the abolition of the BDR. When Boffa and Kon Vatskalis, the Territory’s shadow health minister, reported that Alice Springs hospital staff members had told them privately that the number of intoxicated patients admitted had increased since the BDR had been scrapped, the Territory government refused to make the relevant statistics public. After several weeks of rumours, concerned hospital staff revealed that alcohol-related admissions to the emergency had doubled, rising from around 10 per cent in August 2012 before the CLP was elected to 20 per cent of all admissions in January 2013.

Robyn Lambley, the Territory’s alcohol rehabilitation minister, admitted that the rise in admissions might be related to the abolition of the BDR, but slated most of the increase to a change in police practice since the inquest into the death of Kwementyaye Briscoe in custody last year. Police now take more drunks to Emergency than to the watchhouse.

But the real problem, according to Boffa, is an ongoing reluctance on the part of NT governments – Labor or CLP – to establish longitudinal data sets across a range of indicators tracking the effectiveness of alcohol measures. “Who has the power to allow us to look at that data? The government does,” Boffa says. “If they’re serious, if they want to stand up and say, the BDR didn’t work, then throw open the data and let’s have an independent evaluation and let’s have a look at it.”

Among the voices calling for the BDR to be reinstated are those of prime minister Julia Gillard and opposition leader Tony Abbott. In late April, Gillard made what some have construed as a veiled threat to withhold Commonwealth funds from proposed educational reforms and tax incentives to support regional development in the Territory, saying there was “no point” if lives and communities were being destroyed by “the tap being turned back on for the alcohol.”

In fact, the only other political leaders in accord with the CLP’s platform on alcohol policy have been in the Queensland Liberal National Party government. Like the CLP, premier Campbell Newman campaigned on a promise to relax alcohol restrictions in remote Aboriginal communities on the basis that they were racially discriminatory. Newman argued that the “right to drink” applied to the Aboriginal worker who wished to “come home to have a beer, sit on the front porch and watch the TV news with their family.”

“Rhetoric about ‘the right to drink’ misleadingly puts it up on some sort of pedestal with such established human rights as the right to free speech, the right to personal liberty and the right to due process,” Russell Goldflam says. “However, access to liquor is not and never has been unregulated. Australian governments have been trying to control the supply and consumption of alcohol ever since 1788. That’s because it can and does cause harm, and in particular because its misuse can and does impinge on the rights of others: the right not to be assaulted, the right of a child to be cared for, the right of road-users not to be crashed into by drunk drivers, and so on.”

ALCOHOL reform – long seen as an unsexy social problem, the province of wowsers – is now increasingly at the forefront of national public health debate. The social and health costs of heavy drinking, especially among young people, have been widely publicised, with tax on alcopops increased to curb some of the excesses of binge drinking, and demands from health groups for bans on alcohol advertising during televised sport. But it’s no stretch to say that Aboriginal leaders, thinkers, organisations and communities have been at the forefront of raising awareness about the effects of alcohol abuse and promoting alcohol policy reforms, especially in remote Australia, over the past few decades.

Between 1979 and 2005, over one hundred Aboriginal communities used provisions under the Northern Territory Liquor Act to enact voluntary dry declarations prohibiting or restricting the possession, sale or consumption of alcohol on their land. Yet the CLP proposed relaxing these restrictions by introducing licensed social clubs or “wet canteens” in communities. (The NT Emergency Response merely extended the land mass covered by existing alcohol restrictions in many cases.) It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that this proposal is part of an effort to encourage some itinerant Aboriginal people in the Territory’s cities and towns to move back to their communities to drink.

Late last year, Donna Ah Chee, chief executive officer of the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress, one of the largest Aboriginal-controlled community organisations in Alice Springs, participated in a Grog Summit of Aboriginal leaders in Darwin in response to the CLP’s call to roll back alcohol restrictions in remote communities.

Ah Chee doesn’t have a problem with the application of alcohol restrictions to remote communities if they are applied as a special measure. “I think it is okay only on the basis that the Aboriginal people who are affected by them have been consulted and approved that discriminatory measure,” she says. “But look, if a community is wanting to introduce a social club or a wet canteen, ultimately it is their decision. Having said that, communities need to be given the information in order to make the right decision, to make an informed decision. It should be on the basis of what works in terms of responsible drinking and ensuring safe communities.” Ah Chee believes that Aboriginal people have already said what they want. “It was clear from the summit in the Top End that the majority of participants there did not want the reintroduction of alcohol into their communities.”

On 12 April, alcohol rehabilitation minister Robyn Lambley announced the other main prong of CLP’s alcohol reforms, a “groundbreaking first” for Australia. At an annual cost of $30 million, problem drinkers will receive mandatory treatment for twelve weeks in secure facilities. By the time the rehabilitation plans were introduced, the idea of building prison farms had been scrapped because of the expense involved. Making the predictable complaint that the previous government didn’t leave it enough surplus to carry out its plans in full, the CLP declared its intention to extend existing rehabilitation facilities in Darwin, Alice Springs, Katherine and Nhulunbuy, which added up to an additional 140 beds.

As opposition leader Delia Lawrie observed, the basic maths of the situation didn’t add up: “The CLP have come out with a plan for 140 to be locked up. What will happen to the other 2360 chronic drunks across the Territory” – the balance of numbers on the BDR – “who are being ignored?”

Bess Price puts a slightly different slant on mandatory detox and rehabilitation facilities from what her fellow CLP members offer. “My thoughts have always been about setting up proper healing centres in communities,” she says, “and getting family members involved so they can get through the hard times.” Healing centres will be “something stronger and different, where you make people work and have to think about life and family.” It’s a response that seems in keeping with Price’s former work as a cultural awareness training consultant, and more sympathetic than her comments earlier this year that Territorian Aboriginal families want their young people locked up for safety.

She still maintains her earlier view: “But when young people drink, look what trouble! And by them being in jail, that keeps them away from more trouble.”

For her, the real problem is that jail is “the only thing happening now for reoffenders. You know, they just haven’t been able to set up rehab centres or healing centres out in the communities. That’s where we kind of fail as well, because there’s only one healing centre that’s available, and that’s CAAAPU.” CAAAPU is the Central Australian Aboriginal Alcohol Programmes Unit, the rehabilitation facility in Alice Springs. “And I’ve always said, it doesn’t work for the bush mob, because they just open the door and walk out when they’ve finished and back into it.”

Back into the drinkers’ circles on the streets and riverbanks of Alice Springs, that is, although how long young people might be persuaded to stay away from towns in healing centres on country, were they would be built, is another issue.

One Eastern Arrernte Aboriginal elder sums up the limitations of providing rehabilitation without addressing alcohol supply in Alice Springs. “Having that detox, that CAAAPU there, that’s terrible. If you’re going to have that there, you got to take away the licence from that bottle department, Gap View,” she says. The Gap View Hotel is just inside the Gap, the landmark entrance to Alice Springs and a few kilometres down the road from CAAAPU. “Because they come out from CAAAPU – that place where people sober up – and there’s an open door right in front of you… The big Gap there.” To cut back drinking she would like to see shorter opening hours. “Shorten the time limits for bottle-o, and the pub time should be limited.” She pauses. “You should put a bomb in every pub. Give me a bomb.”

For Donna Ah Chee, while the CLP’s investment in alcohol treatment has been welcome, treatment programs “in and of themselves are not going to make the sort of difference in terms of the high levels of alcohol abuse in our communities.” Among participants in the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress’s Safe and Sober program, for example, only 10 per cent have either reduced their alcohol consumption significantly or ceased drinking altogether.

Rehabilitation “has to be part of the multiple strategies put in place” to address drinking in the Territory, says Ah Chee, along with further reductions in takeaway hours and a no-takeaway day linked to Centrelink payments. Her organisation offers early childhood programs that seek to develop resilience and learning skills to prevent the development of risky and addictive behaviours in later life. But these strategies “can also be complemented at a national level with a volumetric tax.”

“Introducing a floor price at the price of full strength beer is not going to cost the government any money,” Ah Chee says. “So I don’t understand – other than protecting the liquor industry and whether there’s tax revenue – what’s going on. I just think that something could be done tomorrow if there was the political will to reduce alcohol consumption which ultimately is going to reduce harm.”

The lack of political will, reinforced by pressure from CLP supporters including the Australian Hotels Association and local licensees, has left alcohol reform in the Northern Territory in a deadlock. In late April, Adam Giles, in a remarkable tumble turn of pro-industry spin, castigated the Commonwealth for continuing to call on the Territory government to investigate the animal bars and develop a plan for managing all liquor outlets in Alice Springs. Criticising the federal Indigenous affairs minister, Jenny Macklin, for “picking on” the bars and “targeting black people,” Giles claimed she must prefer Aboriginal people to be involved in more violent drinking in the nearby riverbed rather than enjoying the “regulated environment” of the animal bars.

John Boffa suggests a more direct approach, based on a story dating back a couple of decades about how the young son of the new publican at the Goldfields Hotel in Tennant Creek, and a few mates, took to the pub’s internal wall with sledgehammers in the middle of the night. The rest of the hotels in Tennant Creek followed suit, demolishing their dividing walls and ending segregated drinking within their bars.

“You only had to do that and you had everyone drinking in the one bar,” Boffa observes, “according to the same standards and requirements. And the Aboriginal mob who were going there just to get drunk didn’t go there any more.”

Similar direct action could reform heavy drinking in Alice Springs, he believes. “That’s what could happen here. We’ve said this to government: all they need to do is forget the BDR, forget everything else. They just need to tell these pubs that their licence will only let them have one public bar, and that would absolutely make a huge difference overnight.”