This is the other major aspect of the Federal Government’s ’emergency’ intervention. Mal Brough promised “widespread alcohol restrictions” to tackle alcohol abuse. Sounds like a good idea until you realise that there are already widespread alcohol restrictions in place in the NT. The vast majority of remote communities are already officially dry. There are a handful of licences ‘clubs’ that operate on a restricted basis. To demonstrate the confusion over the issue, one of Mr Broughs first idea’s was to actually increase the number of these ‘clubs’ in remote communities. That idea sank without trace, no doubt when he realised that such a proposal would be increasing alcohol availability rather than restricting it. The idea was born from Brough’s observation of a common site – piles of ‘green cans’ (VB) located just outside the boundaries of ‘dry’ communities. Drinkers drive to a takeaway outlet, then bring their bounty back home, but unable to legally consume it there, they sit outside the community boundary and finish it all off.
Under the new legalisation, this will be illegal as the consumption of alcohol on all Aboriginal land is prohibited. The effect of this will be not to prevent this practice, but simply to modify it. The same drinkers will do the same things, just the location will change – from the community boundary to the Aboriginal lands boundary. With one possible exception. The ‘boat exemption’ has made into the final Legislation, allowing the consumption of alcohol on boats witihin Aboriginal Lands. Drinking is allowed,
in a boat that was on waters in a prescribed area; and
(b) the defendant was engaged in recreational boating activities or commercial fishing activities
This is widely, and correctly, seen as a special measure to keep the non-Indigenous recreational fishers happy, whose enjoyment of a few too many beers while out on the water is sacrosanct. I hope this won’t lead to more boating tragedies as drinkers look for ways around the general prohibition, but I suspect it might. The Minister also has the power to remove areas from this exemption.
There are a several new elements of the legislation that target sales of alcohol. One is regarding the quantity of alcohol that can be purchased. This is to be restricted to 1,350 ml of pure alcohol per person. Woolworths was quick to point out the problems that will confront their staff who will have the task of implementing this policy. They will have to calculate the quantity of alcohol in a customers purchase, and are subject to fines (close to $7000) if they get it wrong. By my calculations, you can buy 3 cartons of VB and remain just under the 1,350 mL limit. And to give you an idea of how this will play out in practice, I’ll relate an anecdote that I experienced just last week when queuing at the local Woolworths grog shop; 2 blokes had their Friday night supplies in hand and were paying, but ran foul of the current alcohol sales restrictions (yes, some already exist), so one simply stepped back and paid for half separately, and they walked out with exactly what they had initially tried to pay for together.
The new regulations also demand that the seller seek proof of ID, record the name ands address of the purchaser, and record the location of where the purchaser intends to consume the alcohol. This part still mystifies me. Will the Police be going to bottle shops, looking at the records and then going to the proposed consumption location? And then what? If they are not there will the police ask them where it was consumed, or proof that it was consumed? There are no penalties in the legislation for consuming the alcohol in a place other than where the purchaser stated they would, so it’s hard to see what the point of all this is.
As indicated earlier, there are already significant restrictions in place in the NT, which vary across the regions. For instance in Alice there is now no public drinking permitted, which replaces the older ‘2km Law’ which prohibited drinking within 2kms of a takeaway outlet. Alice also prohibits takeaway sales before midday and cask sales before 6pm. Tenant Creek has ‘Thirsty Thursday’ – no alcohol sales on Thursdays when people receive most of their Centrelink payments. The Tiwi Islands and Groote Eylandt have introduced new alcohol management plans that have significantly reduced alcohol related violence and crime. Regional plans can address the specific circumstances of that region, and most importantly, they involve local participation in their drafting.
While the effectiveness of these measures is debatable, and the lack of local involvement and participation means that they will likely fail, the real issue was the almost total absence of measures to increase the availability of alcohol treatment services. A lack of consultation and unwillingness to compromise are the hallmarks of this process, but at least on this issue there has been a tiny victory. The Senate Report recommends
that the Australian Government should closely examine the need for additional drug and alcohol rehabilitation services in the Northern Territory and, if necessary, provide additional funding support to those services.
‘If necessary’ is a rather large caveat, but I live in hope.