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Feb 8, 2013

Gillard is wrong, bans won't stop those 'rivers of grog'

Grog is destroying lives in Aboriginal communities, but race-based bans don't work. Julia Gillard wants to re-introduce a list of people banned from buying alcohol but the data doesn't support her.

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There’s no question grog kills a lot of Aboriginal people and destroys a lot of Aboriginal lives. But for all the damage grog can do to an Aboriginal community, it’s nothing compared to the damage wrought by politics.

Earlier this week, Prime Minister Julia Gillard delivered her “closing the gap speech on indigenous disadvantage. After the declaring that the gap was closing (it isn’t), she lined up conservative governments in Queensland and the Northern Territory over their moves against alcohol bans: “I have a real fear that the rivers of grog that wreaked such havoc among indigenous communities are starting to flow once again.”

I’m not sure where Gillard has been spending her time recently, but I do recall her visiting Alice Springs last year. So what did she see?

The rivers of grog in the Territory have never dried up. At best, you could say they’ve changed course slightly. In the first six months of 2010, the Substance Abuse Intelligence Desk (an initiative of the Northern Territory intervention) reported seizing 404 litres of alcohol from Aboriginal communities.

By July 2011 that figure increased 1233 litres, climbing to 1445 by the end of the year. This is four years AFTER government intervention and grog bans. At the same time, alcohol infractions went through the roof.

The bi-annual intervention monitoring report concedes that in 2007, there were 1784 “alcohol related incidents”; by 2011 it was 4101. Alcohol-related domestic violence incidents also rose, from 387 in 2007 to 1109 in 2011.

The federal government likes to claim the increase in crime statistics is a result of more police. So, more coppers, more reporting. Yet while assault rates have more than doubled since 2007, the number of lodgements (charges that flow from an incident) is virtually the same in 2011 as in 2008 (548 in 2011 versus 537 in 2008).

The federal government also likes to claim the policies of the Northern Territory intervention need time to bite. After all, it’s only been five years.

Fortuitously, we have more than a decade of grog bans in Cape York on which to judge (the statistics I’ve used are assault rates, because proponents of grog bans routinely use them to justify banning alcohol). During 2000/01, the assault rate in Cape York communities was almost three times the state average (at a rate of 1419 assaults per 100,000 people). In 2001/02, the rate dropped to 1382. The following year, it dropped to 1216.

Enter the Beattie government, and a new policy of alcohol management plans, or AMPs. Over the next two years, the drop in assault rates slowed dramatically, then plateaued. Within two years, it jumped substantially, and then slowly climbed its way back down.

The net result was that after a decade of grog bans, assault rates in Cape York reduced by 15% — the same drop that occurred in the two years prior to grog bans. Why? Beyond the fact that grog bans don’t work, no one really knows. But know assault rates in Cape York — while certainly much higher than the state average — mirrored almost precisely the rise and falls of assault rates across Queensland. And you could hardly suggest that’s a dry community.

Government-imposed grog bans don’t work. Indeed, they’ve never worked. Not for Aboriginal people, not for non-Aboriginal people. All grog bans do is frame a behaviour that should be treated as a health problem as a law and order issue. Which of course helps fill our jails.

In Cape York in 2000/01, prior to the grog bans, “liquor offence rates” — which include illegal possession of alcohol — were at 142 per 100,000 people. By 2009/10 they’d increased more than seven fold to 1087, and “good order” offences also increased markedly over the same period.

“Aboriginal communities have the governance and the capacity to make their own decisions … The days of grand pronouncements from the ivory towers of Canberra must end.”

So grog bans had no real impact on assault rates on Cape York, but they were a raging success in the criminalisation of Aboriginal drinkers.

So there’s the facts, now back to the politics. The CLP’s motivation to drop the grog bans in the NT is one part “they don’t work” and nine parts “voters in Alice Springs — home to four CLP seats — are sick and tired of Aboriginal drinkers pouring into town to escape grog bans on their communities”.

Whatever their motivation, the CLP’s opposition to broad-brush grog bans across whole swathes of the Territory is the right policy. With one caveat. The CLP has abolished the banned drinkers register, drawing the ire of the Prime Minister. “Since it was pulled down by the Country Liberal Party… we’re hearing worrying reports about the rise in admissions in the emergency department at Alice Springs Hospital due to alcohol-related accidents and abuse,” she said.

I don’t consider “we’re hearing worrying reports” to be an evidence-based discussion. If our Prime Minister is going to defend a policy, she should work in some hard stats. Even so, there is strong support for the banned drinkers register in Alice Springs.

Unlike blanket grog bans across communities, the BDR is a small, manageable policy. It targets individuals who are repeat offenders and have significant drinking problems, as opposed to targeting a whole race of people based on the colour of their skin.

Dr John Boffa, an Alice Springs doctor who has worked in Aboriginal health for 20 years, defends the BDR: “This is one strategy that’s working. And we’ve got the highest alcohol-related harm in Australia. It’s not acceptable to not implement all possible measures that we know are having an effect.”

Which brings me back to the politics. If all politics are local, then why is all policy created in Canberra? The solution to these problems lie in the communities where the drinking occurs. Many communities later targeted by the intervention were already dry, courtesy of local decision-making.

With support, Aboriginal communities have the governance and the capacity to make their own decisions. In Queensland, that’s where the Newman government is heading, to their enormous credit. And it’s what Gillard rails against. What Campbell Newman has apparently realised is that control of Aboriginal lives needs to be put into the hands of Aboriginal people. The days of grand pronouncements from the ivory towers of Canberra must end.

Gillard said: “The government will take action in response to any irresponsible policy changes that threaten to forfeit our hard-won gains.” Great news. And does the same government have the courage to take action in response to its own irresponsible policies which have been shown time and again to fail?

*Chris Graham is the former and founding editor of the National Indigenous Times, and Tracker magazine. He’s a freelance writer based in Sydney.

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Tracker managing editor

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