Scattered through the meagre details of the Brough/Howard vision of the new Northern Territory teetotalitarianism was a reference to “wet canteens” on Aboriginal communities.

No one who has drunk on an Aboriginal community knew what the f-ck they were talking about. Up here the handful of communities that have on-licence bars call them “clubs”. Queensland Aboriginal towns and communities have “canteens”.

Between the lad from Caboolture, Malcolm Brough, and the Cape’s Noel Pearson, Territory blackfellas are going to have a new slice of English to learn: the “wet canteen”. As Pearson well knows, the Aboriginal canteens were actively promoted by previous Queensland governments, not least by the abstemious Joh Bjelke-Petersen, as a way of avoiding funding remote Aboriginal communities.

But semantics aside, the blame game about grog on Aboriginal communities is deeply offensive to the 100-plus towns, town camps and communities that have used the law to try and ban alcohol; as well as being curiously coy about the clubs that do exist. There is also a studied blindness on where the “rivers of grog” are coming from — and the venal greed and racism that are the source of the grog.

There are only eight clubs on Aboriginal land in the Northern Territory: none south of Wugularr (Beswick) a bit east of Katherine, and four shared between the residents of Bathurst and Melville Islands — the so-called Tiwi islands — further north. The notion that Aboriginal living areas are littered with licensed premises is a deliberate distortion. Roughly 7.5% of Aboriginal people living on remote communities have the dubious pleasure of hosting clubs — the rest of the Aboriginal population battles to keep the grog away.

The town of Nguiu on Bathurst Island lost its right to sell take-away grog last year at the request of a majority of the township’s residents — led by the women. Of the others, two are notorious. Peppimenarti in the Daly River region makes its bucks — considerable bucks — flogging alcohol to visitors from other communities in the area, particularly Wadeye, the Territory’s largest community a few kilometres down the road.

Massive alcohol-fuelled violence led to the closure of the club at Wadeye nearly a decade ago. The Gunbalanya Sports and Social Club, just inside western Arnhem Land and across the river from Kakadu National Park, has lubricated the Kunwinjku and other people for generations, managed by the German Siebert clan for about as long. No surprise that the Sieberts — strong supporters of the Country Liberal Party (CLP) — are looking forward to the suspension of the permit system.

Brough has announced these “wet canteens” will no longer be able offer take-away sales. The non-drinkers in and around these communities will have something to look forward to. The clubs will remain open for business, despite the continuing damage they wreak.

In large part, this is because of an ideology and policy on alcohol that has been long championed by the Country Liberal Party, in government and opposition. They reckon there should be more clubs on Aboriginal towns and communities. The philosophy behind this is quite overt: keep blackfellas drinking on their own turf, and keep them out of towns like Alice. The current chardonnay-drinking non-socialist CLP leader, Alice Springs-based Jodeen Carney, has never renounced the policy, and doesn’t look like doing so any time soon.

So it’s an even money bet that one result of the Brough brigadistas’ occupation of the Aboriginal domain in the Territory will be a recommendation leading to the establishment of new “wet canteens” on key towns and communities. So they can “learn” how to drink properly. Territorians have already been warned of an invasion of towns up and down the Track by restless natives eager for a drink. The demonisation of blackfellas continues.

But it will do nothing to alter the economy-and geography-of the “rivers of grog”. There is a simple truth here: more than anywhere else in the nation, the economy depends on grog. More than anywhere else in the country, a select group of whitefellas benefits from exploitation through plying their trade on those rivers of grog. And it doesn’t stop at local take aways and remote road houses — it goes to the largest retailers in the land and their shareholders. None of them formally operate on Aboriginal land — the so-called target of Brough’s anti-grog campaign.

The town of Borroloola in the Gulf country started up in 1885 with two pubs. In the 1930s it had a reputation as the sly grogging capital of the Northern Territory. But, as of last October, its 1000-strong population has been a town without a pub. After a record of breaches of its licence — egregious even by Territory standards — its licence was revoked.

Its owner is applying for the licence to be reinstated, and why not? The company behind the bid — the appropriately named Cash Cow P/L — previously sold up to 960 cartons of grog a day to its predominantly Aboriginal clientele. The NT Government has declared a 12-month moratorium on take-away licences. There have been over 100 objections to a renewal of the Borroloola Inn licence. It’s pretty much impossible to find a supporter of the pub in down town Borroloola, while the drinkers still manage to buy 240 cartons of mid-strength and light beer, six days a week, at the other take-away in town. The Liquor Commission is considering the application from Cash Cow.

But Borroloola is not on Aboriginal land, though it lies cheek by jowl with the first traditional estates returned under the 1976 Aboriginal Land Rights Act. Even if the Borroloola Inn gets its licence back, it would not fall under Brough’s rubric, and there’s the rub.

The vast majority of Territory grog gets sold on non-Aboriginal land — and that has always been the case. Brough has set up a straw man, and done nothing to stop the rivers of grog. It has nothing to do with Aboriginal land. The majority of Aboriginal communities have banned grog; only a tiny handful has licensed premises, in any case. The rivers of grog are in fact represented by rivers of money and naked greed.

As the newly anointed Miles Franklin winner, Alexis Wright, pointed out in her much earlier book, Grog Wars, about Tennant Creek, every attempt by Aboriginal Territorians to restrict the sale of alcohol has been by almost complete intransigence by local whitefellas — especially by the purveyors of the stuff.

For more than two decades, Aboriginal people in Alice Springs — and throughout the region — have been campaigning against the untrammelled sale of alcohol in Central Australia. It’s not just that they have been simply ignored: they have faced a vicious array of vested interests from the liquor industry in a town that has more take away premises per capita than anywhere else in Australia. Including, bizarrely, a petrol station with a take-away licence. “Will that be drink-driving with your fries, sir?”

And it’s not limited to the small time. The Alice Springs branch of Woolworths — the largest retailer in the land — have been puzzled by recent objections to a 20 cents per litre discount on fuel for anyone who spends $60 in their bottle shop. What on earth is wrong with offering discounts to the biggest drinking town in the Territory — in turn the biggest drinking jurisdiction in the land?

And then there are the rabid responses from the local whitefellas. Every time there have been moves to reduce or restrict the availability of alcohol in Alice, the local rag’s letter pages are filled with people objecting to the “removal of rights by the actions of a minority”.

The irony? Pretty much the same letter writers swamp the pages of the Centralian Advocate with complaints of Aboriginal anti-social behaviour. The fact that recent restrictions have led to a 10% reduction in the consumption of pure alcohol in Alice Springs is unremarked. No one mentions the benefits of restrictions to “the innocent children” Howard and Brough now appear to be championing.

Yet, every time restrictions are put in place, the statistics show marked improvements in anti-social behaviour, criminality and hospital admissions. The statistics especially show benefits to the children. Almost invariably the liquor and tourist industries have been successful in getting governments to revoke or wind back the restrictions. Go figure.

In the face of the Brough campaign, there was a hopeful joke doing the rounds in Darwin the other day. Q: “Why is Darwin being renamed the New Jerusalem?” A: “Because it remains outside the occupied Territories.”

Perhaps not. Brough has other ideas.

On ABC Radio the other day, Brough claimed it was already “the law” in the Territory that one had to produce ID to buy more than three slabs of beer. Brough wants to add to that, and demand people fill out a declaration stating where the grog is destined to go, and to what purpose. The ABC presenter was too dumb to know that what Brough was claiming was false — or was too genteel a wine drinker to know otherwise. Either way Brough — as usual — was making things up on the run.

Brough has proposed a six-month crack down on grog, and will have the new laws to enforce them ready by mid-July. That takes us beyond Christmas and New Year: you can already hear the howls of rage when white Territorians have to justify purchases for their end of year p-ss-ups.

Not to mention the cries of horror from the take-away outlets that have benefited from the sales of grog to Aboriginal people for generations. Brough hasn’t mentioned these bastions of grog sellers on non-Aboriginal land.

The NT Government has toyed with the idea of buying back licences, and the Liquor Commission and Treasury are rumoured to be working out how much it might cost the taxpayer. It is likely to come to millions of dollars. If Howard and Brough were serious about grog in the Territory, they’d be writing cheques to buy back take-away licences tomorrow.

In all of this, the Northern Territory Government has been patently stupid in not telling the rest of the country — let alone Howard and Brough — of significant advances in the war against grog in recent times. The NT Government knows how much the grog is costing the local economy. Costings are available for licence buy-backs, for the cost of alcohol courts and related treatment and rehabilitation programs, let alone the cost of child-protection measures and the health system in general. They are beyond the capacity of the smallest jurisdiction by population in the land to pay for.

Yet, the Territory Government remains silent. And the Australian Government, awash with budgetary surpluses, has barely mentioned a single dollar.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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