I do not agree with what the PM has done in the Territory’s Aboriginal communities, nor did most of the Aboriginal health workers I was with last week in western NSW.

There is ample evidence that prohibition of alcohol in isolated Aboriginal settings does just what prohibition of a desired commodity always does – increases the price and increases corruption. It also entrenches boom and bust drinking, where people leave the dry area to drink, often consuming a fortnight’s worth in a session. This is highly destructive to the community (and the liver, stomach, pancreas etc) and is not a sustainable approach.

What happened to the NTs “Living with Alcohol”, a Territory-wide harm reduction approach which led to a reduction in per capita consumption across the whole population? By this means, most alcohol-related problems, car crashes, community violence, family violence, were reduced significantly, whilst people drank more prudently.

Why have those lessons been discarded – is it now unacceptable to suggest that alcohol related problems are not only a black issue, but rather the whole Territory (and indeed, the whole of Australia) has a significant and increasing problem with alcohol? There is no evidence that Aboriginal Australians cannot consume alcohol in a temperate manner, but this may be difficult when the nation seems obsessed with consuming increasing quantities at the moment. Sustainable change would entail population level interventions to reduce national per capita consumption, as well as specifically targeted interventions, but this, as Sir Humphry might say, is politically courageous.

And although I would hate to be seen as an apologist for the booze pushers, what are the determinants of alcohol related (or intoxication related) social behaviour – most intoxicated people do not fight or abuse others, so where does it come from? It’s not just the grog, stupid.

There is a lot more to it than that. This was well documented almost 40 years ago by McAndrew and Edgarton, two anthropologists, in their book Drunken Comportment: A Social Explanation. Their message that intoxication permits socially sanctioned time out of role is tricky to grasp and does not readily lead to apportioning blame, so their solid findings are disregarded.

EVEN assuming that the grog could be removed from Aboriginal communities for 6 or 12 months (and that flies in the face of history) and further, that people would not go elsewhere to get drunk, then drive home intoxicated (ditto), what is it that drives s-xual abuse and other violence in poor overcrowded communities? What excuse will there be after the grog is gone? Cannabis? Other drugs?

Or is it more complex, requiring a multi-pronged approach? This must include reducing per capita consumption throughout Australia, challenging the convenient but incorrect view that a small group of deviant drinkers causes all alcohol related damage. Simply, the more people who drink more grog more often, the more problems there will be. That’s what the data tells us. There is also good data on the complex determinants of child s-xual abuse, and although “alcoholic father” is one risk factor, there are many more. We have experts in this field in Australia, but maybe they are not saying what this government wants to hear?

Abused kids, both black and white, live in a world of fear, loneliness, confusion and distrust. They are markedly overrepresented in our jails, mental health facilities and drug services. There is good evidence that early intervention, especially post natal home visits, can protect these kids and reduce subsequent problems, and most drug and alcohol workers would love to see effective childhood intervention programs implemented across Australia to reduce the flow of miserable, damaged people into our services.

But this current spasm of activity is not the answer. Rather, it reflects the quick fix, magic bullet, short term funded approaches which have contributed to the development of these problems.

Get Crikey for $1 a week.

Lockdowns are over and BBQs are back! At last, we get to talk to people in real life. But conversation topics outside COVID are so thin on the ground.

Join Crikey and we’ll give you something to talk about. Get your first 12 weeks for $12 to get stories, analysis and BBQ stoppers you won’t see anywhere else.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
12 weeks for just $12.