National emergency measure number one introduced widespread alcohol restrictions on Northern Territory Aboriginal land.

The NT Amateur Fishermen’s Association is not happy; nor is Chief Minister Clare Martin who wrote to the Prime Minister arguing that fishermen (presumably non-Indigenous fishers) should have special rights to alcohol on Aboriginal land. There is already a police investigation of Senator Nigel Scullion for allegedly transgressing a grog ban on the Tiwi Islands.

Last week, Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough agreed to a general exemption from the new alcohol restrictions for the purpose of recreational boating in the Northern Territory National Emergency Response Bill to be tabled in Parliament

The exact wording of the Bill will be watched with great interest by Indigenous fishers. Obviously boating, fishing and grog are closely linked: as Clare Martin noted, going out on a boat, catching a barra and having a beer responsibly is all part of the Territory way of life that should not be penalised. I am sure that there are a lot of Indigenous and non-Indigenous residents of prescribed townships who could not agree more.

Why the ministerial backflip? The well-intentioned National Emergency measures are all about saving the children from the impacts of the ‘rivers of grog’; if they effectively wedge the ALP at the same time, well that’s an added bonus. But another National Emergency measure is scrapping the permit system and the most vociferous, sometimes only, supporter of that measure over the years has been the NT Amateur Fishermen’s Association: the wedge is not supposed to be applied to one’s allies!

Some of the National Emergency measures are beginning to look like high farce. In the short term, selectively lifting the grog ban might provide Indigenous entrepreneurs economic opportunity: floating pubs on Aboriginal-owned water ways; stubby helicopter charters; and maybe even legal beer truck runs across Aboriginal land. But in the longer term, after the High Court has ruled in the Blue Mud Bay appeal, Indigenous traditional owners might ban both fishers and their special grog deals from their country.

Well-intentioned policy can be so hard to implement and have such perverse outcomes, especially in the hands of such an accident-prone Minister. Ponder that as you settle down for your well-earned end of day beer.

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