Frustrations at a “paternalistic” policy — plus the dangers of home brew, young people slapped with criminal records and bottles of rum sold for $150 — are just some of the reasons residents of “dry” Aboriginal communities in Queensland welcome the review of the state’s alcohol management plans.

Yesterday Glen Elmes, Queensland’s Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, delivered a pre-election promise to review the initiative, with a focus on communities choosing and taking ownership of any restrictions. Fifteen Queensland indigenous communities currently have alcohol management plans (AMP) in place, ranging from restrictions on how much can be brought in to a complete ban on all alcohol.

Mayor of Mornington Island, a remote indigenous community in the lower Gulf of Carpentaria, Bradley Wilson calls the current AMP restrictions in his community “disgusting”. Mornington Island is a completely dry community, with all alcohol — including home brew — banned.

However, the mayor says home brew can be found in the community and health issues from it have proven just as detrimental — if not more — than alcohol. Wilson tells Crikey the community has had no ownership or control over the laws until now —  “even our civil rights have been deprived” — and he welcomes the chance to review.

“At this moment we’re just playing it by ear,” said Wilson. “But I wouldn’t mind getting it [the AMP plan] lifted and some having some management plan in place, that would be made by the community, for the community.”

It’s having alcohol restrictions implemented by those who don’t live in the communities that annoys community leaders. “You can’t be having a paternalistic approach in government,” said Yarrabah mayor Errol Neal. “We need the opportunity to address our own problems, find solutions and create opportunities.”

A decade ago the Yarrabah pub closed and no alcohol can be purchased in the community of around 4000 people, located just an hour’s drive away from Cairns. Either one bottle of unfortified wine or a slab of light or mid-strength beer can be brought in to the community legally per person. The restrictions have meant an increase in Yarrabah residents being charged breaches for possession and sale. “It gives people another uncalled-for opportunity for laws to be broken,” said Elverina Johnson.

Johnson is the Yarrabah co-ordinator for PACE (parent and community engagement) which aims to increase school attendance. “Since we’ve had the alcohol management plan, there’s been some changes but very little in terms of the social impact,” Johnson told Crikey. She says there has been slight changes to domestic violence levels and more attention to social issues, but “all in all there’s really not been much change. It certainly hasn’t boosted the school attendance rate.”

Lucy Rodgers from the Yarrabah Aboriginal Corporation for Women has been involved with Yarrabah’s women’s shelter and the women’s centre since 1997. She has noticed no difference in the amount of women coming for help before or after the alcohol restrictions were introduced a decade ago. She is wary of the social and health issues that alcohol can bring, but supports the idea of a family-style club in Yarrabah where people could take their kids for dinner and have a beer together.

“Being a citizen of Australia, everybody is entitled to go down to the local pub and have a few drinks,” Rodgers told Crikey. “You look at the American Indians, they’ve got the casinos. That’s good revenue for the community. We’ve got to look at how we have that income in Yarrabah, in a positive way that the whole of the community supports.”

Over in Palm Island, only one slab of light or mid-strength beer is allowed per person of drinking age. Robert Blackley, the former mayor of Palm Island, says the restrictions simply fuel a black market where bottles of rum go for $150 and a cask of wine can be bought for $100. These add to social issues, he says, because “financial stress on people and families cause family and domestic violence”: “There are people who owe $400, $500, $600 to alcohol dealers; there’s no way they could pay it back.”

And it impacts on people’s daily enjoyments, he says, with Palm Islanders even unable to use wine or liquor in cooking. “We wanted to put out a Palm Island cookbook as a joke: rum balls substituted with mid-strength beer,” he said.

Current Palm Island mayor Alf Lacey — who was unavailable for comment today — is due to face court in December after allegations he was a passenger on a tinny that was bringing sly grog onto Palm Island back in January. Lacey has long described the AMP laws as “draconian”.

Up on the eastern coast of Cape York, alcohol is completely banned in the community of Lockhart River. Mayor Wayne Butcher tells Crikey there are positives (less rubbish, less parties and less domestic violence) and negatives (a huge increase in drug use, residents drinking alcohol in riverbeds near roadhouses and a lack of community input).

“I think the community has come to a stage where they have accepted it’s a better place without alcohol,” said Butcher. He wants the residents to determine how — or if — the AMP changes. “Hopefully this time they [the government] consider the community’s input more than anything,” he said.

Communities are under no obligation to change their current AMP policy, with Cape York’s Arukun already saying it will stick with its complete alcohol ban.

Peter Fray

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