Oct 5, 2012

Ideology aside, the Aboriginal grog bans are working

The ban on booze in some Aboriginal communities does reduce abuse rates. Peter d'Abbs from the Menzies School of Health Research looks at the data.

The Queensland government's recent announcement of a review of alcohol management plans in indigenous Queensland communities has generated, predictably, calls for their relaxation if not abandonment on the grounds they are ineffective and discriminatory. But are they? Two kinds of evidence are relevant: first, reports of conditions in communities prior to the introduction of AMPs from 2002 onwards; second, evidence relating to the impact of AMPs on alcohol-related problems and the quality of life in affected communities. On the first question, the most comprehensive analysis is to be found in an inquiry commissioned in 2001 by the Beattie government and conducted by Justice Tony Fitzgerald (Cape York Justice Study 2001). Fitzgerald was asked to examine the causes and consequences of alcohol-related violence, and to recommend strategies to reduce it. He painted a bleak picture: alcohol abuse, he concluded, compounded by a failure on the part of remote communities to engage successfully with institutions of the wider society, had led to "a self-perpetuating cycle of poverty, tragedy and despair". Much of the harm in the report’s view could be sheeted home to licensed clubs, run by local councils which in turn had acquired a pecuniary interest in maintaining high levels of consumption. A clinical audit of injuries sustained in one community with a licensed club in 1995 reported levels of violence more akin to a war zone than a functioning community: for example, an all-cause injury rate among 16-44 year olds of 142 injuries per 100 females, 150 per 100 males. Anthropologist David Martin examined sales from canteens located in four Cape York communities, estimating per capita consumption per drinker in 1996-97 at equivalent to between 35 and 43 litres of pure alcohol per year -- compared with a Queensland level of 10.9 litres. It was in this context that Noel Pearson formulated his critique of the destructive nexus between welfare dependency, alcohol and other drug abuse, and social disintegration, while the Beattie government, in response to Fitzgerald’s recommendations, moved to reduce the flow of alcohol into communities, and to strengthen facilities for preventing and managing alcohol misuse, through the introduction of locally-tailored AMPs. As originally conceived, AMPs were not only designed to restrict alcohol availability; they were also intended to remove local councils from control of liquor outlets, empower local Community Justice Groups to sanction alcohol-related behaviour, and expand resources for intervention, treatment and rehabilitation. Looking back now, it is easy to spot the implementation flaws: consultation processes were poorly thought out and sometimes bungled; the added responsibilities given to Community Justice Groups were not matched by the resources needed to exercise these powers, and the promised facilities for treatment and rehabilitation have, by and large, not been forthcoming. Flaws notwithstanding, AMPs were introduced in 18 indigenous Queensland communities. This where the second body of evidence is relevant. A series of evaluations conducted by the Queensland government itself after the first three years of AMPs reported equivocal conclusions. Declines in injury and alcohol-related assaults in several places corroborated quantitatively what qualitative assessments reported: improved peace and safety in the communities concerned. A more rigorous analysis is furnished by independent studies conducted by Margolis and colleagues and published in the Medical Journal of Australia. The researchers examined the impact of AMPs on serious injuries requiring aero-medical evacuation in four Cape York communities with AMPs. In the first study, they documented trends over eight years preceding, and two years following, the introduction of AMPs, and found a statistically significant decline following the AMPs. Injury rates for the two years post-AMP were, on average, 52% lower than for the two years prior to AMPs. Evacuations for conditions other than injury over the same period showed no decline, leading the researchers to conclude that the AMPs had brought about a significant fall in rates of serious injury. In a follow-up study, the authors extended their analysis of trends up to 2010 to take account of further tightening of restrictions on availability introduced by the Bligh government in 2008. They noted, firstly, that the initial beneficial effects on injury rates reported in their earlier study had weakened, but that with the introduction of amendments in 2008 injury rates again declined. By 2010, they reported, rates of serious injury in the four communities were at their lowest recorded level in 15 years. These findings echo what other evaluations of comparable initiatives -- for example, in Groote Eylandt in the NT and in the Kimberly, WA -- tell us: that in situations of pervasive alcohol-fuelled violence and social dysfunction, much of it borne by women and children rather than drinkers themselves, curtailment of availability is a necessary (but not sufficient) pre-condition for change. AMPs are an imperfect instrument for pursuing this end: they require improvement, not dismantling.

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11 thoughts on “Ideology aside, the Aboriginal grog bans are working

  1. Al

    Really good to read some dispassionate analysis of the impact of AMPs. I seem to recall that the first year I moved to FNQ in the late 1990s there were four women murdered in one Cape York Aboriginal community, a town of less than a thousand people. The local media and communities were so inured to violent alcohol-related assaults in Cape York that these murders were hardly even mentioned in the FNQ media. Imagine the outrage at the killing of 4 white women in a year in a comparable white southern town. There’d be an outcry and calls for a Royal Commission.

    The grog canteens in many Cape York communities were forced on local Councils in the 1970s by the Bjelke-Petersen government as a way of “fund-raising” in lieu of rates by local councils therefore reducing the cost of state government services to these remote communities.

    I’ll be waiting with bated breath to see the terms of reference for the Newman Government’s “review” of alcohol management plans and hope that this process, like the recent vicious budget cuts, isn’t another case of “Can-do” Newman channeling Sir Joh back to the future in the Sunshine State.

  2. Jon Hunt

    As with any sort of restriction there will be people who have their freedom curtailed and won’t like it. Alcohol is an enormous problem in Aboriginal communities, so much so that I’d be inclined to think that the loss of some freedom for some would be worth the benefit.

  3. mikeb

    Damned if you do – damned if you don’t. The damage brought about by the white man is done, and nothing the white man can do will mend it. Salvation can only come from within the community.

  4. robinw

    With this evidence, is there a brave enough politician to suggest that all society may benefit from an AMP?

  5. Christopher Nagle

    The assessment of AMPs as necessary but not sufficient is really saying that they are treating symptoms rather than causes.

    The causes run back to issues which are fundamental to how our present society works; a deregulated laissez-faireism run by extremist ideological utilitarians in cahoots with equally deregulating marketers bent on turning mass populations into whimsical egoists.

    Unfortunately for indigenous communities, they have been more vulnerable to this because they had fewer defences against it in the first instant. And indulging them with ideological fantasies that they are just racist victims has merely served to compound their disability and loss of moral boundary and compass.

    The sorry story of social and existential dissolution that went from the ‘Bringing Them Home’ Inquiry in 1997 to ‘The Little Children Are Sacred’ report ten years later is a bellwether for the rest for us, not very far down track.

    Our social mores are as unsustainable as our economic system. To get some balance back, social rights may well have to be shunted out of the way to save what is left of our commons and the social construction of those who people it.

    And indigenous society may well have to be one of this project’s most urgent cases.

  6. Gavin Moodie

    This article is a helpful report on whether alcohol management plans are effective, but does not consider whether they may be discriminatory.

    One option may to respond as federal Labor has done with income management plans by extending them to other communities, as robinw suggests. Another option would be to increase federal excise on alcohol, as the Australian Government has done with tobacco.

  7. Arty

    Reading this article and the reader comments, I might be forgiven for thinking that alcohol and drugs are a serious problem for the indigenous community.

    Last time I looked out the window I saw and heard a serious drug and alcohol problem with not an indigenous person in sight.

    Let’s do the indigenous community the honour of equal treatment by applying the same AMPs to all Australians.

  8. Mack the Knife

    It seems to have gone under the media radar but in the Northern Territory the coalition won government with the winning of three seats by Aboriginal Elders who ran on a promise of removing all restrictions of bringing alcohol into the Communities.

  9. Mark Tregonning

    Dear Sir,

    Your article on alcohol ban on Friday 5/10 failed in one important point. Any analysis of the effect of a policy needs to address the fact that correlation does not equal causation.

    Your writer makes the classic error of only looking at one possible causative factor in alcohol related injuries: the AMP, yet still concludes that any changes to alcohol injuries must be due to AMPs.

    Over the relevant years there would be many factors which impact on the number and severity of drinking related problems in aboriginal communities. AMPs are one, but only one, factor to be considered. Changes in poverty, availability of other drugs, changes in population demographics, and the impact of other policies would all have effects.

    A proper analysis would consider these other factors, eliminating them only for good reason.

    By not taking this basic analytical step your writer betrays his own idealogical preferences for AMPs which lead him to hurry improperly to the doubtful conclusion that they are effective.

    Aboriginal people, and readers, deserve better.

    Mark Tregonning

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