Feb 8, 2013

Gillard is wrong, bans won’t stop those ‘rivers of grog’

Grog is destroying lives in Aboriginal communities, but race-based bans don't work. Julia Gillard wants to re-introduce a list of people banned from buying alcohol but the data doesn't support her.

Chris Graham

Tracker managing editor

  There's no question grog kills a lot of Aboriginal people and destroys a lot of Aboriginal lives. But for all the damage grog can do to an Aboriginal community, it's nothing compared to the damage wrought by politics. Earlier this week, Prime Minister Julia Gillard delivered her "closing the gap speech on indigenous disadvantage. After the declaring that the gap was closing (it isn't), she lined up conservative governments in Queensland and the Northern Territory over their moves against alcohol bans: "I have a real fear that the rivers of grog that wreaked such havoc among indigenous communities are starting to flow once again." I'm not sure where Gillard has been spending her time recently, but I do recall her visiting Alice Springs last year. So what did she see? The rivers of grog in the Territory have never dried up. At best, you could say they've changed course slightly. In the first six months of 2010, the Substance Abuse Intelligence Desk (an initiative of the Northern Territory intervention) reported seizing 404 litres of alcohol from Aboriginal communities. By July 2011 that figure increased 1233 litres, climbing to 1445 by the end of the year. This is four years AFTER government intervention and grog bans. At the same time, alcohol infractions went through the roof. The bi-annual intervention monitoring report concedes that in 2007, there were 1784 "alcohol related incidents"; by 2011 it was 4101. Alcohol-related domestic violence incidents also rose, from 387 in 2007 to 1109 in 2011. The federal government likes to claim the increase in crime statistics is a result of more police. So, more coppers, more reporting. Yet while assault rates have more than doubled since 2007, the number of lodgements (charges that flow from an incident) is virtually the same in 2011 as in 2008 (548 in 2011 versus 537 in 2008). The federal government also likes to claim the policies of the Northern Territory intervention need time to bite. After all, it’s only been five years. Fortuitously, we have more than a decade of grog bans in Cape York on which to judge (the statistics I've used are assault rates, because proponents of grog bans routinely use them to justify banning alcohol). During 2000/01, the assault rate in Cape York communities was almost three times the state average (at a rate of 1419 assaults per 100,000 people). In 2001/02, the rate dropped to 1382. The following year, it dropped to 1216. Enter the Beattie government, and a new policy of alcohol management plans, or AMPs. Over the next two years, the drop in assault rates slowed dramatically, then plateaued. Within two years, it jumped substantially, and then slowly climbed its way back down. The net result was that after a decade of grog bans, assault rates in Cape York reduced by 15% -- the same drop that occurred in the two years prior to grog bans. Why? Beyond the fact that grog bans don’t work, no one really knows. But know assault rates in Cape York -- while certainly much higher than the state average -- mirrored almost precisely the rise and falls of assault rates across Queensland. And you could hardly suggest that's a dry community. Government-imposed grog bans don’t work. Indeed, they’ve never worked. Not for Aboriginal people, not for non-Aboriginal people. All grog bans do is frame a behaviour that should be treated as a health problem as a law and order issue. Which of course helps fill our jails. In Cape York in 2000/01, prior to the grog bans, "liquor offence rates" -- which include illegal possession of alcohol -- were at 142 per 100,000 people. By 2009/10 they’d increased more than seven fold to 1087, and "good order" offences also increased markedly over the same period.
"Aboriginal communities have the governance and the capacity to make their own decisions ... The days of grand pronouncements from the ivory towers of Canberra must end."
So grog bans had no real impact on assault rates on Cape York, but they were a raging success in the criminalisation of Aboriginal drinkers. So there’s the facts, now back to the politics. The CLP’s motivation to drop the grog bans in the NT is one part "they don’t work" and nine parts "voters in Alice Springs -- home to four CLP seats -- are sick and tired of Aboriginal drinkers pouring into town to escape grog bans on their communities". Whatever their motivation, the CLP’s opposition to broad-brush grog bans across whole swathes of the Territory is the right policy. With one caveat. The CLP has abolished the banned drinkers register, drawing the ire of the Prime Minister. "Since it was pulled down by the Country Liberal Party... we're hearing worrying reports about the rise in admissions in the emergency department at Alice Springs Hospital due to alcohol-related accidents and abuse," she said. I don’t consider "we’re hearing worrying reports" to be an evidence-based discussion. If our Prime Minister is going to defend a policy, she should work in some hard stats. Even so, there is strong support for the banned drinkers register in Alice Springs. Unlike blanket grog bans across communities, the BDR is a small, manageable policy. It targets individuals who are repeat offenders and have significant drinking problems, as opposed to targeting a whole race of people based on the colour of their skin. Dr John Boffa, an Alice Springs doctor who has worked in Aboriginal health for 20 years, defends the BDR: "This is one strategy that's working. And we've got the highest alcohol-related harm in Australia. It's not acceptable to not implement all possible measures that we know are having an effect." Which brings me back to the politics. If all politics are local, then why is all policy created in Canberra? The solution to these problems lie in the communities where the drinking occurs. Many communities later targeted by the intervention were already dry, courtesy of local decision-making. With support, Aboriginal communities have the governance and the capacity to make their own decisions. In Queensland, that’s where the Newman government is heading, to their enormous credit. And it’s what Gillard rails against. What Campbell Newman has apparently realised is that control of Aboriginal lives needs to be put into the hands of Aboriginal people. The days of grand pronouncements from the ivory towers of Canberra must end. Gillard said: "The government will take action in response to any irresponsible policy changes that threaten to forfeit our hard-won gains." Great news. And does the same government have the courage to take action in response to its own irresponsible policies which have been shown time and again to fail? *Chris Graham is the former and founding editor of the National Indigenous Times, and Tracker magazine. He’s a freelance writer based in Sydney.

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20 thoughts on “Gillard is wrong, bans won’t stop those ‘rivers of grog’

  1. Jon Hunt

    I’m a bit confused. Chris’s discussion says that it makes no difference, it just criminalises the issue. My own thoughts are that I can’t see how it can work when they can, presumably, just ask their mate to buy it for them. My understanding is that the only thing which reduces alcohol consumption is availability, and I do not think this refers to the availability for an individual. You have to reduce its availability for everyone. I’ve worked in Port Augusta which is a terrible place to work in terms of alcohol related harm. I’ve worked in dry communities where I’ve yet to come across alcohol related harm, although it does happen intermittently, but not constantly. The harm occurs when they go to Port Augusta.

  2. Chris Graham

    I agree Jon – If we want to reduce alcohol related injury, then remove alcohol from, for example Alice Springs. Not just for blackfellas, but for whitefellas too. Of course, white residents would never accept their basic rights being infringed. I’d add that there are several strands to the grog debate – without question, if you reduce supply, you reduce harm. But the argument used to restrict supply to Aboriginal people is not about self-harm – it’s about violence committed by drunks against women and children. But grog bans don’t reduce those either. Indeed amidst grog bans, violence has increased in the NT.

  3. Mina

    I remember miss Gillard was saying something like the number of alcohol related admissions to the hospitals or at police stations dropped, about 10,000 less I think.

    But now the alcohol treatment social worker said that problem has increased since the lifting of the ban, I think he was talking about ban register. And women with children come to him and complain about humbugging and kids getting starved again since the ban was lifted because the men use all the money for alcohol.

    If they don’t ban it, they should consider giving all of the unemployed plastic cards with credit for non-alcohol items only. That should reduce the problem a lot. Drastic situation requires drastic measures.

  4. Bo Gainsbourg

    I agree with this article in part..but what about the situation where the local community voting on grog controls might be dominated by alcoholics, probably mostly men, where a less vocal and aggressive group of women are trying to control things? Also not clear at all that the CLP moves re grog were anything to do with genuine empowerment of local communities. Probably just as much about picking up some extra votes from drinkers in certain places (often but clearly not always, more dominant men) and possibly at the request of grog vendors themselves (particularly the banned drinkers register). Not saying Gillard necessarily has the right approach, and I do agree that community empowered controls are the way to go. But sometimes you need to take action to circumvent grog vendor bastardry and dysfunctional individuals who may be able to dominate and intimidate a genuine community solution. Lets see if they follow through on genuine community empowerment..but don’t hold your breath.

  5. Shaniq'ua Shardonn'ay

    OK here’s and idea. Why don’t we test some of these policies on a group of European Australians before we impose them on the Aboriginal Community?

  6. Bo Gainsbourg

    Fair point Shaniqua, but you might have missed that the banned drinkers register applied to anyone, another reason why many aboriginal people and health workers supported it.

  7. Jon Hunt

    There is a similar issue to this in many places. I recently read a report of the Government’s response into the death of a number of Aboriginal men in Ceduna, all of which were due to alcohol. I was disappointed, but not surprised, that the report really said nothing. They did however state that they agreed to reduce the take-away to a 2 litre cask of wine/person/day. I would imagine is useless in terms of harm reduction. That’s 28 standard drinks. It’s clear to me that the government does not really care if Aboriginal people are dying from this if it means upsetting non-Aboriginal people’s income.

  8. Jon Hunt

    I should correct the above in that some of the deceased were women; I also can not find a link to the report.

  9. Chris Graham

    lol… A fabulous idea Shaniq’ua Shardonn’ay.

    Bo, I do take your point – that’s why I noted in the article that communities, with support, need to take control. Most will come up with the right solution. In communities where that doesn’t happen, the leaders who want positive change should be supported to lead the process.

  10. Chris Graham

    And Mina… sorry, but your solution is no solution at all. Indeed it looks startlingly similar to what got us here in the first place.

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