Any analysis of alcohol issues is complex and requires a very careful look at multiple data sets and knowledge of what is going on to explain data trends. The article by Chris Graham in Crikey this week wasn’t careful enough.
At the outset, Graham’s assertion that it has been Canberra that has led the game in positing alcohol bans is completely inaccurate and ahistorical. And, frankly, anti-Aboriginal.
First, there is a very well-documented history in the Northern Territory of Aboriginal communities that have successfully demanded — as acts of self determination — alcohol bans in nearly 100 communities across the Territory.
Second, Aboriginal communities, and the health and other organisations they control, have never argued that prohibition is a silver bullet. Other initiatives — that have been fiercely resisted by government and the alcohol industry — such as restrictions to the volume of grog and number of outlets, the times allowed for take away sales and floor pricing, have been put forward by these groups, backed by a solid evidence base.
Third, Graham makes no comment on the role of the alcohol industry — as if it is some sort of disinterested but benign third party that has no particular role in human misery.
We hold no particular brief for the Prime Minister in her statement — far from it. Prime Minister Gillard does not suggest that alcohol restrictions alone will solve the alcohol problem; this is an oversimplification of her position.
However, one of the reasons why the NT has the fastest rate of improvement in Aboriginal life expectancy is the decline that has occurred in the consumption of pure alcohol. Addressing alcohol is no magic bullet but is a key part of what needs to be done. This is the view of the Prime Minister and Graham misrepresents this.
Unfortunately, the article does not make sufficient distinction between alcohol supply reduction measures that apply to the whole community — for example the measures in place in the large population centres in the Northern Territory such as Alice Springs, Tennant Creek, Alyangula and Nhulunbuy — and the special measures that are in place in various permutations in almost 100 remote Aboriginal communities. These measures also apply to the non-Aboriginal residents in these communities, who usually comprise at least 10% of these populations. The latter must be special measures which comply with the Racial Discrimination Act and cannot be imposed without community support.
The Prime Minister has not suggested imposing alcohol measures on Aboriginal people only, but she has expressed concern at the dismantling of measures that have been introduced by the demands of the communities affected, are working and have community support. We share that concern.
There have been some very effective population wide measures in place in the NT, such as the de facto alcohol floor price in Alice Springs, achieved by a combination of Licensing Commission action — against selling wine casks larger than two litres — and an agreement operating amongst liquor retailers not to sell bottled wine for less than $8 per bottle and two litre casks for less than $16. This has seen the minimum price increase from 25 cents per standard drink to around 76 cents per standard drink.
This very effective measure has reduced alcohol consumption across the whole Alice Springs population by about 20%. The measure has been formally evaluated by the National Drug Research Institute.