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NT Govt bypasses community concerns to pave way for liquor superstore

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Since 2015, Endeavour Drinks as part of the Woolworths group has been trying to open a Dan Murphy’s big box alcohol outlet in Darwin. Their application was rejected by the independent Liquor Commission because a Dan Murphy’s on Bagot Road close to three dry Aboriginal communities would cause harms that outweigh any benefit.

Danila Dilba Health Service along with other health oriented organisations in the Northern Territory were among official objectors to the proposal and presented strong public health evidence through expert witnesses to the Liquor Commission. Woolworths is currently appealing to the Northern Territory Civil and Administrative Tribunal (NTCAT) to change the decision of the Liquor Commission. This is the right process under the law that applies to liquor licenses and has been good enough for all the other matters that are considered by NTCAT. If the appeal continued, a decision would be made in a few months and that decision would look at all the public health evidence, possible benefits and possible harms of the store going ahead.

The Northern Territory government has decided that this is suddenly an urgent issue that must be resolved immediately. So they have put forward a new law so that Woolworths can get a quick decision without requiring any further consideration of benefits and harm and with no further right of appeal. The government considers the matter so urgent that the new law has to be considered the very day after it was put into the parliament. There is no genuine urgency. This has been going on for nearly five years and the Darwin community has suffered no harm from not having Dan Murphy’s. There is no harm caused to the community by allowing a proper consideration of the public interest and community impact of the proposal but a lot of potential harm in a rushed process that does not require consideration of the public health impact.

This new law will stop the NTCAT appeal process and set aside the very considered evidence based decision of the Liquor Commission in favour of a decision by a public servant with the title of Director of Liquor Licensing. Not only will the law allow this public servant to overrule the decision of legal and health experts, it will require him or her to make this decision within 30 days. The Liquor Commission was set up to make sure that important decisions are made by experts after looking at all the evidence and talking to expert witnesses.

The new law would require the Director to make a quick decision but it explicitly says that the Director is not required to consider the public interest and community impact issues in Section 49 of the Liquor Act. Any other applications under the Liquor Act will have to satisfy the Liquor Commission on these points, but this application can be decided by a non-expert and it is up to him or her to decide whether to consider the public interest and community impact.

The Bill also seems to envisage the possibility of an alternative site for the Dan Murphy’s store. While an alternative site may mitigate some of the harm, the lack of any requirement to consider the public interest and community impact issues means that an alternative location does not have to be considered in the same way that the Bagot Road site has been assessed.

There will be no requirement that the public servant making the decision looks at whether that site is less harmful or talks to any experts about that.

Decisions on important things like this should be transparent and they should be based on evidence with the reasons for the decision made public. Decisions should also be open to appeal – this new law says that the decision of a public servant can not be appealed. This decision will be final but no reasons need to be given and the community will have no ability to have that decision subjected to scrutiny. In this context, the NT opposition frequently calls for transparency in government decision making so perhaps the opposition will oppose this law?

The Northern Territory has been working hard to reduce the harms caused by alcohol, particularly harms to Aboriginal people, and we consider that good progress has been made. An extensive review of alcohol policy was done in 2017 and its final report made important recommendations to government. Those recommendations were all accepted by government and progress has been made on the banned drinker register, a minimum unit price for alcohol, point of sale checks on purchases of alcohol, risk based licensing and a continuing moratorium on new take away liquor licenses. The measures, in our experience, are supporting outcomes such as reduced assault offences, fewer emergency department presentations, reduced child protection notifications and fewer road accidents right across the Northern Territory.

This new law doesn’t fit with the evidence based approach to alcohol related harm that is already implemented in the Northern Territory.

Unfortunately, this new law would pursue expediency at the cost of public health and at the cost of the well being of vulnerable people in Darwin, especially vulnerable Aboriginal people. It is unacceptable and the government should withdraw the legislation. If people in the Northern Territory can wait eight years on the public housing waiting list, a big corporation can wait a few more months to allow proper decision making on an important public health issue.

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