The sweeping election victory of the Country Liberal Party (CLP) in 2012, was due in no small part to the massive swing against Labor in the typically safe Labor “bush seats”, electorates made up of largely Indigenous people and Indigenous owned land. A neglectful and fatigued Labor party failed on numerous fronts to respond to the requests of their bush electorates and machinations of federal level politics also didn’t bode well for electoral victory. The subsequent CLP victory was a shock to many, but a long time coming.
Strangely, during the first weeks of the CLP’s governance, it very vocally and crudely tried to distance itself from the Labor party’s alcohol management policies. The most notable of which, was the “Banned Drinker’s Register” (BDR), dismantled within the first two weeks of winning government. The reasons for getting rid of this policy have varied and changed over a period of time, but a steady chorus of “look at the stats, it didn’t work” has been the fundamental basis of all their arguments (at least post-election) . A middle-schooler studying statistics and logic could quite quickly and easily highlight the fallaciousness of this argument, as trying to measure the success or failure rate of a public-health intervention only one year into operation is, frankly speaking, laughable. Laughable still, or perhaps perplexing to those who haven’t kept up with NT politics, is the somewhat recent CLP attempts at alcohol management policies, such as the placing of police officers at takeaway alcohol premises around the electorates in proximity to the bush seats, fulfilling a function almost identical to the BDR and at twice the cost. Health stats indicate there has actually been an increase in alcohol related injuries post-BDR. However, I won’t be making that argument here, just a remark intended as a friendly elbow jab and a wink.
Apocryphal anecdotes, however, do point toward the aggressive banning of alcohol in communities and the aggressive policing in proximate townships having a flow on effect of Indigenous people addicted to alcohol steadily making their way to larger urban centres to access alcohol, harassment free. Other reasons though could include the rapidly deteriorating housing and health conditions in many remote Aboriginal communities, but we won’t let that get in the way of electioneering. Regardless of the veracity of these anecdotes, a robust alcohol and health policy should have anticipated these types of movements and responded accordingly. Perhaps though, that is giving too much credit to a government led by a man who when queried on the topic, responded by telling “rowdy drinkers” to “piss off to home communities”. A cynical attempt at appealing to the lowest common denominator, racism. Blaming issues on the marginalized isn’t a new political tactic though, and those of us who have endured this cluster-fuck of a government have grown so despondent that this sort of vulgarity barely surprises even the most naïve anymore.
How could or should have the Chief Minister responded? Well ironically, if they had stuck to some of their initial 2011-12 electioneering scripts, or some of their rhetoric during their term, this government could have avoided criticisms and questions on this topic entirely.
For example, when queried on the BDR, former, former, former Chief Minister Terry Mills said:
“It (the Banned Drinkers’ Register) was largely cosmetic [and] creates a false impression that this register is banning people from drinking.”
“At the point of sale, you [had] to see whether someone has got ID or not, and that becomes the issue. Now I’m saying you look to see whether the person is drunk or not and, if they are, don’t serve them.” (ABC, 2012)
Ignore for a second that all hospitality and take-away outlet staff that serve alcohol need to be trained in the “responsible service of alcohol” which specifically stipulates why you can’t serve people who are already intoxicated. Also, ignore the fact that making sure someone has identification before consuming alcohol is probably a good way to address some of the issues with underage drinking. Focus however, on the criticism of the BDR being “cosmetic”. The current response to alcohol management as already highlighted is a crude duplication of the BDR, and doesn’t deal with, as NT Attorney-General John Elferink said in response to the “Inquiry into the harmful use of alcohol in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities” report that he didn’t read, the “underlying causes of alcohol related harm- ‘passive welfare’”.
‘Passive welfare’, a sort of neologism, that in a traditional lowercase “l” liberal sense, rightly asserts that welfare without individual responsibility and reciprocation are the prime ingredients for Anomie. A term coined by sociologist Emile Durkheim describing the conditions in which individuals or society forsake standards, ethics or values at the cost of individual or societal health and wellbeing. A favourite trope for conservatives when critiquing the marginalized, the argument compartmentalizes and isolates issues without considering the intersectionality and causality of recent and historic institutionalized oppression. It does give one hope though, that at least there is an awareness in government that there may be underlying factors for alcoholism.
If government is serious about addressing chronic alcoholism in Indigenous communities throughout the NT, then a good start would be to consider the evidence, not knee-jerk populism. Consult Aboriginal people of different demographics (remote, urban, young, and old, etc). Don’t demonize us or isolate particular groups for consultation that suit your agenda. Approach this as a health issue, not a criminal justice issue. Apply the same standard across different demographics, rather than specifically targeting Aboriginal people. Finally as highlighted in the aforementioned, don’t isolate alcoholism as an issue in of itself without considering all the lateral causal factors that lead up to it, “passive welfare” is just a cynical attempt at shifting the “blame” back onto Aboriginal people themselves rather than using the empowered position of you know…being in government, to start to address the issues that Aboriginal people have been raising for decades now.
This basic human rights approach has eluded governments to date, so second last suggestion is for government to read up on the UN declaration on the rights of Indigenous peoples. It’s a great starting point. My last suggestion is, if the above recommendations and suggestions are too hard, that said blow-in rowdy politicians should simply piss off back to Canberra.
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