Neil Westbury: The Albanese Labor Government needs to act urgently to protect women and children in remote NT communities

Jun 3, 2022
crushed beer can on woody ground
“NT has the highest rate of alcohol consumption in Australia. Image: PxHere.com

“The Panel recognises that the negative impacts that arise from the over consumption of liquor in the NT, laid out in detail in this report, are off the scale, not just by Australian but by international standards. The resulting costs in terms of human suffering and social and economic costs cut right across the NT community and are not confined to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Territorians. They cannot be ignored.” Gilbert Review into the proposed Dan Murphy Store in Darwin, (2021).

The 2021 Gilbert Review into the proposed Dan Murphy Store in Darwin identified that the “NT has the highest rate of alcohol consumption in Australia and a higher share of the population drinks at risky levels. Whilst a high number of Indigenous people do not drink at all they experience a disproportionate level of harm from alcohol.”

The Review highlighted that the resultant impacts are reflected in disproportionate levels of domestic violence and incarceration, poor school attendance, and dramatically higher levels of alcohol related hospitalisations and deaths, compared to other States and Territories.

It concluded that “the financial costs to Darwin and the NTG from these harms are also acute. Given the demonstrable health and economic costs, the level of alcohol related harm requires urgent and meaningful attention”.

In the context of these findings, it is therefore incomprehensible that the NTG has just passed legislation that lifts all controls on alcohol into remote communities and town camps, until individual communities seek individual exemption.

The background behind this development dates back to 2012 when the then Rudd government put in place a legislated $3.4 billion initiative to support stronger life outcomes for Aboriginal peoples in the NT, originally referred to as Stronger Futures in the NT (SFNT). It had a limited 10-year application. One part of the legislation declared remote Aboriginal communities and other areas, as Alcohol Protected Areas. This legislation is due to expire on 16 July 2022 but has not been the subject of any public review or evaluation of the numerous SFNT measures involved.

Whilst in office the former Commonwealth Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt (with responsibility for the legislation) failed to initiate action to safeguard these important policy issues.

Its termination ensures these issues will now become the sole responsibility of the NTG, whose track record, and capacity to make the required longer-term investments, has been shown to be severely wanting.

The apparent decision of the outgoing Morrison Government to enable such important legislation, and its significant program expenditure, to simply lapse, without a comprehensive and independent evaluation, was short-sighted and constitutes a significant disservice to the Indigenous residents in remote NT communities.

Given ongoing evidence of the inequalities between remote Indigenous communities and the wider population, the Government’s withdrawal of existing SFNT support and engagement, (apart from a two-year extension of investment focussing mainly on policing and health measures), will only further compound the existing marginalisation of remote Indigenous citizens.

The result has been that the NTG has now passed its own legislation (opposed by the Opposition) to essentially deal with the transition beyond SFNT. Indigenous leaders have suggested this legislation will likely result in uncontrolled rivers of grog entering remote communities.

The Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance of the Northern Territory, the Northern Australia Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA), Central Australian Aboriginal Congress, and others have called on the Government to incorporate Alcohol Protected Areas within the NT Liquor Act, once the SFNT expires, so that communities remain alcohol-free unless they decide to allow alcohol into their community.

Dr John Boffa, from the Peoples Alcohol Action Coalition, has highlighted the NTG’s attempt to justify these legislative measures on the spurious basis that to retain the current restrictions would be inconsistent with the Racial Discrimination Act. He points out that the new Act will adversely impact on a range of existing special measures, that have resulted in measurable reductions in alcohol related crime in several Territory towns and include a requirement that remote communities will now need to apply to retain restrictions rather than seek to have these removed.

At the very least the current SFNT legislation should urgently be extended by the incoming Albanese Government for a minimum of two years to enable a transparent and independent review of the impact of current restrictions involving meaningful consultation with communities affected. This should occur with a view to ensuring future arrangements both reflect the priorities of remote communities, and to protect vulnerable women and families.

At the completion the review (within 12 months) the Albanese Government should then convene discussions between the Commonwealth, the NTG, peak NT indigenous organisations and the liquor industry to consider the review findings and recommendations. These may include identifying mutually agreed solutions that involve either Federal or NT legislation aimed at ensuring harm minimisation, and family safety being prioritised in remote communities, along with ensuring critical and meaningful corporate buy in to a long-term commitment addressing the issues involved.

Issues such as these highlights yet again the ongoing absence of an effective Indigenous voice at the regional, State/Territory and National levels to ensure those people most directly affected by such legislative and program changes are properly engaged with and have a direct say in the ultimate policy decisions taken.

Neil Westbury was a member of the Gilbert Independent Panel into the proposed Dan Murphy’s Review development in Darwin which is available on the Woolworths web site.

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