David and Goliath battle over community alcohol harms is under way in the NT

There is a David and Goliath battle being waged in the Northern Territory as health and social welfare organisations and Indigenous leaders battle business behemoths and the Territory Government over the issuance of new liquor licences.

In a reversal of previous policy and decisions, including a five-year moratorium on new liquor licences, the Northern Territory Government has given the go ahead to a Dan Murphy’s megastore in Darwin, two new Coles outlets in Palmerston, and takeaway alcohol sales in the Tiwi Islands community of Pirlangimpi.

At stake are, on the one hand, huge social costs from the increased availability of alcohol, especially for Indigenous communities, and on the other hand, the commercial interests of large corporations. The expected profitability of these investments is indicated by the relentless five-year battle that Woolworths subsidiary Endeavour Drinks Group, which operates the Dan Murphy’s franchise, has fought to get their way and build one of the biggest liquor outlets in the nation – and the opportunistic eagerness with which Coles has joined in.

There is particular concern for what this new grog outlet will mean for the three dry Aboriginal communities – Bagot, Kulaluk and Minmarama – that are within walking distance of the proposed Dan Murphy’s in Darwin. Indigenous leaders have led the opposition to the megastore, fearing the health and social consequences.

But alcohol harm is not limited to Indigenous communities. The per capita alcohol consumption of the Northern Territory is among the highest in the world, estimated at 11.6 litres of pure alcohol per year, compared to the Australian average of 9.5 litres and the OECD average of 8.8 litres. Moreover, while alcohol abuse is a serious problem in impoverished Indigenous communities, research shows that more Indigenous people abstain from booze than non-Indigenous people.

The Northern Territory has a serious drinking problem – what has been described as “a culture both reflected in broader society and intergenerationally”- which must be faced.

Not surprisingly, the per capita costs and harms of alcohol consumption in the Northern Territory have long been the highest in the nation. In 2015-16 the health and social costs for the Northern Territory were estimated by the Menzies School of Health Research at $1.4 billion a year, or four times the national average; this included $100 million for healthcare, $58 million for road accidents; $272 million for crime; $171 million for child protection.

Drinking while pregnant can led to foetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) with effects on learning and behaviour that last a lifetime. While the rates of reported alcohol consumption in pregnancy are higher for non-Aboriginal women, Aboriginal women are more likely to consume alcohol at harmful levels.

The prevalence of FASD in the Northern Territory, indeed in Australia as a whole, is not accurately known. Estimates based on state and territory data indicate likely rates at 0.01 to 0.68 per 1000 births in the total population. A 2003 study estimated that the prevalence of foetal alcohol syndrome in the Northern Territory was as high as 1.7 per 1000 live births, with even higher rates (between 1.87 and 4.7 per 1000 live births) for Indigenous children. These data are cited in the Federal Government’s National FASD Strategic Action Plan 2018-28 with a proviso that they are almost certainly under-estimates.

The overwhelming evidence that alcohol, tobacco and obesity contribute massively to growing health burdens and healthcare costs has led to the formation of a strong coalition of groups voicing their concerns and calling on Woolworths to abandon their plans. An open letter was sent to the Northern Territory Government and to the Woolworths Board last November. Signatories included: Pat Turner, CEO, National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO); John Paterson, CEO, Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance Northern Territory (AMSANT); Olga Havnen, CEO, Danila Dilba Health Service; Thomas Mayor, National Indigenous Officer, Maritime Union of Australia NT and Deborah Di Natale, CEO, Northern Territory Council of Social Services (NTCOSS).

A second open letter, signed by 45 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and community organisation leaders, was later sent to Woolworths Chair, Gordon Cairns. The CEO of the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE), Caterina Giorgi, asked shareholders “to put aside the ill-considered and harmful plan.” The message appealed to Cairns as “the only person left with the power to stop this store from going ahead”, saying: “This is our home. The people whose lives your bottle shop threatens are our loved ones — our families, friends and neighbours. We have been working together to create a stronger, healthier and more resilient community. Would you really undermine all that for the sake of extra profit?”

There was a time when the Northern Territory Government was an ally on this issue. When Chief Minister Michael Gunner and his Labor Government was elected in 2016, they instituted a series of initiatives to address alcohol harms that earned them considerable praise.

In 2017 the Government commissioned an independent review of alcohol-related policies and legislation, and implemented almost all the recommendations. This included a five-year moratorium (due to expire in 2023) on new liquor licences, and, significantly, a policy shift away from floor size restrictions. The report argued that evidence demonstrated a relationship between low price alcohol, alcohol sales volumes and alcohol harms rather than the size of the outlet alone.

In September 2019 the Territory’s independent Liquor Commission rejected Woolworth’s application to build the Darwin store. It said that this would increase the availability of liquor for “problem drinkers”, exacerbate “anti-social behaviour” and pose a risk for pedestrians. The Territory Civil and Administrative Tribunal rejected Woolworth’s appeal of this decision in December of that year.

But then something changed. “We will fix the legislation …to allow for Dan Murphy’s to operate in Darwin,” said Gunner. And they did. Last November, suggesting that the economy needed a boost after the impacts of COVID-19, the legislature rushed through a bill to cut red tape and speed up approvals of liquor outlet applications. In December, a single public servant, the Director of Liquor Licencing, approved the four controversial licences.

It’s hard to believe that whatever these new outlets will contribute to minor employment opportunities and beleaguered Treasury coffers will offset the $1.4 billion or more in social, health and policing costs.

Woolworths and Coles know that there is staunch opposition to their plans. Steve Donohue, the Managing Director of the Endeavour Drinks Group has said, “We absolutely acknowledge the current levels of alcohol-related harm in the NT and the disproportional impact that this has on the Indigenous population.” The corporate response is to push ahead on a publicity campaign, arguing that it will listen to the community objections and somehow control the flow of grog.

Their efforts at community consultation do not align with the we are “working together” claims on the company’s website. After persistent warnings from the health organisations, Woolworths acknowledged the growing opposition by announcing in November (ahead of the final decision from the Director of Liquor Licencing) its own panel review. This will be independent to the extent that it is headed by Danny Gilbert, a respected lawyer and advocate on Indigenous issues who is also Chair of the Business Council of Australia.

Still, look at the process. A corporate entity, under pressure, replaces an independent licensing review with a process of its own devising. In addition, it has hired a Native Title mediator, Craig Jones of RREDD, whose previous clients include many of the biggest mining companies seeking access to Aboriginal lands.

In the eyes of many Aboriginal people there is a resemblance between what is happening in Darwin and Rio Tinto’s destruction of the Juukan Gorge cultural site last year. This was yet another David and Goliath situation that put profits ahead of Indigenous rights and highlighted the inadequacy of government protections. As the Never Again report from the Parliamentary Joint Standing Committee on Northern Australia said, “Rio Tino knew the value of what they were destroying but blew it up anyway.”

The Darwin communities are now at the stage where Rio Tinto was when it was loading explosives into the ground at Juukan Gorge even as they were giving the impression of trying to take mitigating actions. Time is short to stop Woolworths from proceeding with their plans; it is time to let the corporate bosses know that the health of people must come before profits. If we are silent, as most were before the destruction of Juukan Gorge, the end result in the Northern Territory will not be a single, devastating blast but rather a slow, debilitating poisoning of Territorians’ health and wellbeing and yet another example of the over-riding of Indigenous voices and rights.

Co-written with Dr Jeff McMullen AM, is a journalist, author, film-maker, Patron of the Australian Indigenous Doctor’s Association and Ambassador for NOFASD.

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Dr Lesley Russell is an Adjunct Associate Professor at the Menzies Centre for Health Policy and a Non-Resident Expert at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.

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