Inherent tensions: alcohol, poverty, and the role of governments in remote Australia

Feb 16, 2023
Alice Springs Welcome Sign and Australian Flag of Northern Territory in Central Australia. Tourism in Outback Red Center desert. Blue sky with copy space.

A week or so ago, on a visit to the ICU ward in the Alice Springs hospital, the Federal Minister for Indigenous Australians, Linda Burney was shocked to discover that of the 16 beds in the ICU, 14 were occupied by Indigenous women who had been subjected to violent assaults. Alcohol is widely acknowledged to be an element in most if not all these cases.

In 2017, the Northern Territory Government committed to implement all the recommendations of a review it had commissioned into alcohol policy and legislation (the Riley Review). Over time, serious doubts have emerged regarding its commitment to these.

In his 2021/2 annual report, Richard Coates, the Chair of the Northern Territory Liquor Commission expressed concern regarding the decision to move Licensing NT and the Liquor Commission from the Attorney General’s Department into a new Department of Industry, Tourism and Trade (DITT), whose primary role is “the public sector’s coordinating agency for economic and industry development”.

Coates identified an ‘inherent tension between the goal of promoting the economic development of the liquor industry and the responsibilities of the Commission under the Act’. He suggested that ‘those tensions will need to be carefully and sensitively managed if the Commission is to remain within DITT’.

His comments were particularly salient given the NT Government had already sought to overturn an independent Liquor Commission decision to refuse a liquor licence to enable the establishment of a new Dan Murphy’s super store in Darwin.

The Government’s actions included an unparalleled decision to amend existing legislation to enable the NT Director of Licensing (a public servant) to effectively overturn it. This is what transpired.

The subsequent public outcry led Woolworths, the then major shareholder in Dan Murphy’s, to appoint an independent panel review led by Sydney lawyer Danny Gilbert (April 2021). The Gilbert Review recommended the proposed liquor licence not proceed.

The Gilbert Review highlighted that the legislative amendments meant that the former requirements to consider the public interest and community impact became merely discretionary, that the rules of natural justice were removed, and that no public hearing was required.

The Gilbert Review further concluded:

‘It should be apparent from the entirety of the report …. that great care is required to ensure that community safety and the overall consumption of alcohol in sensitive communities is dealt with in the best interest of those communities. Nevertheless, the Panel recognises that the negative impacts that arise from the over-consumption of alcohol in the NT, laid out in this report, are off the scale, not just by Australian, but by international standards. The resulting impacts by way of human suffering and social and economic costs cut right across the Northern Territory community and are not confined to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Territorians. They cannot be ignored’.

To their credit, Woolworths accepted the Gilbert Review recommendations, decided not to proceed with the proposed Dan Murphy store development and surrendered the liquor licence.

The tensions Coates identified, and the legislated weakening of the independence of the Liquor Commission, are a microcosm of longstanding unresolved policy and political issues that pervade the Northern Territory and remote Australia. Short sighted politics trumps good policy. Deep-seated disadvantage gets less attention than political pandering to special interests. The long-term public interest has no place in the self-serving calculations that dominate the public sphere.

The recent crisis that erupted in Alice Springs provides a window into deeply rooted issues that extend well beyond poorly regulated access to alcohol. They also reflect a crying need to address issues such as poor housing, poor health, poor infrastructure in communities, poor food security, and poor education. These are challenges that successive governments have proven incapable of fixing. The punitive and ultimately disastrous Northern Territory Intervention, initiated by the Howard Government, was a blunt hammer designed to wedge the then Labor Opposition at the very end of an eleven-year term. The subsequent Rudd Government’s Stronger Futures Northern Territory (SFNT) policy and budget initiatives were never independently evaluated, and largely scaled back by subsequent Coalition governments.

It is not widely understood that there remains an ongoing tension and contradiction within NT Governments, whatever their political persuasion. These in part arise on the one hand from an unquestioned mantra that the primary focus of government policy should be to promote and support economic development ‘to grow the Territory’. This reflects not only the NT’s poor revenue base and mendicant status on the federation and the Commonwealth but is further complicated by the pre-eminent role Darwin based electorates exercise in determining government. The residents of these electorates enjoy overwhelmingly disproportionate government support (infrastructure, services, and business support) when compared with those Indigenous Territorians that reside in distant remote communities.

These economic and electoral imperatives and the institutional arrangements that underpin them effectively leave little or no room to meaningfully address the needs of its Indigenous citizens resident in remote communities or on the fringes of major population centres. These cohorts have a comparatively younger demographic profile and are only becoming increasingly marginalised, reflected in an ever-growing rate of unemployment, poor school attendance, overcrowded housing, high incarceration, rates of domestic violence, alcohol and drug abuse and poor health outcomes.

Apart from this realpolitik, the NT is a small jurisdiction with too limited a revenue base and simply lacks the necessary governance capability to address these issues. Hence its historic and ongoing reliance on Commonwealth funds for Indigenous expenditure.

The effective abandonment of remote communities by governments is directly reflected in the current flash point in the Alice. It has been exacerbated by the previous federal government’s decision to actively pursued a withdrawal from any tangible engagement with remote communities across several States. This involved both significant reductions in expenditure, and a deliberate strategy aimed at transferring policy responsibilities to the States and Territories.

The announcement over the past week of the NT and Commonwealth Governments in response to events in Alice Springs illustrates that the Commonwealth retains the power, should it wish, to exercise a whip hand over the NT. Despite some fancy political footwork to enable the NTG to save face, the Albanese Government effectively forced the NT Government to impose the alcohol restrictions it had previously categorially refused to implement. This meant that the NT Government will manage the subsequent process for approving alcohol management plans in communities that seek to ‘opt out’ oversighted by the NT Licensing Registrar. Chief Minister Natasha Fyles asserted this outcome reflected the fact that her government was best placed to consult and understand the views of Indigenous people in the NT.

The Chief Minister’s assertion flies in the face of her government’s record of totally ignoring the views of many locally based Indigenous people and their organisations. The Chief Minister was warned of the implications of a decision to lift alcohol restrictions. The increased violence and human suffering that has been the result was apparently of little concern. Not only does the government refuse to admit its mistake they also continue to run a deliberately misleading campaign that their previous refusal to reimplement restrictions was because it would constitute a discriminatory ‘race-based approach’. This ignores the fact that the Stronger Futures legislation was passed by the Commonwealth Parliament over 13 years ago, is based on the special measures’ provisions of the Racial Discrimination Act and accorded with Australia’s international obligations.

This deliberate conflation of Howard’s Intervention to that of the passage of the SFNT legislation is tendentious and designed to mislead. Both are being portrayed as one of the same, when in fact the latter removed several discriminatory policies but retained special measures (such as alcohol restrictions and income management -albeit controversial but largely supported at the time by Indigenous women).

More importantly in the current context this conflation of the Intervention and Stronger Futures, two quite separate policy approaches, has provided political cover for the Commonwealth’s decision not to legislate itself.

A test for the Commonwealth’s judgment in stepping back from continuing the Stronger Futures alcohol legislation will come very soon. The appointments of seven of the twelve members of the NT Liquor Commission (including Chair Richard Coates) expire this month. We will be able to gauge the quality and intentions of the NT Government’s approach to independent alcohol regulation by the calibre and quality of the upcoming appointments.

The 1967 referendum gave the Commonwealth a legislative and policy remit for Indigenous affairs for a reason, yet the Commonwealth’s role has been incrementally dismantled without any public debate or consideration.

Without substantial and meaningful investments and strong Commonwealth policy and political leadership, similar issues such as those evident in Alice Springs will continue to flare up across remote Australia.

Although the Prime Minister’s 13 February additional commitments under ‘Closing the Gap’ are welcome, the reality is that these belie the need for a more significant investment over at least a 10-year period. This would by necessity include leveraging the States and Territories to also lift their efforts substantially. Alternately, the serious opportunity costs of not acting decisively will ultimately seriously harm the government, and even further marginalise Indigenous citizens and their families.

A decision by the Commonwealth to not substantially lift its engagement and to accept its concomitant disastrous impact on remote communities would constitute a breach of faith with all those Australians who voted in favour of the 1967 Referendum. It would not be a good look to advocate for a ‘yes vote’ in the forthcoming Voice referendum, while walking away from the responsibilities delivered in the 1967 referendum.


For more on this topic, you may wish to read:

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


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