MICK PALMER. Drug Reform series-The Blind Eye of History: from policing alcohol prohibition to policing drug prohibition

Aug 7, 2018

Australia has some unhappy laws which result in people using illicit drugs being severely punished. When thinking about this, one should recall laws used half a century ago to criminalise Aboriginal people who drank alcohol.

In 1963, a person had to be at least 21 years old, male and single to join the Northern Territory Police. Recruits were housed in barracks.  Male police had to gain the approval of an inspector to marry. (In other words, the inspector had to approve of the woman who the policeman wished to marry). Hard to believe, in 2018, that such bigoted, archaic, and discriminatory rules existed only some 50 years ago. But that was not the worst of it.

In the Northern Territory of the 1950s and early ‘60s the Welfare Ordinance contained an offence of Ward Drink Liquor (WDL) which applied to any Aboriginal person declared a Ward of the Government. Under this provision, in a Darwin township at that time of only some 12,000 residents, it was not unusual for 70-80 Aboriginal Wards to be arrested for WDL each and every day.

Their offence was simply “to consume alcohol”. The arrests generally resulted from complaints to police from local publicans or business people that Aboriginals were on their premises and drinking alcohol.

One such person was a little, indigenous, man who referred to himself, and was   only known to police, as ‘Banana’. Banana was a favourite of the local police but was repeatedly reported for drinking alcohol and was often arrested two to three times in a single day. Banana, a very likeable man, suffered from severe alcoholism. Having little or no money, he frequented bars looking for glasses containing some beer. As Banana was rarely if ever drunk when apprehended he would be processed quickly and immediately bailed – only to again often come to notice and for the process to be repeated. Essentially it was Banana who caused a kitchen table revolt in the Darwin police barracks in 1964, where young, single, male, police officers, all recruited from other Australian jurisdictions, with little experience with indigenous people outside their, generally limited, police experience, questioned and then rejected enforcement of the Ward Drink Liquor law except where the safety of the Ward required it. They rebelled because they felt the law was clearly unjust and put police officers into conflict with the very people who they should have been assisting.

The Welfare Ordinance also contained an offence for supplying alcohol to a Ward.  Under the provisions, an Aboriginal person could be declared a citizen, but the prevailing government view of the day was that citizenship was not a right of Aboriginal people, but had to be earned. The great Central Australian artist, Albert Namatjira, was a case in point.

In 1938, Albert Namatjira had his first painting exhibition and immediately established a reputation as an artist of genuine acclaim. In 1954 he was presented to the Queen but was only declared a citizen in 1957 at the age of 57 years. His children and most of his relatives, however, remained Wards of the Government. Some short time after becoming a citizen, Albert Namatjira was arrested, convicted and imprisoned for 6 months for supplying and sharing a drink with a member of his own family. The prison term essentially destroyed him and he died in 1959. Namatjira, placed in the invidious position of having to choose between his people’s customary law and the laws of the majority, had chosen the former. This required sharing what he had with others who had less or nothing.

His gaol term, however, galvanised public action and people such as (Sir) Zelman Cowan and (Sir) Ninian Stephen, with others, launched an appeal, sadly unsuccessful, into Namatjira’s conviction and imprisonment. The abhorrent, racist and hugely discriminatory laws were, however, exposed as never before and in 1964 the Welfare Ordinance was replaced by the Social Welfare Ordinance and the offences of Ward Drink Liquor and Supplying Liquor to a Ward were repealed.

The reality was the laws were repugnant and should have been considered unacceptable to a civilised, compassionate society from the outset. Quite apart from their obvious racist intent, they criminalised a basic social habit: hugely stigmatised a disadvantaged section of society and isolated and punished people who most needed support. They attacked the symptoms whilst ignoring the causes, and put police into unnecessary conflict with powerless and otherwise law abiding Australians. All were facts recognised by the kitchen cabinet in the Darwin police barracks at about the same time.

Sadly, the blind eye of history, operated to ensure lessons were not learnt.

Our current use and possess illicit drug laws are a case in point. They operate to criminalise a health problem, isolate and punish people who most need support, address only the symptoms while ignoring the causes and put police officers into unnecessary conflict with decent, generally young, Australians, who police should be there to protect.

Police officers are drawn from the broader community. They share friendships with many people of their own age who are not police officers, enjoy many of the same interests and social pastimes as other Australians and see the world through very similar eyes to their non-police contemporaries. Contemporary police are well educated, and intelligent and, like most young Australians, are likely to question things, including laws that make little or no sense. Asking them to enforce laws by way of arrest and conviction of their contemporaries, for simply possessing or using an illicit drug makes no more sense, in many cases, to requiring them to arrest someone for smoking a cigarette or having a drink of alcohol. The reality is that some police officers, as with lawyers, teachers, entertainers and prominent Australians socially use illicit drugs, without such use impacting on the jobs they have.

It is not suggested that drug use should be encouraged or even be seen as an acceptable social habit. But it is suggested that drug use is a reality and this reality must be recognised. Police are already faced with very significant and increasing pressures and challenges in dealing with crimes of violence and social disorder. If they are going to be successful in responding to these issues they need all the community support they can engender. Good relations with young Australians is critical to the effectiveness of this support.

We must introduce a drugs policy that clearly distinguishes between violent and anti-social behaviour and the drug use that, on occasions, may have contributed to it: to punish the criminal behaviour but treat the drug use as the health problem it really is; to implement a policy that aims to engage with and support drug users, not isolate and punish them.

The jury is no longer out on the failure of Australia’s current illicit drugs policy. It does not work, and everyone knows it.  Darwin police officers recognised the futility and injustice of the WDL laws in the 1960s, governments must have the courage to do likewise in regard to drug policy today.

Let’s not wait for another Albert Namatjira moment with illicit drugs. There have already been far too many.

Mick Palmer, AO, was Commissioner of the Northern Territory Police, Fire and Emergency Services agency (1988-1994) and Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police (1994-2001).


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