NATIONAL: The politics of backing grog bans despite scant evidence they actually work.
With changes of government in both Queensland and the Northern Territory recently, alcohol restrictions in Aboriginal communities have been hotly debated in mainstream media. But ironically, the government’s seeking to relax grog bans are both conservative, the traditional political home of those who support government control of black lives.
CHRIS GRAHAM* delves into the politics of grog, and the reasons why some still support grog bans, despite strong evidence which shows they don’t work.
In the annals of silly things said by silly politicians, former South Australian Labor Treasurer and Deputy Premier Kevin Foley’s recent contribution to the debate around alcohol bans in Aboriginal communities raises the bar. No mean feat in the current political climate.
“Some pretty ugly and worrying politics dressed up as policy have been unfolding in the north of Australia in recent months,” Foley told Adelaide Now readers in his regular column earlier this month.
“The crushing victory of Campbell Newman’s LNP in Queensland saw the party win a large number of seats with a high proportion of indigenous voters.
“In the NT, Labor was swept aside after an unexpected loss of support in their country – and mostly Indigenous – seats, which they had obviously been taking for granted.
“What’s occurred since those elections should be setting off alarm bells in Canberra and Australia-wide.
“Long-held bipartisan policies of supporting mandatory alcohol bans within Aboriginal communities have been ditched in favour of allowing these communities to decide whether to maintain the bans.
“The violence and hopelessness that alcohol has bought to Indigenous Australians is well-known. The violence towards women and children from drunken men in these communities was at a level unimaginable in non-Indigenous Australia.
“Strong Indigenous leaders, together with government support, saw bans enforced years ago, with a dramatic decline in violence.
“It’s no secret men within Aboriginal communities are massively influential and dominate decision-making.
“I believe adding alcohol back into these communities will be a dangerous and explosive move.
“Indigenous leaders such as Noel Pearson and leading academic Marcia Langton have gone public with their dismay and opposition to allowing booze back. Why then are these two governments rolling back a successful and bipartisan moratorium? Simple.
“It’s both a reward and a continuing chase for support from an electorate previously shunned by conservative politicians. The blokes get their booze back; women are intimidated to remain silent and even vote the way their husbands tell them to.
“A clear differentiation with Labor is struck. A vote for the CLP or LNP is a vote to get grog.
“A vote for Labor is forced sobriety.
“This is a disgraceful development in Australian politics. It cannot be explained any other way.”
Well, it can actually. But we’ll come back to Mr Foley’s theory a little later, because the facts are a little more important.
Grog is a problem in some Cape York Aboriginal communities. Grog is a problem in some Northern Territory Aboriginal communities too. Indeed grog is a problem in many Aboriginal communities around the country.
And as anyone whose spent five minutes in Kings Cross knows, grog is also a problem in Sydney. A big one.
A study funded by the Alcohol and Education Rehabilitation Foundation (AERF) in 2004/05 revealed that over a two month period, almost 30 percent of the 4,878 presentations to the St Vincent’s Hospital Emergency Department were for alcohol related injuries and treatment for intoxication. And that’s just one Sydney hospital.
The fact is, where there’s grog, there’s grog-related problems. Period.
One solution – which governments of all persuasions have tried for hundreds of years with varying degrees of success – has been to restrict supply.
The theory of alcohol restrictions or bans in Aboriginal communities is no different. If you restrict supply, you restrict consumption. And if you restrict consumption, you reduce alcohol-related injuries.
In particular, the pro-abolitionists claim – you reduce violence against women and children.
By far the nation’s two most high-profile promoters of this theory, at least on the Aboriginal side, are Professor Marcia Langton, and Noel Pearson.
No-one should doubt the determination of Pearson, Langton and others to end dysfunction in Aboriginal communities. Both are passionate about grog bans. Both are passionate about Aboriginal advancement.
And both of them are wrong when it comes to the methods they advocate.
Noel Pearson grew up in the small Cape York community of Hope Vale, a 370km drive north of Cairns. He has long advocated for grog bans in Cape York communities, and he’s been very effective at it. With support from Pearson, the previous Beattie-Labor government introduced mandatory Alcohol Management Plans throughout Aboriginal communities in the Cape in the early 2000s.
With the bans in place, Pearson’s organization, the Cape York Institute, began compiling research for the Council of Australian Governments, a meeting of the federal, state and territory governments around the nation. The pitch to COAG was to urge them to keep the faith on grog bans, and indeed to commit to greater assistance for management of alcohol across the Cape.
Pearson’s research was being compiled in September 2004 – precisely the same time the AERF team was researching the affects of grog on admissions at St Vincent’s Hospital.
The differences in methodology couldn’t be more stark.
While the AERF based a research assistant within St Vincent’s emergency department “24 hours a day seven days a week in order to identify injury presentations and to collect information on alcohol consumption” direct from the patient, or from their medical records, the Cape York Institute found a much less laborious way to gather its data.
After extensively outlining its theory on grog restrictions, the Cape York Institute turned to the figures which it claimed showed grog bans actually do work.
Page 23 of their PowerPoint presentation is unimaginatively titled ‘Statistics show plans are working(1)’.
And what of these statistics? The Cape York Institute claims a 48% reduction in alcohol-related injuries across the Cape, and a 54% reduction in presentations for assault.
In specific communities such as Kowanyama, it claims a 65% drop in alcohol-related “offenders” and a 68% reduction in offences against the person.
In case you’re wondering what the small “(1)” in the headline means, it’s a reference to the Cape York Institute’s source on the figures.
You have to read the fine print for the details: “(1) Data from the Premier’s press release (6/7/04). Additional data not yet publicly available.”
The figures may – or may not – be accurate. But a press release from the office of former Queensland Premier Peter Beattie could hardly be described as scientific.
The official crime statistics for the Cape York region, however, are quite a bit more robust.
And they tell a very different story.
The Queensland Beattie Government began forcing Alcohol Management Plans on Aboriginal communities at the end of 2003. It followed an inquiry led by Tony Fitzgerald, the man who spectacularly rooted out police corruption in Queensland a few years earlier.
Aurukun was the first cab off the rank, on December 20, 2002. Napranum, just outside of the mining town of Weipa, came online in May, 2003, followed by Lockhart River, Wujal Wujal, Kowanyama and Pormpuraaw.
Mapoon, the communities of the Northern Peninsula Area (Bamaga, Injinoo, Seisia, Umagico and New Mapoon) and Pearson’s home-town of Hope Vale launched their mandatory AMPs in April 2004.
Their introduction came at a curious time, according to the official crime statistics kept by the Queensland Police Service.
During 2000/01, the assault rate in Cape York communities was almost three times the state average, at a rate of 1,419 assaults per 100,000 head of population.
That is to say, for every 100,000 people living in the region, 1,419 would be the victims of an assault in the course of a year.
In 2001/02, the rate dropped to 1,382.
And it dropped markedly the following year, to 1,216.
Enter the Beattie Government’s Alcohol Management Plans.
Over the next two years, after all AMPs had been implemented, the drop in assault rates slowed dramatically, then plateaued.
And in the year immediately after the introduction of AMPs across the Cape, it jumped markedly to 1,291.
By 2010-11, almost a decade after the AMPs began rolling out, assault rates in Cape York had dropped to 1,007, a reduction of 30 percent.
Supporters of grog bans will point to that figure as proof that AMPs work.
But half of that drop – 15 percent – occurred in the two years before AMPs were introduced.
Under the Alcohol Management Plans, it took another nine years to achieve a corresponding 15 percent reduction, and that occurred at a time when assault rates across Queensland were also dropping.
In fact, the assault rates in Cape York – while certainly much higher than the state average – have mirrored almost precisely the rise and falls of assault rates across Queensland.
At the same time assault rates were plateauing, the rates for offences in Aboriginal communities which are generally associated with drunkenness went through the roof.
In 2000/01, ‘liquor offence rates’ – which include things like illegal possession of alcohol – were at 142 per 100,000 people.
By 2009/10 they’d increased more than seven-fold to 1087.
‘Good order’ offences – which include offences like public drunkenness – were policed in Cape York at the rate of 1,897 people per 100,000 head of population in 2000/01 (a rate three times greater than the state average).
With the launch of AMPs, they increased to 2,283.
So what does that all mean?
Alcohol Management Plans have had no real affect on lowering assault rates in Aboriginal communities. But the criminalisation of Aboriginal drinkers has been a raging success. And that’s not just the experience in Cape York.
As former South Australian Deputy Premier Kevin Foley notes, grog bans haven’t just been the topic of political conversation in Queensland.
They’ve also received wide air-play across Central and Northern Australia, hence Mr Foley’s recent stumble into the debate.
One of the key planks of the 2007 Northern Territory intervention was blanket grog bans in every Aboriginal community, and all Aboriginal town camps in urban settings.
While many aspects of the NT intervention caused, in the words of health bodies such as the Australian Indigenous Doctors Association, “real and lasting harm”, for a substantial number of communities the grog bans had no real impact at all. That’s because they were already ‘dry’, and in many cases always had been.
Monitoring the affects of the grog bans has been an important part of federal government reporting on the NT intervention.
Twice a year, the Commonwealth releases a report into the policy. It makes for interesting reading.
In the first six months of 2010, the Substance Abuse Intelligence Desk (an initiative of the intervention) seized 404 litres of alcohol from Aboriginal communities. By July 2011 it had increased three-fold to 1,233 litres, and then up to 1,445 by the end of the year.
And bear in mind, this is after four years of government intervention and grog bans.
At the same time, alcohol infractions grew rapidly.
The federal government’s monitoring report concedes that in 2007, there were 1,784 “alcohol related incidents”. By 2011, the number had more than doubled to 4,101 (it peaked in 2009 at 4,539).
Alcohol related domestic violence incidents also rose, from 387 in 2007, to 1,109 in 2011 – another three-fold increase.
The federal government frequently claims that the increase in crime statistics is a result of more police in the Territory, thus there’s more reporting.
But in truth, while assault rates have more than doubled since 2007, the number of lodgments (that is, charges that flow from an incident) is virtually the same as in 2011 as it was in 2008 (548 in 2011 versus 537 in 2008).
The NTER reports have been showing the same failures every six months since the intervention began.
But finally, late last year, came a concession. Of sorts.
“On the basis of the existing evidence and the views put forward in the NTER redesign consultations, the Australian Government believes that alcohol restrictions should continue, but that there should be a change of focus from a universally imposed measure to a measure designed to meet the individual needs of specific communities.”
That’s about as close as any government will get to admitting that sweeping alcohol bans don’t work.
That it’s taken the Feds five years to get there is a measure of the pace at which governments face their own policy failures, particularly when tens of millions of taxpayer dollars are involved.
But even then, the Gillard government is only just arriving at the point at which the Queensland Government is now exiting – ie. ‘alcohol bans designed to suit individual communities’ is the Cape York’s failed grog bans, 10 years on.
Adds the Commonwealth: “Moving to local restrictions will be based on evidence about such matters as the level of alcohol-related harm in a community and whether a community based Alcohol Management Plan (AMP) is in place,” says the Commonwealth.
Which brings us back to Kevin Foley’s theory on why the Queensland Territory governments are walking away from blanket grog bans.
If the intent of grog bans has been to ensure Aboriginal people don’t get drunk and injure themselves, then they’re successful.
There have been many media reports (mostly without proper sourcing) of big drops in alcohol-related admissions to health clinics in Aboriginal communities following the introduction of grog bans.
Anonymous statistics aside, it does make sense.
If you reduce the supply of alcohol to any community – white or black – you will see a corresponding drop in the number of alcohol-related injuries.
Alcohol causes harm. Reduced alcohol results in reduced harm. That’s not in dispute.
But stopping people hurting themselves is not the argument being used to argue for the retention of grog bans and restrictions in Aboriginal communities.
This is: “The violence and hopelessness that alcohol has bought to Indigenous Australians is well-known. The violence towards women and children from drunken men in these communities was at a level unimaginable in non-Indigenous Australia.”
That was Kevin Foley again. And so is this: “It’s no secret men within Aboriginal communities are massively influential and dominate decision-making.”
Because, of course, men in non-Aboriginal communities are not “massively influential” nor do they “dominate decision-making”.
Foley is joined in his theory on men by Professor Marcia Langton: “[Grog] is causing severe endangerment to women and children in communities.”
That was the Professor earlier this month in the Sydney Morning Herald, arguing against the scrapping of the NT grog bans. A week earlier, in The Australian, Professor Langton described the plan by the Newman government to scrap the bans as a cynical political move aimed at keeping “a small group of men” happy.
To build her case, Langton even credited the grog bans in Cape York with a rise in school attendance rates, a surprising claim given how easily it can be disproved.
In 2009, after the grog bans had been in place for the better part of a decade, school attendance rates at Aurukun were averaging around 37 percent. They did jump to over 60 percent in 2010, but that was thanks to a concerted effort from the school community and, locals say, the work of respected Aboriginal educator, Chris Sarra, who began working with the school to boost local pride.
Langton rounded off her argument by suggesting that Cape Yorkers were being treated the same as everyone else.
“We can’t go and buy alcohol at any time of the day or night . . . There are restrictions everywhere in Australia now on drinking in public places and specified places.”
Professor Langton clearly hasn’t visited the Crown complex in her hometown of Melbourne of late, where you can get a drink whenever you like. Or the one in Sydney. Or Brisbane. Or the Gold Coast. Or… you get the point.
And she seems to be of the mistaken belief that Aboriginal leaders in Cape York are arguing for 24-hour liquor licenses. Which of course, they’re not. And which of course they’d never get anyway.
But bold claims and less than sober theories are not just the domain of black political players. The white ones have been weighing in as well, and their claims are dripping with hypocrisy.
Delia Lawrie, the new leader of the Opposition in the NT argued in The Australian recently against removing grog bans in the Territory, noting that ‘where drinking clubs had been established they had often become “swill houses and centres of political power within a community”.
“An insidious co-dependency has emerged as the clubs produce income through the sale of alcohol and proceeds are used to endow favoured projects.”
Lawrie could equally be describing any state of Australia, where licensed clubs laud over hundreds of millions of dollars, and allocate them to projects they like. Nowhere is that more the case than in the ACT, where the Labor Party has been a major recipient of substantial funding direct from a series of union-owned licensed venues.
If that’s not “endowing favoured projects”, I don’t know what is.
As to the motives behind the grog bans, there’s one particularly popular political theory doing the rounds, and both Langton and Foley have embraced it.
Foley again: “The crushing victory of Campbell Newman’s LNP in Queensland saw the party win a large number of seats with a high proportion of indigenous voters.
“In the NT, Labor was swept aside after an unexpected loss of support in their country – and mostly Indigenous – seats, which they had obviously been taking for granted….
“Long-held bipartisan policies of supporting mandatory alcohol bans within Aboriginal communities have been ditched in favour of allowing these communities to decide whether to maintain the bans…..
“Why then are these two governments rolling back a successful and bipartisan moratorium? Simple.
“It’s both a reward and a continuing chase for support from an electorate previously shunned by conservative politicians. The blokes get their booze back; women are intimidated to remain silent and even vote the way their husbands tell them to.”
Or in the words of Professor Langton: “This is a cheap electoral trick for the big men in Aboriginal communities who want their cases and slabs of beer…”
In fact, it’s nothing to do with ‘big men’ – at least, not ‘big black men’ – and we know this because of simple political maths.
In Queensland, the Cape York region (including the Torres Straits) is serviced by a single electorate – Cook.
Campbell Newman’s government holds 78 seats in an 89-seat parliament. With the largest political majority in any parliament in the country, Newman doesn’t need the voters of Cook to support any policy he puts forward.
The story in the NT is different in numbers, but it’s still about politics.
NT Chief Minister Terry Mill’s mooted lifting of the grog bans has nothing to do with Aboriginal aspirations.
Yes, the CLP won office courtesy of the bush seats, after black Labor voters abandoned a party that abandoned them.
But Mills’ grog policy is about placating white Australians who live in regional centres, and who have seen an influx of Aboriginal people and drinkers since the introduction of the NT intervention.
As the Herald notes in the Langton piece: “According to a prominent member of the Country Liberals… there had always been an element in the CL that believed that if Aboriginal people were free to drink in their communities, fewer would end up staggering around the streets of Alice Springs, Katherine and Tennant Creek.”
In other words, Terry Mills is not lifting the alcohol bans because they don’t work. He’s lifting them because white residents – predominantly in Alice Springs and its surrounds, which is home to five CLP seats – are sick and tired of their pristine town bursting at the seams with Aboriginal people.
Some of those Aboriginal people are in Alice Springs to drink. No question. But the majority aren’t.
The reason for the ‘urban drift’ – as locals call it – is because in 2009, the NT Labor government relied on the federal NT intervention legislation (which it claimed to oppose) to abolish Aboriginal community councils, and with them hundreds of jobs in remote towns.
At the same time, it continued the NT intervention introduced by the federal Liberals.
The combined affect was to empty remote Aboriginal communities.
Alice Springs – the hub of Central Australia – has bore the brunt of that urban drift, and the NT intervention-led grog bans, which were once strongly supported by conservative Alice Springs residents, are now vehemently opposed. The whities want the blackfellas on the first bush bus out of town.
As to motivations, the Newman government is partly moved by cost (AMPs cost money) and partly a realization that they don’t work.
For the Mills government, it’s about appeasing a conservative white voter base.
But in both cases, it doesn’t matter what the motivation is, because the policy – giving Aboriginal people control of Aboriginal lives – is the right one. Alcohol bans have never worked. Not in the Cape. Not in the Territory.
So what will?
The relaxing of grog restrictions in Aboriginal communities – be it Cape York or the Northern Territory – will not lead to a new river of grog, because that river has never dried up in the first place, as government report after government report has shown.
In the absence of employment and in the face of ongoing trauma, people drink, regardless of whether they’re black or white.
What the axing of grog bans will do is lead to Aboriginal communities deciding what’s best for Aboriginal communities.
It’s also worth re-iterating that prior to the introduction of grog bans in the Territory, many of the intervention communities were already dry, a choice made by community elders. So the ending of grog bans in the Territory will, for many Aboriginal communities, represent a return to business as usual, where grog was never welcome.
Of course, a relaxation of drinking laws does not excuse governments from their obligations to provide proper services in Aboriginal communities.
Relaxing grog laws alone – while maintaining gross under-investment in Aboriginal communities – will have an inevitable negative outcome. But maintaining control over Aboriginal lives will too, and continues the many failures of the past.
There are a multitude of reasons why some Aboriginal people – and they’re very much in the minority – drink to excess. Chief among them is a lack of control over their own lives, and a sense of hopelessness and desperation about their future.
That is something over which government can have limited policy affect. It’s about putting up the cash to finally invest in communities, and then standing aside and letting Aboriginal people make the decisions on how it’s directed.
Handing back control of Aboriginal communities is the only long-term strategy that will work, as countless studies both here and overseas have shown.
Which brings us back to former South Australian Treasurer Kevin Foley, who, the rumour goes, knows a thing or two about grog.
Indeed, he knows more than most about drunken violence as well.
In late 2010, while Mr Foley was both the Treasurer and the Deputy Premier, he was infamously king-hit by a man outside a well-known Adelaide nightspot in the early hours of the morning.
The assailant claimed he was coming to the aide of a young woman who was being harassed by Mr Foley (a claim Foley denies). The brutal assault was caught on a closed-circuit television camera.
A few months later, after Mr Foley was dumped as Deputy Leader and Treasurer and given the portfolio of Police, he was again assaulted late at night, this time in the toilet of a restaurant.
The charges against a man accused of that assault were later dropped.
How the Deputy Premier of South Australia thought he might best advance the parliamentary interests of his state so late at night at licensed venues is yet to emerge. But what is known is the race of the men with whom he clashed.
They were not Aboriginal.
Thus Mr Foley, in future rants on Adelaide Now, might like to restrict his columns to topics on which he has some knowledge.
Drinking? Yes. Grog bans. No.
* Chris Graham is the former managing editor of Tracker magazine, and a monthly columnist and contributor.