NT drinkers face nation’s toughest laws
A change in drinking habits is a long time coming for Alice Springs. Residents of the desert city have been pressing the Northern Territory government for months to stop a rising tide of grog-fuelled crime.
Drink-related social problems in the Red Centre have even led federal Opposition Leader Tony Abbott to call for a second federal intervention in towns such as Alice Springs, Tennant Creek and Katherine.
The NT government slammed a television advertising campaign, paid for by a group of local residents, showing young Aborigines roaming the streets of Alice Springs at night.
The government said the ads trashed the town’s reputation, while other critics argued they racially vilified Indigenous Australians.
Tempers flared and local business owners threatened to leave town when NT Chief Minister Paul Henderson declined an invitation to front a protest of about 200 members of the Action for Alice group in Alice Springs this week.
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To fight the massive alcohol problem afflicting the region, NT Minister for Alcohol Policy Delia Lawrie has introduced what she says are the country’s toughest ever alcohol reforms.
“Too much alcohol-fuelled violence and antisocial behaviour are occurring right across the territory,” she told reporters.
“We’re stepping up to the plate with the toughest reforms in our nation and we believe the toughest reforms in the world.”
The reforms, revealed at a special Alice Springs sitting of the parliament, include a register of banned drinkers, tougher penalties for licensed premises and the illegal trade of alcohol, an alcohol tribunal and mandatory rehabilitation for problem drinkers.
The hope is that the changes will not only reduce drink-related crime and violence but also ease the heavy burden problem drinkers place on the judicial system.
“We’re introducing these reforms for mandated rehabilitation through a new tribunal for people who aren’t criminals but are habitual drunks,” Ms Lawrie said.
“Our society is sick of the harms that are caused by the problem drinkers.”
Government figures show alcohol-related crime and illness costs the NT $642 million each year or $4197 per adult, compared to $943 per adult nationally.
Almost 70 per cent of domestic violence assaults in the NT are alcohol related, and alcohol-related deaths in the NT are three times higher than the national average.
Between 2000 and 2005, 48 per cent of road deaths in the NT involved alcohol.
The size of the territory’s grog problem is not in dispute, but political leaders are divided about how to deal with it.
In question time on Wednesday, NT Opposition Leader Terry Mills asked Mr Henderson why he was so critical of Mr Abbott’s calls for more federal involvement in fixing serious social problems in Alice Springs.
“Or are you concerned that such an intervention will expose, just like the Little Children are Sacred Report, how little your government has done to address these problems?” Mr Mills asked.
Mr Henderson said the government was addressing the very problem Mr Abbott had said was causing social dysfunction in Alice Springs – unrestricted access to alcohol.
“If anyone believes the intervention imposed on the Northern Territory has fixed all the problems, yes, it did a great deal of good, but … what the intervention did show is if you do not involve, engage and have Aboriginal people at the table as part of the decision-making process .. nothing will change.”
If the opposition was serious about tackling the problem, they would back the proposed reforms and help turn off the tap to problem drinkers, he said.
“They would assist us in closing down the animal bars, and not do the bidding of a small group of people with vested interests in selling alcohol in this town.”
Ms Lawrie told reporters people were leaving communities where alcohol is prohibited under the Howard government’s 2007 intervention and moving to larger towns to “follow the rivers of grog”.
“We’re saying enough is enough.”
The government does not plan to reduce the hours take-away alcohol can be sold in Darwin in line with new restrictions in Alice Springs, a decision Ms Lawrie has denied is politically motivated.
The NT opposition, which includes many former police officers, wants take-away alcohol sales in Alice Springs increased from 2pm-9pm at present to match Darwin’s trading hours of 10am-10pm.
They reason that earlier opening hours would encourage problem drinkers to get their fill during the day, and fewer of them would be on the street at night.
Opposition spokesman for alcohol policy Peter Styles criticised the government’s reforms, saying they would lead to a boost in grog running and the sly grog trade.
He said a Country Liberal government would introduce a habitual drunk program offering a rehabilitation program to people taken into custody more than three times in six months.
When informed that a similar scheme was among the proposed reforms, Mr Styles replied: “If the final bill that comes out is copying what we’re proposing then I applaud the government for taking up our initiative.”
From July 1, if the reforms are passed by parliament, people taken into custody three times in three months will be put on a banned drinker register.
“You cannot purchase, possess or consume alcohol, and if you keep repeating those offences and those breaches … your banned period will increase,” Ms Lawrie said.
She said problem drinkers could have the period of the ban reduced by attending rehabilitation treatment.
Licensees selling take-away alcohol will enforce the ban by scanning a buyer’s identification.
The ID scanner, as currently exists in Alice Springs and Katherine, does not record information about the buyer but alerts retail staff to a customer’s status.
“To the people who say that this infringes on people’s rights, I’ve got to say that grog is infringing on our life here in the Territory,” Ms Lawrie said.
She said funding for the territory-wide reforms would be announced when the NT budget is handed down in May.