Damming the Rivers of Grog


‘We are suffering. C’mon government, listen to us. We’re crying out. Do something, and help us out.’

After a $1.3 billion intervention, you wouldn’t think an Aboriginal person from the Central Desert would need to implore the Federal Government to ‘do something.’ Something has certainly been done, but according to Valerie Martin from Yuendumu, and other Aboriginal leaders who gathered in Alice Springs yesterday, that something is not addressing the Centre’s most pressing problem: alcohol abuse.

Groups from across the Central Desert traveled into town yesterday to call on the Government to take their advice, for once, on how to solve a problem that is ruining lives.

The Northern Territory Intervention train may have moved on to its next stop in Darwin, but busloads of mostly older women from remote communities traveled hundreds of kilometres to Alice Springs to call for alcohol law reform. They want one or two ‘takeaway-free’ days per week and a minimum price for cheaper drinks such as cask wine.

‘Our culture’s breaking down through all this grog, and we, the women, suffer,’ said Martin. ‘The grandmothers have been left with all the little kids.’

‘Grog-running’ from Alice Springs is a significant problem in the town’s surrounding dry communities, and the problem has only compounded since alcohol was banned in Town Camps.

‘I think it’s wrong that they made our camps dry because now our people are just going up the road, out of town,’ said Barbara Shaw from the Alice Springs Town Camp Women’s Group.

‘The alcohol law was supposed to put a stop to child neglect and abuse and also cut back on anti-social behaviour. [But now] they’re drunk driving [more often], and having accidents. There’s no one there to help them, no police or ambulance to go out into the scrub.’

‘If you get caught possessing alcohol in a public area of town, it’s only $100 fine,’ says Shaw. ‘But if you get caught possessing alcohol on a community, town camp or outstation, it’s $1000 – and you go to jail. Our people are already poor, how are we going to pay those fines?’

Not everyone at the rally was anti-intervention. Some, such as the women from Hermmansburg, have been vocal in their support. But everyone I spoke to agreed that both Territory and Federal Governments had missed the point on alcohol.

‘Enforced prohibition is not a good thing, and we don’t think that will actually contribute at all,’ says Dr John Boffa from the People’s Alcohol Action Coalition, a group that has been working on the issue since 1995. ‘Nothing [has been introduced]to reduce supply – it’s just stopped people drinking in certain locations, and all that does is shift the problem.’

‘Most remote communities were already dry areas – they have been for a long time.’

Boffa says that over the years Alice Springs has already seen major improvements with the introduction of measures such as restricted takeaway trading hours. But he thinks a lot more could be done.

‘Everyone’s now recognised that the rivers of grog – which is [co-author of the Little Children Are Sacred report] Pat Anderson’s term – is a major issue that needs to be dealt with,’ says Boffa.

‘Well we know there’s an evidence-based approach for dealing with that. Now that the focus is on alcohol, I think it’s time that governments did what works and what’s needed, not necessarily what’s popular.’

The Alice Springs rally provided a rare opportunity to hear a wide range of Indigenous views on the NT Intervention in the one place. For an Opposition in fierce election mode, it could have provided an easy dig: the number one recommendation of the Little Children Are Sacred report was consultation, and the Howard Government has done very little of it.

Unfortunately Kevin 07 is busy not mentioning Black people.

Organisers of the rally, the Central Australian Youth Link Up Service, say they invited politicians from across the political spectrum. Only Greens Senator Rachel Siewart turned up.
Valerie Martin, Yuendumu

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