Drinking It Up


There’s a dead cat on the table here in the Northern Territory that we’d prefer not to talk about — not in plain commonsense terms anyway. Vague abstractions and euphemisms are okay, but we don’t encourage discussions which start from the premise that people who live here drink too much grog. That’s why it was a shock to hear Chief Minister, Paul Henderson, recently describe alcohol as the biggest social issue facing the NT. Few would disagree with the diagnosis, but it’s unusual for a politician to speak so unequivocally about the issue.

Darwin shares with the other population centres in the Territory a popular reputation as a hard-working, hard-drinking, frontier town. The reality may be very different, but the perception survives undiminished. Darwin and Alice Springs are significantly towns of young people: single men working in the military and the mines; backpackers doing what backpackers do; and locals who also want to be a part of the party. At its most crass, it’s Bazza McKenzie, foaming Fosters, and a rousing chorus of Chunder in the old Pacific Sea.

The journal of record in Darwin is the legendary Northern Territory News. Crocodiles, cranks, and crazies are the staples of this Murdoch missive, but the Top End tabloid also does a pretty good line in public outrage. "Enough" screamed the paper’s front page headline of 5 December last year as it launched into a campaign against drink-driving. The whole of a "name and shame" front page was devoted to 15 head-shots of drivers charged with drink-driving offences. Eight of them had even been found guilty. "The message that every drink-driver is a potential killer is still not getting through," thundered the editorial.

At the bottom of the same front page, in eye-catching blue capitals, was an advertisement that read "LIZARDS BUY BUNDY RED WIN $500 DRAWN 6PM". This line of Darwin dialect acted to advise locals that it was party night at one of the town’s larger drinking establishments. Just a promotion for a distiller’s product and notification that there was money to be won. The venue in question would doubtless recommend that patrons intent on partying leave their cars at home. And there was certainly no suggestion that revellers ought to "go out early and go out hard" — but that’s just what seems to be encouraged by the prevailing popular culture.

Darwin airport has no curfew, so planes shuttle between the Top End and the southern capitals right through the night. And it’s to this airport that taxi drivers go late on Friday and Saturday nights in search of a fare. The alternative is the Mitchell Street strip, with its assortment of clubs and bars offering live music, pokies, and other attractions to get the punters into the pubs. But many cabbies won’t go there. They say they’ve had enough of the aggressive, unruly behaviour of drunks. In the small hours, when the pubs and clubs close, things can get ugly there.

In September 2003, the NT Government unveiled its Northern Territory Alcohol Framework. The seven stated aims of the framework included: reducing the overall consumption of alcohol and harmful patterns of drinking; reducing social disorder, family disruption, violence and other crime linked to alcohol use; and encouraging responsible alcohol consumption.

It’s difficult to find anyone who believes that real progress has been made in any of these areas during the past five years.

Amy Williamson is the executive director of the Northern Territory branch of the Australian Hotels Association. In her office, tucked away on the first floor of a Darwin office block, she says she does not disagree with the Chief Minister’s statement, but observes that the matter is complex and that any search for a silver bullet is misguided. "Our pure alcohol consumption rates are twice the national average," Williamson notes. "This has been a huge problem in the Territory for some time". Invited to identify how matters might be improved, she suggests that new and different measures must be employed.

"What has been done to date has primarily concentrated on limiting the supply of alcohol, but in our view this simply displaces the problem. The concentration on supply measures is not the sole answer."

The medicos who study these matters might beg to differ. Research conducted by Professor Dennis Gray and his colleagues at the at the National Drug Research Institute at Perth’s Curtin University suggests that three of the most effective ways to reduce alcohol consumption are to reduce the hours of trading of liquor outlets, reduce the number of liquor outlets and introduce a volumetric tax on alcohol which has the effect of raising the price of the cheapest grog. Understandably, solutions of this nature have little appeal to an industry which makes its money from selling alcohol.

Williamson notes that 75 per cent of the alcohol drunk in the Northern Territory is consumed away from the controlled environment of licensed premises, indicating that the problem extends beyond the pubs. "There are a whole range of issues on Mitchell Street that contribute to anti-social behaviour. Alcohol is one of those factors. The lack of transport is also a huge issue, and illicit drug use is a contributing factor." The AHA line is that the actions of a few ruin things for everybody. "We want to target the problem element, not the thousands of people who go out to Mitchell Street and behave themselves in a very responsible manner" says Williamson. "There needs to be a shift in social attitudes about getting drunk and being drunk. We think that education is the way to change these social attitudes."

Kylie Jericho, acting director of the Darwin-based alcohol counselling and education service, Amity, endorses the Chief Minister’s assessment of alcohol as the number one social problem. "There are lots of links between irresponsible alcohol use and domestic violence or sexual assault," she observes. "And you only have to look at the drink-driving instances, car-accidents and the other alcohol-related harm and injuries."

In the NT, grog permeates the culture. "It’s hard to find any social activity here that doesn’t involve alcohol," notes Jericho. "We need to create a responsible drinking culture. We don’t have all the answers for how that’s going to happen, and clearly it’s going to take some time. Strong leadership is going to be important, because there will be a need to make some unpopular decisions, such as reducing trading hours and increasing taxation on alcohol. The answer lies in harm minimisation rather than prohibition. We need to focus on behaviour, not the alcohol itself."

The damage that alcohol does in remote Aboriginal communities is truly horrendous. It requires only a handful of drunks on a community to create havoc with noise, humbug, and threats to the personal security of others. But skin colour is a poor indicator of alcohol abuse. Kylie Jericho describes the populist notion that it is principally Indigenous Territorians who struggle with the grog as "the great myth". "A lot of Aboriginal people drink in public places, whereas drinking by whites occurs behind doors," she says. "But there are studies which indicate that white people in the territory actually consume a lot more alcohol than Aboriginal people."

It’s widely agreed by people in the know that excessive alcohol consumption in the NT is a problem for black and white alike. Paul Henderson’s straight talking about the damage caused by the grog was brave. But in highlighting the malaise, he implicitly sets himself a challenge. The basic instinct of the politician is to do what they think will get them re-elected, and only what they think will get them re-elected. Alienating the powerful alcohol industry has never been a recipe for winning elections.

It will take great political courage to confront the vested financial interests who benefit from the alcohol epidemic, and to overcome a popular culture which sees what the medicos would deem "dangerous drinking" as nothing more than harmless high-jinks.

Territory Labor may not have the ticker.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.