Can Darwin Handle The Grog?


Darwin is the broken jaw capital of the world.

In an interview earlier this year, Royal Darwin Hospital surgeon Mahiban Thomas told the ABC that the hospital sees about 350 cases of broken jaws and noses every year. "This puts us at about 17 per 10,000 of population, which is well above anywhere else in the world." Dr Thomas said that almost 90 per cent of these trauma patients have been victims of alcohol-related assaults, and that most of these assaults occur outside pubs and nightclubs on Thursday and Friday nights.

More than a few of the NT’s population choose to embrace the notion that we are a "frontier territory". The truth is that the people of Darwin live in houses in the suburbs, and most work in shops and offices, or as tradies or labourers. Crocodile hunters are few and far between. Nevertheless our unique Territory lifestyle apparently gives licence for us to drink at levels way above the national average — and to suffer the inevitable social and economic consequences.

In the large regional centres around the Territory — Alice Springs, Katherine and Nhulunbuy — the introduction of limited alcohol restrictions in recent times has seen some reduction in the level of dangerous drinking. But in Darwin, there are, as yet, no such limitations in place, and consumption levels continue to climb.

The Licensing Commission did recently announced that the purchase of four and five litre wine casks in the Greater Darwin area will be banned from 1 January 2011. The experts say that this measure will reduce the amount of harmful drinking done by the "long-grass people" — the mainly Aboriginal itinerants who sleep rough around town. But the Mitchell Street madness will continue

Darwin’s bright lights are concentrated along a strip a few hundred metres long on the aforementioned Mitchell Street in the city’s central business district. A smattering of Asian restaurants, Aboriginal art retailers, and travel agencies flogging "cut-price Kakadu" punctuate a precinct that is otherwise given over to partying. The pubs are big and bawdy. Large groups of people sit at long tables, where the tropical heat and holiday atmosphere is conducive to consumption.

On Mitchell Street every night is party night, but the end of the week sees the serious action. Cab drivers are increasingly reluctant to cruise the strip for fares after midnight on Fridays and Saturdays. They say it gets ugly. The punters in Mitchell Street are a combination of tourists from the southern cities and backpackers doing the circuit. And the locals.

Darwin is a city of young people, with more than its share of singles. There are large numbers of men and women who have been posted to the sizable military bases in the region. And the city is also home for many people who do "fly-in fly-out" gigs across the Top End. For much of this crew, a night in the big smoke will be a night on the tiles.


The mantra of "big alcohol", repeated in cities across Australia, is that "it’s just a few idiots who ruin things for everybody". But anybody who has witnessed the regular live performances of mayhem on Mitchell will struggle to swallow the "few idiots" rationale.

Darwin’s journal of record, the NT News, specialises in lurid accounts of assaults and other outrages committed by those under the influence of alcohol. The paper is running a public awareness campaign under the slogan "Just Think — let’s stop alcohol fuelled violence". The NT Government has its own slogan — "Enough is Enough" — and its own campaign to create a public perception that they are really doing something about the problem.

The new suite of limitations under consideration include a "banned drinkers register" which may see individuals who are charged with an alcohol-related offence, or repeatedly taken into protective custody by police, banned for up to 12 months. In true NT Government style, glossy brochures about the proposed measures are readily available, but the detail about how the new arrangements will actually operate is in short supply.

The new measures are predicated on the "few idiots" rational, and — as the government is quick to assert in its publicity material — "If you are not banned nothing changes." The supply side of the alcohol equation remains sacrosanct, so pubs and clubs in Darwin will continue to trade late into the night seven days a week.

The evidence from the academic literature on alcohol misuse is as clear as it is unpopular. The most effective way to reduce alcohol consumption is to introduce a "floor price" on the cheapest drinks, and to reduce the number of outlets and the hours during which they are permitted to trade. But in Darwin such action would be tantamount to political suicide.

Violence is the tabloid face of alcohol misuse. But the long-term costs of this epidemic are to be found also in the less salacious stories of absenteeism, and the enormous cost to the health system of alcohol-related chronic disease. And of babies born with foetal alcohol syndrome, and families torn asunder by alcohol-related dysfunction.

The South Australian Centre for Economic Studies estimated that the social cost of alcohol in the NT during 2004/05 was $642 million, which is more than 10 per cent of the NT’s annual $5 billion budget outlay. Even if politicians are not moved by the bleeding heart rhetoric around alcohol misuse, surely action is warranted around an economic problem of this magnitude?


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.