The front bar at Alice Springs’ most famous drinking hole, the Todd Tavern, has long been called the Animal Bar. Along with a couple of other outlets, it operates from 10am until 2pm, when it shuts. 2pm is the opening time of the takeaway bottleshop next door.
Across the road is the dry Todd River bed, where most of Alice’s many murders and many of our many rapes are committed. Almost every one of the people who commit those shocking crimes, and almost every one of their victims, was very drunk at the time, and an awful lot of them got their grog across the road at the Todd Tavern.
In Alice Springs we drink about 20 litres of pure alcohol per person per year, twice the national average, and four times the planet’s average. Police records show that between 70 and 90 per cent of our assaults are alcohol related. Most of the victims are women, and almost all of them are Aboriginal.
In Alice Springs the risk of a woman being assaulted is 24 times higher if she is indigenous than if she is non-indigenous. In the first seven years of this decade — in a town of only 27,000 — surgeons at the Alice Springs Hospital treated a stabbing on average every two days. Our imprisonment rates are not only almost four times the national average, but are growing faster than any other jurisdiction.
Nationally, the annual cost of alcohol-related harm is about $15 billion, which works out at a little under $1,000 a year per Australian adult. In the Territory, the equivalent figure is well over $4,000.
So last week I nearly choked on my Wheeties when I heard the local Country Liberal Party MP, Adam Giles, say on ABC Radio National, "I don’t think alcohol is the problem". The very next morning, his parliamentary colleague and shadow Alcohol Policy minister Peter Stiles issued a press release claiming "the links between community violence and alcohol consumption are negligible".
This is a perfect example of that old adage in alcohol policy circles: what works isn’t popular, and what’s popular doesn’t work. Politicians think that if they’re not popular, they’ll soon be out of work. And people in Alice Springs are sick of being told what and when and where they can’t drink.
Indeed, there have been no fewer than 16 separate policy and legislative initiatives taken by governments of all persuasions and at all levels over the last five years to dam the rivers of grog which are drowning my town. Some of these measures have done more harm than good.
The 2007 "Dry Town" declaration (obtained by the Alice Springs Town Council pursuant to legislation passed by the Northern Territory government) effectively re-criminalised public drinking. The Commonwealth Intervention prohibited the drinking, possession, supply and transport of liquor in town camps. The combined effect of these two measures has been to force many Aboriginal drinkers to drink on the outskirts of town in improvised, hidden, unsupervised, unserviced and, most importantly, unsafe locations.
But other measures have worked well. Since 1 October 2006, sales of four- and five-litre cask wine has been banned in the Alice, and the takeaway purchase of two-litre casks, or bottles of fortified wine, has been limited to one per person per day, after 6pm.
Enforcement of these supply restrictions was facilitated by the introduction of a system which requires all purchasers of takeaway alcohol to produce photographic identification. This is scanned and transmitted to a centralised database that then informs the retailer if the purchase is legitimate. By mid-2010, illegitimate attempted purchases had been detected and refused over 13,000 times in Alice Springs. (These measures, by the way, are now being rolled out right across the Territory.)
The results have been heartening. Consumption decreased 18 per cent in the two years after the restrictions commenced. In the same period, there were 10 homicides, down from 17 in the previous two years, although these numbers are considered to be too low to be statistically significant.
The Northern Territory Department of Justice also compiled data for violent non-fatal incidents serious enough to be confident that they were consistently reported and recorded throughout the sample period, and numerous enough to reliably assess trends. The results demonstrate that the incidence of serious assaults has closely tracked drinking levels.
One might have expected records of minor assaults to show a similar trend over this period, but they don’t — they have gone up. However, police attribute this to improved detection, reporting, recording and investigation, as a result of more staff and resources, a stronger emphasis on policing domestic violence, better data management systems, and mandatory reporting laws.
In 2009, consumption began to creep up again (and so did serious assaults), as drinkers took advantage of bargain-basement prices for bottled wines, which gave them a bigger bang for their buck (40 cents a standard drink for a $3 cleanskin, compared to $1.20 a standard drink for a slab of beer). Encouragingly, most Alice Springs supermarkets have now removed those ultra-cheap wine products from their shelves of their own accord.
There is a simple, cost-free solution to this. In Alice Springs, and indeed throughout Australia, there should be a minimum floor price for alcohol. This wouldn’t affect the price of beer or spirits, but it would prevent product substitution being used to undermine effective supply restrictions.
Refreshingly, just a couple of months ago, both the Northern Territory Chief Minister, Paul Henderson, and the president of the NT branch of the Australian Hotels Association, Mick Burns, indicated their openness to this approach.
We have this readily available substance that causes untold harm. So what do we do about it? We make it less readily available. This may not be popular, but it works. Shorter hours. Fewer outlets. A dollar a drink. A grog-free welfare payday. We did it with cigarettes, by making them so expensive it turned people off smoking. And here, in Alice Springs, we’ve at long last started to do it with grog. To its credit, the NT government has also announced a raft of radical new measures aimed at preventing problem drinkers from obtaining grog, and getting them into rehab. This won’t be popular either, but it might just work.
And we’ve got to do more. Unless of course we’re prepared to let the carnage continue.
Because if we don’t fix up this grog business, whatever else we do to stop the violence, whatever else we do to address my town’s social problems, however much money we spend, whatever laws we pass, or jails sentences we impose, or programs we deliver, or houses we build, or theories we devise, or prayers we offer, I can tell you one thing: if we don’t take the hard decisions and fix up this grog business first, whatever else we try, will fail.
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