Why Are There Police Outside NT Bottle Shops?

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For months now, a significant number of the Alice Springs police force, including commanders and detectives, have been stationed outside the town’s bottle shops from 2pm to 9pm on weeknights and 10am to 9pm on weekends. More than 35 members of the police have been assigned shift duty with back-up being supplied from other towns.

The head of the NT Police Association, Vince Kelly, told New Matilda the labour-intensive policy had moved the responsibility of preventing access to alcohol for problem drinkers from the shopkeepers to the police force.

“All the responsibility falls onto the police and none falls onto the people who are making the money,” he told New Matilda. “I don’t know if it’s the job of NT police to stand outside bottle shops as de facto security guards.”

“What [the NT Government]has effectively done is remove the [Banned Drinking Register] and not replace it with any effective tool,” Kelly told NM.

The Banned Drinking Register was a policy of the former Labor NT government that prevented problem drinkers from buying alcohol. Take away alcohol outlets were required to scan the ID of patrons to reveal whether they were on the BDR. Serving someone on the list could result in serious sanctions.

The success of the scheme in stopping problem drinkers from accessing alcohol was contested. While the register was in place the number of alcohol-related emergency presentations increased.

During the 2012 election campaign, the NT Country Liberal Party argued that the register was not working and served only as an inconvenience to those who were not problem drinkers. It seemed a petty gripe given the depth of the drinking problem in the territory, but dumping the BDR became an election promise, one that was delivered when the CLP finally took power from Labor in August that year.

It was a happy day for Australian Hotels Association, which gave $150,000 to each of the major parties before the election. Supporters of the BDR argued the system had not been given sufficient time to make an impact and no territory government review of the system’s merits was ever completed. The successes and failures of the scheme may become clearer when the federal parliamentary inquiry investigating the harmful use of alcohol in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities reports back later in the year.

With a major preventative measure undone, the CLP was under pressure to demonstrate they could reduce problem drinking and the violence it caused. Their response was a range of policies which leant more towards the punitive end of the scale and included: the ability to serve people facing court for alcohol related matters with Alcohol Protection Orders which meant drinking could land them in jail; mandatory alcohol treatment for people repeatedly taken into protective custody for drinking, which threatened absconders with imprisonment; and increased fines.

The move from the BDR to Alcohol Protection Orders particularly demonstrated a shift from limiting supply to punishing individual drinkers. Unlike the BDR, alcohol outlets do not have access to the list of people served with protection orders meaning it is no longer their responsibility to turn people away if they are banned form drinking.

These were tough measures that have had a negative impact on some of the community's most vulnerable citizens — and they appear to be failing.

The number of alcohol related emergency attendances spiked sharply after the BDR was scrapped.

According to Dr John Boffa, from the People’s Alcohol Action Coalition, community views on the latest bottle shop based policing measures are divided.

“The fact that no one has challenged it in any way, no one has challenged under the Racial Discrimination Act, and it’s been going on for some time now does seem to suggest that although there are concerns, people’s views are mixed,” he told NM.

“On the one hand, people have concerns about institutional racism, and the relationship between the police and community, and on the other hand, people can see very large benefits, and for children and others, it’s making the community safer and a better place to be,” he said.

However, Aboriginal organisations, community groups and the police association have all pointed to the BDR as the better system.

According to Boffa, “photo licensing at the point of sale was very effective, and a more equitable system, as it wasn’t based on race, wasn’t based on where they lived but actually on whether they had a serious problem with alcohol.”

“Non-Aboriginal people were banned under that system, while non-Aboriginal people aren’t covered under this system at all. There are serious considerations around this being a long term strategy,” he said.

Max Chalmers

Max Chalmers is a former New Matilda journalist and editorial staff member. His main areas of interest are asylum seekers, higher education and politics.

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