Grog is a killer, but it’s far less dangerous than politics

Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Jenny Macklin... the Close the Gap strategy is failing, but it's the politics behind it that's doing the real damage.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Jenny Macklin… the Close the Gap strategy is failing, but it’s the politics behind it that’s doing the real damage.

THERE’S no question that grog kills a lot of Aboriginal people, and destroys a lot of Aboriginal lives. It’s a major problem in many communities around the country.

But for all the damage grog can do to an Aboriginal community, it’s nothing compared to the damage wrought by politics.

Earlier this week, Prime Minister Julia Gillard delivered her annual Close the Gap speech.

After declaring that the gap was closing (it isn’t, but that’s another story), she lined up conservative governments in Queensland and the Northern Territory over their recent moves against alcohol bans.

“I have a real fear that the rivers of grog that wreaked such havoc among Indigenous communities are starting to flow once again.”

I’m not sure precisely where Gillard’s has been spending her time recently, but I do recall her visiting Alice Springs last year. So, beyond the pristine bed sheets at the Crowne Plaza, what exactly did she see?

The rivers of grog in the Territory have never dried up. At best, you could say they’ve changed course slightly. But they’re flowing as strong as ever.

In the first six months of 2010, the Substance Abuse Intelligence Desk (an initiative of the Northern Territory intervention) reported seizing 404 litres of alcohol from Aboriginal communities.

By July 2011 that figure increased three-fold to 1,233 litres, climbing to 1,445 by the end of the year.

This is four years AFTER government intervention and grog bans.

At the same time, alcohol infractions went through the roof.

The federal government’s bi-annual intervention monitoring report concedes that in 2007, there were 1,784 “alcohol related incidents”. By 2011, the number had more than doubled to 4,101.

Alcohol related domestic violence incidents also rose, from 387 in 2007, to 1,109 in 2011 – another three-fold increase.

The federal government likes to claim the increase in crime statistics is a result of more police in the Territory.So, more coppers, more reporting. In truth, while assault rates have more than doubled since 2007, the number of lodgments (charges that flow from an incident) is virtually the same in 2011 as it was in 2008 (548 in 2011 versus 537 in 2008).

The federal government also likes to claim that the policies of the Northern Territory intervention need time to bite. After all, it’s only been five years.

Fortuitously, we have more than a decade of grog bans in Cape York on which to make some judgments (the statistics I’ve used are assault rates, because proponents of grog bans routinely use them to justify banning alcohol).

During 2000/01, the assault rate in Cape York communities was almost three times the state average (at a rate of 1,419 assaults per 100,000 head of population).

In 2001/02, the rate dropped to 1,382. The following year, it dropped even further to 1,216.

Enter the Beattie Government, and a new policy of Alcohol Management Plans (AMPs).

Over the next two years, the drop in assault rates slowed dramatically, then plateaued.

Within two years, it jumped substantially, and then slowly climbed its way back down.

The net result was that after a decade of grog bans, assault rates in Cape York reduced by 15 percent… the same drop that occurred in the two years PRIOR to grog bans.

Why? Beyond the fact that grog bans don’t work, no-one really knows. But what we do know is that assault rates in Cape York – while certainly much higher than the state average – mirrored almost precisely the rise and falls of assault rates across the rest of the state. And of course, you could hardly suggest that Queensland is a dry community.

What does this mean? Government-imposed grog bans don’t work. Indeed, they’ve never worked in the history of this nation. Not for Aboriginal people, not for non-Aboriginal people.

Grog bans had no real impact on assault rates in Cape York communities, but they were a raging success in the criminalisation of Aboriginal drinkers.

All grog bans do is frame a behavior that should be treated as a health problem as a law and order issue. Which of course helps fill our jails.

In Cape York in 2000/01, prior to the grog bans, ‘liquor offence rates’ – which include things like illegal possession of alcohol – were at 142 per 100,000 people.

By 2009/10 they’d increased more than seven-fold to 1087, and ‘Good order’ offences also increased markedly over the same period.

So grog bans had no real impact on assault rates in Cape York communities, but they were a raging success in the criminalisation of Aboriginal drinkers.

So there’s the facts. Now back to the politics.

The CLP’s motivation to drop the grog bans in the Northern Territory is ‘one part they don’t work’ and nine parts ‘voters in Alice Springs – home to four CLP seats – are sick and tired of Aboriginal drinkers pouring into town to escape grog bans on their communities’.

But whatever their motivation, the CLP’s opposition to broad-brush grog bans across whole swathes of the Territory is the right policy. With one caveat.

One of the CLP’s strategies has been to abolish the Banned Drinkers Register, a move which also drew the ire of the Prime Minister.

“Since it was pulled down by the Country Liberal Party… we’re hearing worrying reports about the rise in admissions in the emergency department at Alice Springs Hospital due to alcohol-related accidents and abuse,” Ms Gillard said.

Personally, I don’t consider “we’re hearing worrying reports” to be an evidence-based discussion. Call me old-fashioned, but I think if our Prime Minister is going to defend a policy, she should work in some hard stats. Even so, there is strong support for the Banned Drinker’s Register in Alice Springs.

Unlike blanket grog bans across communities, the BDR is a small, manageable policy. It targets individuals who are repeat offenders and have significant drinking problems, as opposed to targeting a whole race of people based on the colour of their skin.

Dr John Boffa, an Alice Springs doctor who has worked in Aboriginal health for more than two decades, is a strong proponent of the BDR. He told ABC radio: “Sure there may be other strategies and things being put in place, but this is one strategy that’s working.

“And we’ve got the highest alcohol-related harm in Australia. It’s not acceptable to not implement all possible measures that we know are having an effect.”

Which brings me back to the politics once more.

If all politics are local, then why is all policy created in Canberra?

The solution to problems like drinking lie in the communities where the drinking occurs. Prior to the intervention, a substantial proportion of the Aboriginal communities targeted by the NT intervention were already dry, courtesy of local decision-making.

With support, Aboriginal communities have the governance and the capacity to make their own decisions.

In Queensland, that’s precisely the direction the Newman government is heading, to their enormous credit. And it’s precisely what Gillard was railing against in her Close the Gap speech. What Campbell Newman has apparently realized that Gillard hasn’t is that control of Aboriginal lives needs to be put into the hands of Aboriginal people. The days of grand pronouncements from the ivory towers of Canberra must end. Particularly ones like this, again from Gillard in her Close the Gap speech: “The Government will take action in response to any irresponsible policy changes that threaten to forfeit our hard-won gains.”

Great news. And does the same government have the courage to take action in response to its own irresponsible policies which have been shown time and again to fail?

* Chris Graham is the former and founding editor of the National Indigenous Times, and Tracker magazine. He’s now a freelance writer based in Glebe, Sydney.


  1. Tamil Tiger says:

    If they legalised yarndie at least some of the problem drinkers would switch. Alcohol related violence would surely drop. But that would fly against their paternalistic and patronising control-oriented policies.


  1. […] Graham At Large: Grog is a killer, but it’s far less dangerous than politics Feb 13: “THERE’S no question that grog kills a lot of Aboriginal people, and destroys a […]

  2. […] Close scrutiny of the CLPs abandoned policies and its unwillingness to denounce income management, its penchant for forcing so called ‘problem drinkers’ into rehabilitation and its downgrading of the Department of Child Protection does not inspire confidence. Quite the opposite, its outright dismissal of any of the tenets of self determination is downright disgraceful. Criminalisation of a disease is beyond reprehensible. I seriously wonder how any of these people can sleep at night. Chris Graham is right when he writes here, that ‘Grog is a killer, but it’s far less dangerous than politics’. […]

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