Central Australia is perishing for a drink


This week’s Food for Thought is by RUSSELL GUY, commentator, writer and music promoter in Central Australia’s outback for 31 years. He is a frequent contributor to the comment sections of the Alice Springs News Online. He is also a keen aviator where “eight hours from bottle to throttle” is an unbending rule for pilots in command of an aircraft.
The debate in Alice Springs over the right to consume alcohol without restriction or discrimination, has largely ignored the cost of whether the community can afford not to increase restrictions.   The Menzies School of Health Research Institute has stated that the challenge of tackling the serious alcohol-related issues in the NT is not to be underestimated.  In 2006 – 2007, Australians aged 15 and over consumed on average almost 10 litres of pure alcohol per head.  In comparison, average consumption in the NT by the non-indigenous population was over 14 litres, and for indigenous it was more than 16 litres, but Menzies says that Alice Springs is way out in front at around 20 litres per head.
A media release from the NT Government’s Enough is Enough Alcohol Reform Package (30/3/11), notes that 70% of all alcohol sold in the NT is sold as take-away liquor and that hospitalisation rates due to alcohol are the highest in Australia.  The same research relates that alcohol-related deaths occur in the NT at about 3.5 times the rate they do nationally.  55% of road deaths are caused by high-risk drinking in the NT and that in 2009, there were 54,000 incidents of people taken into protective custody due to alcohol misuse.
The NT Government has revealed that among adults who consumed alcohol, 30% reported drinking alcohol at a risky or high risk level and added that if the NT were a country, then it would be up amongst those countries in the world with the highest rates of per capita consumption.  Many studies have identified the correlation between high levels of alcohol consumption and shortened life expectancy.
Recent Federal Government research has revealed that indigenous people in remote communities saw benefits from the NT Emergency Intervention, including increased policing, night patrols, and income management, with some expressing concern that there would be a return to violence and abuse if these measures were removed.
There have been a number of reforms initiated by the NT Government in the past twelve months in an effort to deal with high risk drinking and its effects, including, in July 2011, the requirement for ID to be produced when purchasing take-away alcohol, banning notices for those taken into protective custody three times in three months, and a banned drinker’s register connected to the ID scanning system to ensure that those who are banned cannot buy take-away liquor.  While it’s been said that this is easily scammed by another purchaser supplying the banned drinker, some are volunteering to be on it.  The powers of the Alcohol and Other Drug Tribunal, part of these reforms, include the power to ban problem drinkers and to order treatment programs.  Magistrates in the new SMART court deal with offenders (but excluding violent or sexual matters) with substance misuse histories.  The NTG has also bought back two takeaway outlet liquor licenses, so far.
Critics of all this, may be surprised to hear that during the past twenty years, new research has revealed that both alcohol content and market share of wine have increased, to the point where electorates in which many vineyards are located, are marginal seats said to be holding a gun to the Federal Government’s head over liquor reform.  Research released last year by the School of Population Health at the University of Queensland into the effect of increased tax on alcopop alcoholic drinks, revealed that over half of 15-29 year olds presenting to Emergency Departments at Gold Coast hospitals had alcohol-related conditions as opposed to a quarter for all other age groups.
Last year, the Salvation Army, as part of Alcohol Awareness Week, commissioned research to examine public attitudes in relation to alcohol consumption and mental health.  The research revealed that 81% of respondents aged 14 years and over believes that drinking alcohol can worsen a person’s mental health.  10% of respondents stated that they consumed alcohol as a way of dealing with feeling down and anxious.
Even though surveys have consistently shown that indigenous people are less likely to drink than non-indigenous, those who do are more likely to drink at risky levels.  The Overview of Australian Indigenous Health Status 2011 report, published in January this year, reveals that from 2004 – 2008, the death rate from alcohol-related causes was 6.3 times higher for indigenous people than for non-indigenous, while the highest level of disease burden attributable to alcohol was for injury (22%), mental disorders (16%) and cancers (6.3%).   In December 2009, submissions to the Alice Springs Transformation Plan claimed that a significant proportion of Aboriginal ‘problem drinkers’ want to achieve safe drinking or sobriety and they are seeking support to do so.
The background to this, at least according to figures released by the Northern Territory Government in February, 2011, is the claim that Territorians consume alcohol at 1.5 times the national average and alcohol misuse costs the NT community an estimated $642 million per year.  Alcohol continues to be involved in 60% of all assaults and alcohol abuse costs $4197 per year for every adult Territorian, compared to $944 per adult nationally.  The NT, with just over 1% of the national population, represents seven percent of the estimated national alcohol-attributable policing costs of $747.1 million dollars.
Over the years, the social and economic costs of alcohol abuse in the NT alone run to the billions of dollars.  Governments are now faced with the challenge of harm reduction strategies and the Federal Government has commissioned a report into risk-based liquor licensing laws.  The Australian (16/2/12) noted that recommendations may be implemented if alcohol restrictions in the NT are judged inadequate.  The report found that while the normal focus was on consumption and problem drinkers, there has been a recent trend towards supply-side measures, noting that Victoria, Queensland, NSW and the ACT had introduced risk-based liquor licensing and the NT could benefit from such a system, given its current regime does not fund cost recovery and the flow of tax revenue is limited.
In 2007, the Little Children Are Sacred report found that alcohol abuse was “destroying communities” and was the gravest and fastest growing threat to the safety of children.  Extensive research has established links between alcohol and drug abuse and child maltreatment, while Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD) among maternal alcohol consumers is attracting increased attention.
The Alice Springs based People’s Alcohol Action Coalition (PAAC) is preparing to direct more of its advocacy into protecting vulnerable children from the effects of alcohol misuse.  PAAC had some success in 2011 with the withdrawal of cask wine and a voluntary, if varied, minimum price per unit on take-away alcohol sold by supermarkets.  The two hotels, however, continue to sell cask wine, and unlike the supermarkets, trade seven days a week.  PAAC believes that more restrictions on take-away alcohol are needed, wanting casks to be completely withdrawn, a regulated floor price of around $1.20 per standard drink and a take-away free day, although others advocate four days, stating that one day is hardly enough given the size of the breach, pressing for Sunday through Wednesday, inclusive.  This would preferably be tied to a set welfare payment day which was a successful restriction in Tennant Creek in the late 1990s, known at Thirsty Thursday.  When Centrelink payments began to be made on other days, the restriction was compromised, leading to its removal in 2006.  Alcohol consumption in Tennant Creek which had decreased by 20%, immediately increased by 7.5% and has continued to rise, with Emergency Department admissions for mental and behavioral disorders due to alcohol rising by a further 56% in the first year, increasing to 61% in the second year.
PAAC’s Dr John Boffa, NT Australian of the Year in 2011, argues that there will be more money for government services for everyone, when less has to be poured into bearing the alcohol-related cost of services, hospitalisation, chronic disease, policing, courts and corrective services, welfare and other agencies, child neglect, violent offending and loss of productivity.  The Central Australian Aboriginal Congress (CAAC) claims that the heart of the current social crisis is reflected in the enormous disparity in the social determinants of health. Put simply, the social gradient – the level of disadvantage that has to be overcome in terms of housing, education, employment, access to justice and empowerment – are directly linked to the disastrous health outcomes their clients face.  CAAC acknowledges that these are also directly linked to the ongoing effects of substance abuse, family violence, child neglect and abuse.
The social gradient in Alice Springs and Central Australia is extreme.  This is one indicator that the failure to acknowledge the existence of indigenous people in the Australian Constitution has had a major impact on their sense of identity, value within the community and the perpetuation of racial discrimination.  National concern over Aboriginal Affairs is out of sync with alcohol-related statistical evidence; and all the while, indigenous people live 17 years less on average than the rest of the population. Add the extreme social gradient to the slippery slope of alcohol and it’s not difficult to understand why swift further action is needed.
A trauma surgeon’s documentation of the fact that there has been a significant decline in the number of women being treated for stab wounds – from 250 down to 146 – in 2010, has encouraged Dr Boffa in his belief that “Alice is beginning to turn around alcohol caused violence and it’s time to move forward on alcohol supply reduction in particular.”
(Mr Guy provided comprehensive background information and statistical references used for this article. Readers who want a copy of this material are welcome to email the Alice Springs News Online.)


  1. Good on you, Russell. You will triumph in this debate as you are a strong and thoughtful character who respects the country and its people.
    You also seem to have developed a winning way of focusing on the issues before the personalities involved.
    It is a hard road though and we wish you well, we acknowledge there are some benefits of the intervention but please, DON’T FORGET ABOUT THE REAL HUMAN COST OF THE NTER policies.
    Regards, Diana Whitehouse.

  2. You present a very compelling argument, Russell, to increasing alcohol restrictions in The Alice, and you have the figures to back it up. It is obvious that there is no single “silver bullet” in dealing with the problem and that a workable solution lies in a “multi-pronged” approach, one that includes community education, treatment and rehabilitation programs. It also requires the co-ordination of government services, as was evidenced in the undoing of Tennant Creek’s “Thirsty Thursday” trial in recent years. But before we can get to that, we need to accept, as a community, that alcohol IS a drug. True, it is a LEGAL drug, but then so was opium in Victorian Britain until its sale was restricted in 1868. An encouraging precedent, wouldn’t you agree?

  3. Let’s not forget that quite often substances such as alcohol are used to cover self esteem issues – the person using the substance feels worthless and valueless. The causes of this are many but the failure to be able to live up to one’s full potential is a critical issue. Sometimes it is cause by the limitations placed on one by other people – sometimes lack or oversupply of money. Too much money can have the same effect as too little – that is that it becomes either too hard or too easy to get what you want from life.
    Blanket orders over the alcohol issue wont work well. Teaching people to control their own actions and take responsibility for what they do is necessary. My own experience with my husband’s alcoholism has taught me this. They took away his right to drink but as soon as he could he went back to drinking because issues of his self esteem were never dealt with – I was made responsible for his drinking but he was never made to face his own issues.
    I understand the Aboriginals think this is their own country and we whites have no rights here. However, the facts are that we are more than 200 years from the original settlement – and we now live in a different world to what it was then. Humanity always has to move on and black and white need to live together – maybe part of the trouble is that older people want to stay in the past at a time when they were born – the younger ones want to live in the time that they were born. Our attitude to life comes from the time and place of our birth. However it is necessary to teach people to respect everyone – no matter who they are, what colour or religion they are and what age they are. Self esteem comes from respecting our own and others’ rights and possessions.

  4. Thank you Diana and Domenico for your welcome encouragement and thank you Bev, for your thoughtful comments. The abolition of opium, like Wilberforce’s successful repeal of the British slave trade, are indeed precedents for the reining in of what were legalised drug and inhuman practises in democratic countries.
    I have tried to present an argument that the need for further alcohol restrictions in Alice Springs is in line with those being considered in other states of Australia and I am confident that they will be enacted in the NT, sooner rather than later.
    Bev, I agree with much of what you say. Alcohol is used to cover self-esteem issues of those who feel worthless and valueless. The Salvation Army Research given in my article supports this. I know it to be true from my own experience of personal betrayal and abuse. The Constitutional Reform document before the Commonwealth Government also supports this in recommending indigenous inclusion. I have quoted from it several times in relation to indigenous alcoholism in Alice Springs.
    Your claim that “Blanket orders over the alcohol issue won’t work,” refers, I presume, to the old argument against prohibition. “Teaching people to control their own actions and take responsibility” is, of course, correct, but when there is a river of grog flowing amongst them, it’s time to put measures in place that dam and restrict the supply by turning down the tap and giving them a sporting chance.
    During the week, the WA Racing and Gaming Minister acknowledged that not one single approach to this issue was effective, but that many different tactics were proving to reduce the harm caused by excessive alcohol consumption. Queensland has a new report to hand from the Nursing Association which states that it cannot deal with alcohol-fulled violence in regional centres attributed to fly-in, fly-out miners. This is now appearing on the radar.
    In Alice, we are way out in front of national statistics for alcohol consumption. Rehabilitation orders are the province of the new Alcohol and Other Drugs (AOD) Tribunal and the recently introduced Smart Court. Risk based licensing and cost recovery legislation is on the way, so that the economic burden to the community is focused more on those who have most to gain from promulgating this misery, and I include their political supporters.
    Some say that alcoholics will revert to “metho” or whatever to satisfy their craving, but there are alcoholics volunteering to be on the Banned Drinker’s Register and some asking for help in achieving sobriety. Focus on supply, rather than problem drinkers, is coming.
    We are dealing with an epidemic of alcohol abuse. The statistical information from widely gathered sources points to the same conclusion. Yet, some who stand for public leadership conclude that it would be discriminatory to help people and others can’t agree that we have a supply problem. I haven’t seen one candidate in this Alice Springs Town Council election publicly declare that alcohol is an issue, apart from those who advocate open slather on sales, giving all kinds of no-brainer reasons like adverse effects on tourism.
    Your understanding that “Aboriginal people think this is their own country and we whites have no place here,” is a generalisation, however, you are on the right track with “our attitude to life comes from the time and place of our birth”. Some commentators talk about “bad behavior” and it’s obvious that they are referring to indigenous alcoholism. Call it a spade, there’s a streak of racism in this analysis.
    Consider the bad behaviour that indigenous have endured throughout the history of settlement. There are underlying issues of racism and worse that contribute to frustration evinced by “bad behaviour,” resorting to zero tolerance, law and order, lock them up, bring in a curfew etc. is not even cost-effective which is where their rationale begins and ends. The slave trade is alive and well in Alice Springs. While I don’t excuse anti-social behaviour, I make the case for further restrictions such as take-away alcohol free days which have been proven effective.
    I have worked in the Town Camps of Alice Springs and Tennant Creek for thirty years and seem the same “bad behaviour” from Redfern to Stradbroke Island where I met with the late poet, Oodgeroo Noonuckle (aka Kath Walker) over the rights to record her poem “No More Boomerang”. She agrees with much of what you are saying too, e.g., her poem Let Us Not Be Bitter (My People. John Wiley and Sons Australia, Ltd. First edition 1970, reprinted as late as 2008).
    In conclusion, I agree about the need to respect everyone, but we need to understand them too as I’m sure you realised with your husband. You write that “self-esteem comes from respecting our own and others’ rights and possessions”. Amen to that, but first of all “a healthy body and a sound mind,” through education, including non-indigenous attitudes to different cultural norms. I don’t want to live in bland town.

  5. Wow! It’s unconscionable that people could argue for the status quo in view of these numbers: “Alcohol abuse costs $4197 per year for every adult Territorian, compared to $944 per adult nationally. The NT, with just over 1% of the national population, represents 7% of the estimated national alcohol-attributable policing costs of $747.1 million dollars.”
    I would be grateful if someone could calculate the “opportunity cost” of this alcohol abuse to add to these damning stats.

  6. David, nobody has moved on the “opportunity costs” you asked for, so I’ll try. Each NT adult is taxed $4200 p.a. in lost opportunity by the social costs of alcohol abuse. Add the cost of policing and all the other things which Dr Boffa mentions in my article and you begin to see the economic blunder of maintaining the status quo.
    I find it interesting that the NT News (2/3/12) sampled how ‘100 drivers’ through a Darwin takeaway alcohol outlet left their licences behind. Check the mental health stats in my article.
    Those standing for public office in the Alice Springs Town Council elections haven’t mentioned excessive alcohol consumption as an issue. Perhaps they believe they can make a difference by supporting takeaway outlets in their current operation. The rehab framework exists, the Brave New World is here. Have a nice day.


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