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HomeIssue 12The Devil’s Big Day Out

The Devil’s Big Day Out

Around 7am on Saturday, I pulled up in the almost deserted CBD, but couldn’t get out of my car because 98.7 Gold was playing Stevie Wonder’s  Living for the City, a song about an Afro-American family from  “small town Mississippi” trying to overcome dirt-poor status.  I once stumbled upon Stevie playing a small keyboard at an Aboriginal community on the outskirts of Cairns, in the late 1980s.
While waiting for a café to open in the Mall, I strolled to the back of Adelaide House, where some Port Lincoln parrots gently fed from fallen dates beside a couple of Major Mitchell galahs on the lawn. Further back, under the trees, were five empty bottles of Hardy’s Chardonnay, featuring a little red sticker advertising “33% more than a regular 750ml” in a smoky, green bottle promising “11 standard drinks” with 13.5% alcohol content.  Nearby were three 750 ml Yellow Tail Chardonnay empties at “7.4 standard drinks”.  A couple of Penfolds Rawsons Retreat reds completed the picture among half a dozen VB cans. Ten empty wine bottles laying in the grass, in the middle of the CBD early Saturday morn, an incongruous sight beside the beautiful native birds at the rear of Rev.  Flynn’s old hospital, the first in Central Australia, built less than ninety years ago by public conscription.
It reminded me of recent research that I’d read, stating that the alcohol content and market share of wine had increased, largely unnoticed over the past twenty years (ABC RN transcript, 22/11/10) as a result of increased discretionary income and sophistication demanding a “decent” bottle of wine, which local manufacturer’s met by increasing the alcohol content in the pre-GFC years.  How many more are hooked now that the boom years have subsided and stats are out showing very dangerous drinking rates among young bingers and other high-risk drinkers?   Perhaps, the words “peel off here” on the “33% more” sticker is a concession to bourgeois guilt or shame on behalf of blood money marketeers?
There used to be a vegetable garden where these bottles lay, before cunning marketers who, only a few years ago, introduced the thirty can VB “barbecue pack” with carry handles as more convenient than lugging a twenty four can slab.  “More” is the name of the game.  Cheap casks of Chardonnay are withdrawn in supermarkets around town and out come the “33% more” bottles of glut valley Chardy!
I couldn’t help but think back to Justice Muirhead’s days on the NT Supreme Court bench, circa 1986, when he referred to glass flagons as weapons of death, after a lawyer remarked that “no one could be stabbed with a cask, your Honour.”  From memory, the beak said that vested interest made it difficult to outlaw the glass flagon.  Twenty-five years later, here we are again with the “33% more”, one litre, long-neck, weapon of death, sold through take-away outlets, while some mercenaries who aspire to lead the town describe any attempt at remedy as racial discrimination and support an unregulated, free market for alcohol retailers.  Who can afford these policies?  And yet both NT political parties accept campaign donations from the liquor industry.  It’s all a bit of a tragic joke which makes mockery of well intentioned citizens eager for a solution to the daily misery.  With apologies to Gene Pitney, where is the moral fibre, backbone and responsible leadership in this town without pity?
During the Eighties, I dialed 000 one night as half a dozen young men were left lying, stabbed with flagon shards when a fight broke out on a dance floor that I regularly promoted, so imagine my droll reaction when seated in the Mall last Saturday, as I saw a young bloke carrying one of the new “33% more” empties.  I said to my friend, “he’s carrying a weapon.”  Within seconds and metres from our table, he smashed it over the head of another bloke, who pulled a knife.  Simultaneously, a middle-aged woman came up to our table and held the stump of an amputated hand in my face while chopping at it with the other hand.  Earlier in the day, I’d heard a news report about a new body – the Alcohol Advertising Review Board – stating that “the liquor industry could not self-regulate” and that targeting young people in advertising was about to receive some attention, but it falls on deaf ears in this “small town Mississippi.”
The point is that these bottles came from take-away outlets – the pubs operate seven days a week.   The afternoon’s macabre cabaret proved that, so far, nothing and nobody can stop them from providing this nouveau fascination for a new generation of less experienced observers.  In the early Eighties, CAAMA radio played NYC-based, Grand Master Flash’s proto-Hip Hop, rap, the scratch-mix The Message … “broken glass everywhere, people pissing in the street, don’t .. push .. me, I’m close to the edge.”  Thirty years later, our political leaders still don’t get the message, but I’ve spoken to a couple of newcomerlice Springs Town Council candidates in recent days that support take-away sales free days as do some businesses in the Mall.
It’s time for these and any others to declare their hand against the direction of “zero tolerance law and order – change for the better” policies, which are out of step with the nation on impending alcohol reform.   Let’s do this to prevent the NT continuing to have the highest rate of imprisonment and hospitalisation in the country for alcohol-related abuse.   It’s obvious to any sane observer that the lock’em-up approach is not working and while these insanely liberal policies steer away from alcohol reform, the National Alcohol Action Alliance has released its position statement, revealing that the cost to taxpayers of alcohol abuse is $15billion per year (NAAA policy papers.  March, 2012). Wake up, Australia!
What’s wrong with a take-away ban (naughty word) for part of the week as a major step towards regulating the escalating, alcohol-related violence? It would give the police a break, so they can move on black marketers and property crime, while putting some control into the situation, where responsible consumption in the pubs and clubs is monitored. Rehabilitation and Dry Out Centres  wouldn’t be sending clients back to the battle-lines for more of the same constant take-away psychosis. Demented rampage, anyone?  More death?  More law and order?
If take-away was banned from Sunday to Wednesday inclusive, then it’s a good bet that Thursday to Saturday, in the short term, at least, will be the Devil’s Big Days Out, but more likely curtailed from a Big Night Out if the hours are set at 12 noon to 4pm – you can still get your take-away during lunch hour as a concession to cleaning up the town.
One of the big changes over the past 30 years is that violence is overflowing town camps into the streets.  That indicates that not only are things getting worse, but that, more importantly, these people need help.  The source of this supply is take-away.  Unless something is done to restrict it – law and order tactics will not constrain it, and Alice will continue to be trashed.  That’s the message of living for the city in this urban drift.
There’s an epitaph on the grave of one of the first believers in the faith of the Hermannsburg Lutheran missionaries, dating from the 1880s, belonging to old Moses Raberaba, the subject of a new book by Peter Latz.  Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the firmament, and those who turn many to righteousness like the stars forever and ever.  In those days, alcohol was banned and missionaries got the blame for corrupting the culture.  I have no wish to defend the Church, because in some denominations, the social Gospel is a case of the blind leading the blind into a ditch, but going on present indications in liberal democratic countries, corruption under free market legislation is about as bad as it gets.  The new Alcohol Advertising Review Board refers to alcohol advertising as a “tsunami” and is about to apply some pressure.  In a week’s time, Alice votes for a new Council.  Let’s see some candidates willing to come out on days free from take-away alcohol sales as an emergency trial measure, subject to twelve months evaluation.  It’s up to the community to prevent alcohol-related child abuse and neglect by showing leadership and voting accordingly.
IMAGE: The new “Peel off here” – “33% more” sticker on the trendy new bottle.


  1. From my reading of the campaign promises and talk / talk, only Aaron Dick has specifically said he is in favor of closing the bottle shops on one day a week.
    This puts him at the top of my list.
    All the others are either opposed to an alcohol takeaway-free day, or mouthing the usual mealy-mouthed bullshit about waiting to be across the issues, or talking related nonsense about a need for evidence based approaches.
    Let’s get real. The evidence is there, and the town needs a time-out at least one day a week. This would apply to everyone, and that takes away any hint of targeted demographics or outright racism.
    Now there is even talk about parts of the existing town camps becoming gated communities because the residents cannot cope with the violence coming from the urban drift.
    How clear do we need it?
    So I appeal to all candidates: Will you please give us a break?
    The Liquor Licensing Commission will listen, but only if we ask.

  2. Hal and others of the same mindset:
    I would like some more of your thoughts on the takeaway free concept. As I see and understand takeaway free days, it is only a bandage for the problem of alcoholism in the same way that strict law and order is, it doesn’t truly address the underlying causes. It only temporarily restricts users from obtaining the substance.
    Let’s say, for example, if the takeaway free scheme works, where does the town go from there? Three days a week takeaway free? Total prohibition?
    I do not, as some have accused me of, entirely believe that the rights of the individual trump the “collective good.” But, I do feel mighty strong that before law abiding citizens sacrifice their freedoms there should be a well planned and reasoned plan in place. Remember, once you give away your liberties, you don’t get them back.

  3. Steve (@Posted March 20, 2012 at 6:05 pm):
    There are good arguments against your assumption that “the takeaway free days concept … is only a bandage for the problem of alcoholism.”
    Takeaway alcohol-free days would have the triple advantage that (i) they would reduce the strength and dominance of the full force gale of grog culture, by providing a period of relief in which other ways of spending time (e.g. by working) or just enjoying daily life could be demonstrated to children and youth, thus countering the “normalising” effect of the uninhibited grog culture; (ii) they would provide respite for the drinkers’ dependents and associates, and a window of opportunity for the services which are trying to assist the drinker and/or the dependents and associates – for example, schools, health services, alcohol treatment services, training agencies, job service networks, employers; and (iii) they would provide respite for other parties: police could get on with other work, businesses could relax a bit, tourists could more easily enjoy the ambience of the town in the desert.
    Three days a week takeaway alcohol-free wouldn’t bother a lot of people, and would greatly benefit many. The Licensing Commission could oversee it, to ensure no bright sparks and opportunists in the private club scene contrived to undermine its intent. A twelve month trial, with a rigorous evaluation, would be a good taster. Despite being undermined towards its end point by changed welfare payment days and unrestricted sales of cheap wines through private clubs, the success for several years of a single day takeaway restriction in Tennant Creek from 1996-2006 showed how beneficial days free from takeaway alcohol can be. Just ask the police who worked there during that period.
    People would still be able to drink in all the “on licence” venues, in moderation and under the supervision of the licensee, at virtually any hour they wished, and consumers would quickly adjust to doing their grog shopping for take-away alcohol on the days on which it would still be sold, or continue to order online interstate as many are currently doing. It would not solve all problems, but it would help pave the way for solving some of them, and would help the town as a whole.

  4. @Steve
    Thank you for asking.
    My hopes that we can agree to close the bottle shops on one day a week come from two thoughts.
    First is a belief that all of us in Alice Springs would benefit from a weekly day off, a known time-out from the unbroken access to takeaway alcohol. Put simply, we need a break. It’s exhausting putting up with the noise and cleaning up the mess every day of the week. It’s also exhausting drinking oneself into a stupor every day of the week.
    Second is a belief that all of us across the Territory, and statistics bear me out although I am loath to start down that numbers road, drink too much. We live in a culture where it is accepted that it is OK and quite normal if we all go drinking any time we feel like it, including, all too often, all the time.
    Put simply again, we need a break, a time to consider do we really want to do this, a chance to break a habit.
    I am not advocating more than one day a week. Let’s trial a one day closure for a two year period and see where it leads us.
    Sundays make sense to me because we are already mostly closed on that day. Also, without Sunday takeaways maybe, just maybe, more kids will get to school on Monday mornings. At least it would be a chance for a change for the better on that necessary front as well.
    About restrictions in general, the current lot are resented, are contributing to social tensions and distrust and are of debatable value. Mostly, they remind me of trying to mend a punctured water hose with gaffer tape in that no matter how hard or how often the hose gets wrapped to stop the leak, water always seems to seep out. We need to rethink what we have done, where we want to go and how best we can get there.
    Before it was brought in I begged the Liquor Licensing Board not to bring in the Dry Town legislation without a guarantee that they could and would make it work. Otherwise it would become a law to be flouted by many, and that in itself would encourage disrespect for all law – an outcome I think we can see all around us today.
    Alice Springs is being over-run by urban drifters who see alcohol not as a problem but as a solution. A perhaps sizable percentage of the resident population feel the same. Dealing with that goes way beyond alcohol restrictions, but closing the bottle shops on one day a week would give everyone a much needed break.

  5. @ Hal.
    When I first worked with camels I asked the cameleer about water consumption He replied: Water? I only drink coke mate.
    Later on, our business supplied iced water to our tourist friends and regular customers, (black and white), every day for years. Well over 10,000 cups were used annually.
    We did this as it was the right thing to do. The police thought we were nuts and even accused us of being grog-runners!
    We knew that when Howard and Brough (June 2007), announced the Federal Intervention into our blackfellow friends that the Alice would not be a town worth living in five years hence.
    The likes of Steve Brown would be happy to blame do-gooders like us but alas, life is not that simple is it Steve?
    The Howard government must be held to account in terms of the decline of Alice Springs. Poor old Damien, the best we can say of his time is that he may have been a good mayor for good times.
    You’ve gotta start asking the hard questions as Russell Guy is doing. The kids run the place and they they ain’t gonna give that power up tomorrow.
    What will save the Alice from continual decline?
    Not statehood John, to be sure.
    A fine start would be to give your livers a break and drink 12 glasses of water every day.
    Diana Whitehouse … and dear anon writers put your name.

  6. Most social policies and forms of law enforcement seeking to control or influence human behaviour have unintended consequences. Examples include the intervention and the outrageous lack of resourcing to enable Alice Springs to manage the very high levels of urban drift that followed. I reluctantly enter the debate about alcohol management because I don’t fully understand the issues. So I’m inclined to defer to those whose knowledge and judgment I trust. Despite the ability of alcoholics to circumvent “control” measures I suspect the banned drinker register is very good policy. Time will tell. I also fully support Russell Guy, Hal Duell and others in their prolonged calls for takeaway free days.
    I believe this single issue needs to be examined with objectivity and urgency by the new Town Council. Sundays are a no brainer and there would be merit in going much further. I can’t accept that our collective “rights” to buy takeaway grog every day should stand in the way of a society attempting to stem the current chaos, thousands of lives lost and broken. The massive alcohol abuse attributed to takeaway might suit a few mercenary retailers and a tragic handful that enjoy seeing others in a state of dysfunction and distress. But I don’t think most residents want to live in a dog eat dog world.
    As an employer, teacher and friend I’ve had modest success trying to manage / support “recovering” alcoholics, black and white, in the various stages of this disease. It makes no sense to me to keep the takeaway tap running at full speed and place all our faith in the expensive options of law enforcement and mandatory rehabilitation. I met one man who claimed to have been through seven treatment programs! I’d recommend reading the extensive living with alcohol research initiated by Marshall Peron during his term as Chief Minister in the 1980s. Also google references on the stages of alcoholism and you will realize that our society has very little leverage that can be applied to those with a dangerous ADDICTION, often without hope, without an employer to coerce / encourage them, or a wife or husband who is sober, supportive or threatening to leave or any visible community peer pressure for that matter. The situation is dire. In some parts of town, hard-core drinkers actually form the dominant and growing critical masses and they are recruiting others at a shocking rate. I made a similar observation in a letter to the editor a decade ago.
    A day or two or three without takeaway will help to divert drinkers back into licenced venues where responsible behaviors can develop. A preemptive hand on the shoulder, “sorry mate you’ve had enough, can I call you a taxi” or “have a spell from drinking, eat something and maybe afterwards you can have another beer”. This feels very much like back to the future. Stopping take-away sales for a while will provide a circuit breaker to family drinking, some respite – a reminder of what it’s like to feel normal and live in a normal neighborhood. I really question the humanity of those who offer personal inconvenience as a counter argument in this debate. I’m happy to discuss “prohibition” one-liners and both the consequences and fear mongering of that too – maybe later.


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