Rehab of drunks is secondary to getting them off the streets, says A-G


Crime stats released: there is little difference in the number of alcohol-related assaults in Alice between 2010-11 and the BDR year, 2011-12, however alcohol-related assaults in Alice have increased by 47% since 2007. 
KIERAN FINNANE speaks to NT Attorney-General John Elferink. UPDATED: September 27, 10.25am.
The success of the government’s mandatory rehabilitation of habitual drunks will be measured by things like fewer protective custodies, fewer presentations at accident and emergency departments  – the usual benchmark indicators of social order, says the Territory’s new Attorney-General John Elferink (pictured at left).  And while the 800 or so “frequent flyers”, as he calls them, are incarcerated in the “camps” intended for them,  they will be off the streets – and that also will be  a measure of success.
“Frequent flyers” means the individuals repeatedly picked up by police because of their intoxication. “Everyone knows who they are”, he says – the people seen staggering around or sleeping in the streets and malls, and in the case of Alice Springs, in the Todd River. Whether or not these people actually rehabilitate will be a by-product of the process.
Mr Elferink says their three months in custody will provide them with an opportunity to “revisit their world view”. He knows not everybody will change but there will be a genuine attempt to help them achieve a good health outcome using the criminal justice system. If they pursue their drinking, hopefully they will at least be “more discreet” after their incarceration, he says.
The government is fully aware of how expensive the program will be, says Mr Elferink: “Just one of these camps will cost $30m to $40m.” But accident and emergency departments full of the victims of drunken assaults are also expensive; policing drunks for “no net effect” is likewise a massive drawdown on government revenue. The savings made in these areas, by having habitual drunks sobering up in a secure facility, will help pay for the program.
He says the debate around how to address the Territory’s issues with drunkenness splits into two camps: the one that he and his government is in, which holds that drinkers must take responsibility for their drinking; the other that the former government was in, which holds that the community carries some of that responsibility.
Our cartoon by Rod Moss was first published in 1998. Public drinkers continue to be the focus of the NT’s alcohol policy, with polarised views around supply restrictions versus tougher law enforcement. See below for a 1998 report from our archive.
The prevailing drinking culture includes the “vast majority” of people who drink in a culturally appropriate way, argues Mr Elferink, and they deserve relief from excessive inconvenience, such as producing ID when they purchase alcohol, adding to an already heavily regulated industry: “The Territory’s Liquor Act is a substantially thicker document than our Criminal Code.
There’s also “the ugly end” of the drinking culture – individuals engaging in conduct contrary to the public interest. They have to be held responsible for that conduct, he says, just as they would if they were driving on the wrong side of the road or committing an act of violence.
(Interestingly, a country with a long experience – over 90 years – of mandatory rehabilitation is Sweden. In a 2004 report to the NSW Legislative Council on that state’s Inebriates Act, Dr Richard Matthews of NSW Health commented: “The Swedish society is somewhat different to ours. They, as a community, have accepted that the State has a degree of responsibility for the individuals that we, as a nation of somewhat rugged individualists, possibly would not accept.”)
Is Mr Elferink concerned about timelines? “Of course, it’s a big program and will require care and time for its implementation.” But that’s not an argument for holding over the Banned Drinkers Register, which he says had “no real effect”: addicts were still able to access their drink and were still getting taken into protective custody. He’s seen “numbers coming through” from his department that suggest there continued to be an increase in drunken violence while the BDR was in operation.
As a final point Mr Elferink signals a future area of focus – the nexus between welfare dependency and drunkenness. The Federal Government is an “important player” in this scenario, he says, injecting millions every fortnight into the jurisdiction, fuelling the conduct that the NT Government then spends millions on policing. That needs to be “attended to”.
Shortly after Mr Elferink spoke to the Alice Springs News Online, the Chief Minister released crime statistics that had been delayed by the previous government – a release to be welcomed in principle. As far as the BDR is concerned there is only one year’s worth of statistics to look at (hardly proof of anything, one way or the other). Alice Springs assault figures for the four quarters in 2011-12 (the period of the BDR rollout) look like this: 373, 448, 475, 403 (total = 1699). For 2010-11 (pre-BDR) they look like this: 410, 450, 455, 398 (total = 1713). A difference of only 14, which could be accounted for by normal fluctuations. The percentage of assaults where alcohol was involved looks like this: in 2011-12: 68.4%, 68.5%, 65.9%, 69.0%; in 2010-11: 71.2%, 67.8%, 67.7%, 64.3%.
Overall, the NT experienced a 5.1% increase in assaults for the BDR year. Overall offences against the person across the Territory were also  up by 3.5%, while overall property offences also increased during the same period by 2.4%.
Meanwhile Minister for Central Australia Robyn Lambley says the crime statistics released today reveal there were more assaults in Alice Springs (1699) than in Darwin (1564).
“From June 2011 to June 2012, 68% of assault offences in Alice Springs involved alcohol, which is shockingly 47% more than five years ago. If the BDR scheme really worked like Labor said it did – why isn’t there a significant reduction in these statistics?
“Today’s crime statistics also show that for the same period there were 2,126 property damage offences in Alice Springs, 15% more than the  previous year and up 27% more than five years ago,” says Ms Lambley.
Ms Lambley will meet with stakeholders in Alice Springs next Friday, October 5, to discuss all aspects of alcohol policy in the NT:  “Government is serious about tackling alcohol abuse and preventing further alcohol related deaths, like that of Kwementyaye Briscoe,” she says.
Note: Ms Lambley says the percentage of assaults that are alcohol-related is 47% more than five years ago. However, the percentages for 2012 and 2007 are roughly the same. What has increased by 47% is the raw number of alcohol-related assaults in Alice, up from 782 in 2007 to 1153 in 2012.
Alice Springs News, February 25, 1998
A Labor politician has called for a “zero tolerance” strategy on public drinking as the furore continues over the application for a take-away licence by the Aboriginal drinking club, Tyeweretye, just south of the Gap [ED – now the Apmere Mere visitors’ centre]. Meanwhile the group advocating the ban of take-away alcohol during two days a week says it is getting closer to its objective, as the drawn-out forum about alcohol problems resolves to include “availability” on its agenda.
Stuart MLA Peter Toyne says a “grog war” in the Gap Area has forced Tyeweretye to make the application. He says the Queen of the Desert Hotel [ED – now Gapview] has lured away patrons from the Aboriginal-controlled club by setting up a bar overtly designed for Aborigines. This is causing Tyeweretye a projected annual $100,000 loss of income, putting the club’s survival at grave risk.
Mr Toyne says he took the role of the devil’s advocate when he announced his support for the club’s take-away plans while “my head tells me they have very little chance of success”. Mr Toyne, who has taken serious flak over his stance, says he wanted to spark a new debate over public drinking “and I don’t mind copping a few kicks on the way through”.
He says preferable to a take-away licence for Tyeweretye is the setting up of three more Aboriginal drinking clubs in Alice Springs, as proposed when Tyeweretye was first mooted. This should be followed immediately by a “zero tolerance” enforcement of the “two kilometre law” which prohibits drinking of alcohol in public within two kilometres of licensed premises, which means practically anywhere in the town.
Once there are “acceptable and appropriate” places for Aborigines to drink, then “we can afford to get very hard line. Hard times justify hard means,” according to Mr Toyne. Aboriginal drinking clubs would have an assured patronage, greatly enhancing their commercial viability, once a stop is put to drinking in public places. He says the zero tolerance strategy, under which even the smallest offences are punished, drastically reduced crime in New York which had a “scale of tragedy, death, illness and disfigurement” similar to Alice Springs.
Mr Toyne says Tyeweretye’s present troubles started when the Queen of the Desert hotel opened a bar at the southern end of its premises, accessed though a separate perimeter gate.The bar itself is reached via a pathway divided off with barbed wire from the remainder of the complex. Hessian sheets attached to the man-high fence block the view from the hotel’s main parking area.
Mr Toyne says drinkers are attracted to the Queen of the Desert bar by its “bright lights” atmosphere, as well as the ready access to a take-away bottle shop, with a drinking location – the Todd River – just across the road. Mr Toyne says investment in the Tyeweretye Club is substantial: about $1.5m was contributed by the Aboriginal Benefits Trust Account (which obtains revenue from mining royalties), by ATSIC and other public funds.
The NT Government “very generously” provided the land free of charge.These donations save the club at least $200,000 a year in capital costs when compared to similar commercial enterprises. The club has 3000 members from both bush communities and town lease areas, 1000 of whom signed a petition for a take-away licence. Tyeweretye has 400 “visitations” a week: these people would “flood into the town” to do their drinking if the club closed down.
The proximity of the club was linked to an attack on an elderly woman at Old Timers’ Village, just across the Stuart Highway. However, Mr Toyne says there was evidence that the assailant (sentenced to a 12 month gaol sentence late last year) had been drinking north of the Gap, and was on his way home to one of the Aboriginal living areas to the south. Mr Toyne says enforcement of the two kilometre law and other “zero tolerance” strategies should not be left to the police alone.
Toyne: ‘Tough enforcement better than restrictions’
A boosted force of night patrol, Aboriginal community police officers and grog wardens should be on the “front line”. He says: “I believe tough enforcement would be a better way than restrictions to reduce take-away sales.”
The owner of the Queen of the Desert Hotel, Wayne Case, said when asked for a comment: “I don’t want to become involved in anything. Ive invested my money in the Territory. I’m happy to be doing what I’m doing.”
Mr Toyne says he will continue to push for a single alcohol task force, bringing together the diverse groups dealing with the issues at the moment. He says Chief Minister Shane Stone had promised such a task force, but the idea had “popped out of sight” straight after the elections.
Meanwhile the forum sponsored by the Drug and Alcohol Services Association (DASA) last week resolved to include “availability” of alcohol on its agenda. This will lead to discussions about banning take-aways on Thursdays and Sundays, something DASA steadfastly opposed during the forum’s first year of deliberations.
Barbara Curr, a member of the People’s Alcohol Action Coalition, which is advocating Tennant Creek style trading restrictions, says she is “delighted” about the forum’s change of tack. She says it took place at last week’s session of the forum when members, including Tangentyere’s Mike Bowden, and ministers of religion Gerald Beaumont and Murray Lund, advocated a broadening of the group’s focus.
Forum member Shane Arnfield, who presented to the Liquor Commission an anti-restrictions petition with more than 5000 signatures in November, 1996, says he accepts that restrictions are now part of the debate. He will continue to take part in the forum but oppose restrictions, and he will be keeping a close eye on the current review of the Tennant Creek measures. He says many locals are saying to him: “Keep it up, Shane.”
He says the forum should discuss “wet canteens” on Aboriginal settlements. Drinkers there would be under pressure from their peers and elders to “toe the line” while they do not have that “guidance” when drinking in town. Mr Arnfield says in addition, he favours the establishment of more drinking clubs in Alice Springs so drinkers could learn to consume alcohol “in a more sociable way”.


  1. Robyn Lambley asks “if the BDR scheme really worked like Labor said it did – why isn’t there a significant reduction in these (assault) statistics?”
    One part of the answer is that it was only operational for six months and it wasn’t designed to be a silver bullet. It was part of a multi-pronged approach to a massive problem and this tactic has been endorsed by other states and alcohol policy reform organisations, but the CL have demonised the BDR for political, rather than policy reasons.
    As such, we are living with a reactive policy direction in the NT – anyone on the ground knows this and with respect Robyn, I haven’t seen you around the roadhouse scene where the BDR was becoming an instrument for change.
    It sent a positive message on a psychological behavioral level that was not given a chance to play out, so your question is immature. Police and the licensees I’m acquainted with gave it a thumbs up in the MacDonnell Shire region and I personally know of whitefellers who voluntarily registered as a means of trying to curb their alcoholism.
    I witnessed Indigenous drinkers astonished at its overnight dismantling. They couldn’t believe that the grog was on again and took it as an abandonment of the government’s attempt to show some interest in their alcoholic lives. A supply measure, no less!
    The Attorney General talks about the Liquor Act being thicker than the Criminal Code, but that’s because it’s a filter for massive supply more than anything else. Trading on his days as a police officer is a blunt reminder that numerous research organisations have offered better reasons for a different approach and been ignored.
    Unfortunately, the Elferink model supports a drinking culture, while the W.A.’s now supports the BDR.

  2. The public hears a lot about “political spin” and the Attorney General Elferink is proving to be a champion of the “spin camp”. Unfortunately, to date, Deputy Chief Minister Robyn Lambley seems to be out of her depth with the lightweight public statements she has given so far on alcohol and education policies.
    How a defence can be mounted for the decision to scrap the BDR, while it was still in its infancy, is beyond me.

  3. People are getting fed up with the large number of presentations by drunks at the emergency department. Believe me or not, the drunks just laugh at everybody when the people try to help them and the drunks think it’s a big joke. Honestly this is no laughing matter because everybody who present themselves at emergency departments truly determines the true status of the hospitals. The Territory hospitals could have and should have been much further ahead of their current status. We should have been developing new treatments and helping the more genuine cases by now but the hospitals can’t because the resources are being taken up by drunks. We the general population suffer as usual.

  4. William, you could consider joining the push for a take-away sales free day regime which would give everybody, including the drunks a break. This idea has been seriously pushed for some time, but the cynics refuse to see anything other than punitive demand measure reform.
    Profit before people unto the rehab prison won’t stop a 40 year gestation of alcohol industry proliferation in the centre because it’s an Australia-wide drinking culture promotion. Welcome to the nightmare on Todd Street. Take-away free sales days, yeah!


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