Trouble in Alice – why is government failing?


p2309-police-bottle-shop-1COMMENT by PETER TAIT
I’ve just read Kieran Finnane’s book Trouble: on trial in Central Australia (UQP, 2016) and have written this response to take the stories told so compellingly into the next phase – thinking about  what can be done instead of just putting up with more troubles.
A complex of troubles emerges in the book: historical, racial, class and educational tensions playing out as clashing world views. Fuelling the explosion of these troubles onto the front pages, into people’s consciousness and into the courts is alcohol. Not only an accelerant, alcohol availability blocks and undermines all attempts to construct a solution.
But the issue really isn’t alcohol and its availability and use. The real culprit here, not just in the NT (despite Northern Territorians being renowned in song and statistics, as Ted Egan puts it “bloody good drinkers”) but throughout Australia, is a failure of government in its duty to care for its citizens.
Why is government failing? Several intersecting factors contribute.
Alcohol control here is very similar to gun control in the United States. Alcohol use is generally and widely accepted in our daily lives. Sparingly used it is enjoyable, relaxing, helping us have fun. For a minority, guns provide an avenue for fun and personal achievement through sport and recreational use. A smaller minority need guns in their work.
The major difference between the US and the rest of the world is that every other nation has transferred the duty of civil protection to the state not left it in the hands of the citizen. The US has a dual system. Consequently firearm mortality there is an order of magnitude higher than elsewhere outside of failed nation states.
But the underlying assumption that an individual has a right to bear arms or to buy and consume alcohol rests in the same historical libertarian tradition. This sees the role of the state to only protect property and facilitate a market economy. It argues for small government and ridicules any unnecessary government intervention as ‘nanny statism’. Of course the rub here is the definition of ‘unnecessary’. This is not, however, how the argument is usually posed.
Two fascinating consequences of this worldview pertain to our discussion of guns and alcohol.
a2328-Kieran-book-coverFirstly, despite resistance to regulation of guns or alcohol because of a person’s rights to exercise liberty in using either within a market economy model, linked as this is to demands for small government, the strife caused by the use of guns and especially alcohol in the Northern Territory actually requires bigger government in terms of policing and health care, rehabilitation services, social and other services as the immediate and cross-generational harms unfold.
Secondly, similarly to the aftermath of the global financial crisis when we were told the banks who had triggered the chaos were too big to fail and the tax payers had to bail them out, opponents to government intervention in the firearms or alcohol markets are the ones calling for increases in policing and security, and, in the case of alcohol, for rehabilitation services to be provided by tax payers or charitable institutions.
I recall one of the withdrawing Republican candidates summarising this neatly as he called on remaining candidates to continue to uphold Republican values of small government and a big military. It exposes the inherent internal contradiction in the neolibertarian philosophy, which is just not visible to most of us and especially those espousing it.
Apart from a philosophical or ideological position, why would alcohol or gun sellers contest restriction to sales of their products? I think the answer is pretty obvious. At a local level, like all business, they need to have sales to make an income to pay their workers and derive a profit. Behind the local businesses looms a large industry of manufacturers who also depend on local sales of their product. In our current economic model this means building market share and that means increasing use of their particular product and building use of their product overall. Put simplistically, more gun ownership and more alcohol buying. Locally, it doesn’t matter if the bought alcohol is drunk or poured into the sand within two kilometres of a liquor outlet.
Logically to protect and build its market, producers and sellers need to oppose any restriction to use of their products. To do this they lobby governments, and they donate to political parties. Hard numbers are obscure; while middle order donors, identifiable alcohol and hospitality (excluding gaming) industry donations to the three major political parties Australia wide in 2014-15 were in the order of half a million dollars. The recent ABC 4 Corners episode (23 May 2016) on political donations showed how this works.
This is where government failure comes in. The political power of the industries unduly influences the decision-making within government. In our modern political system we accept this is how the system works unquestioningly; of course that’s what industries do.
But the consequences of this warping of decisions are the harms we are experiencing and the costs we are paying financially through increased government expenditure that robs government of capacity to spend on say health and education, and the personal cost we suffer directly from the harms of alcohol use here or gun violence in the US.
In effect a part of the profits of these industries comes from us accepting to pay these costs ourselves or through our taxes.
This raises a set of ethical questions that are of real practical importance for how we want our community to be. The answers will direct how we build stronger community and manage the historical racial and class tensions we are living with. I have my own answers to these but as a community we need to negotiate our own answers.
The questions go to the heart of our political philosophies. Focusing now on alcohol, the questions include: how much alcohol related harm do we as a community accept? What restriction to personal freedom do we accept so that everyone can benefit from a reduction in alcohol violence and strife? How does government protect its citizens from industries whose product, when used to excess, creates so much harm for everyone?
Only in teasing out these answers and as citizens requiring government to act on them can we together reduce our losses from alcohol harms, and enjoy its benefits sensibly. We can choose to just keep helping to pay the alcohol industry’s costs, or we can make our governments do their job and look after our, the peoples’, interests, and in the end have calmer and safer life.
Peter Tait is a general practitioner, now in Canberra, who worked at Congress in Alice Springs for 30 years.
Note: You can hear Kieran Finnane discuss Trouble with Paul Barclay on Radio National’s Big Ideas here.


  1. This is brilliant, Peter, well done – a concise and thoughtful analysis of the widespread and long-term malaise that afflicts our society, to which so many of us remain consistently blind.

  2. Thanks Peter. Well argued.
    This is a conversation that NEEDs to be had. Alas, one of many. A key addition to this debate is the disproportional allocation of costs and benefits embedded into the free market system. The benefits (profits) go to the manufacturers and purveyors of these harmful goods. Furthermore, the market systems fully support and protect their industry.
    Meanwhile conservative, and even non-conservative politicians perpetuate the skewed impression by rattling on about jobs & growth. So the peddlers make a quid. And society foots the bill. The hapless drinkers, the addicted, their friends, family & associates confront the consequences of excess alcohol consumption. Quality of life spirals downward.
    And perhaps most tragically, a generation of kids are now borne with diminished cognitive and reasoning skills due to embryonic doses of alcohol at a critical time while their brains were developing. These innocent folk are deprived the capacity to make sound decisions, and their lives end in tatters. They are indeed victims, but relentlessly portrayed as perpetrators of bad behaviour & petty crime.
    The sins are that society assumes they have the capacity to choose wisely but elect NOT to do so. Incarceration, and the brutality they face while institutionalized merely provides them additional motivation, skills & friends to escalate to more serious crime.
    It is a huge issue. So the much touted ‘user pays’ should apply. The full social costs of alcohol need to be affixed appropriately – to the profits.

  3. Excellent article, I just hope that people who have the power to make the changes, do so, hopefully with the co-operation of the general public.

  4. @2 Liz, one of the major profiteer of alcohol is government itself. The federal govt collects the alcohol excise variously imposed on the quantity of alcohol or on the price, not alcohol level. The state & territory govts collect the GST. So both have little incentive to reduce alcohol consumption. Then add to the mix the lobbyists who work for the alcohol industry and it’s easy to see why govts simply avoid making real changes. They are also fearful of public reaction.

  5. I believe that we spend too much time chasing down the culprits of problems rather than examine why human suffering is growing. The welfare mentality and high government employment is out of balanced with those who are paying taxes through working in private enterprise. We cannot continue on this ferris wheel of inequality. It has given rise to an us and them mentality that has ensured a sense of inequality that has led to drugs and alcohol as a pain relief to personal instability.
    Governments all over Australia deliberately restricted land release and reduced government housing stocks.
    This has resulted in total mayhem and personal suffering by a large proportion of the population and that in turn has given rise to hate anger and social discord.
    Children need a home. Parents need to have the ability to raise a family with the ability to do so.
    In Alice we are a community of under 30,000 people and we have lack of housing. We have kids in foster care in big numbers. Drug and alcohol issues that are growing. And money thrown at all the NGOs to deal with it. And the outcomes are 0.
    Our prisons are full and angry kids are on the streets. It needs change. It needs compassionate ethical people to be challenged to not fix the problems. To reduce as much as possible the basic reasons for this happening. We can turn this around.

  6. And here I thought the Government was there to work FOR the people, not to tell the people what they can and can’t do. Where does personal responsibility start now?

  7. @1 @3 @4, Erin, personal responsibility is constrained by the social system we live in.
    Rather than expect people to make extraordinary determined exercise of will, government’s responsibility is to make the good-for-everyone choices the easy choices.
    Within these we can exercise our responsibility.
    June, it is we the people who have the power to hold our elected representatives to account by becoming organised politically.
    And Mark is correct; but does this income really balance and offset against the costs we are all bearing to support the profits of the alcohol industry?


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