ABOVE: The Alice watering hole formerly (when this video was shot) known as the Animal Bar.
By ERWIN CHLANDA
The new Liquor Commission’s principal function is to implement the government’s policies on alcohol, according to one of the two commissioners in Alice Springs, Blair McFarland (at right).
The long time campaigner on substance abuse and the driving force behind the introduction of the un-sniffable petrol, Opal, says the commission is obliged to “consult” with the public. But he also says: “I don’t think this is a democratic process or a process where the average person in the street is consulted about it.”
Mr McFarland heads up the Central Australian Youth Link Up Service (CAYLUS) which is a division of Tangentyere Council, but he stresses he is speaking in this interview as a private citizen and not on behalf of Tangentyere Council.
NEWS: The commission seems to be offering an opportunity for the public to go straight to the decision maker about who sells alcohol and on what conditions, bypassing political figures and instrumentalities who for decades have mostly failed to fix the grog problem. What will you be pushing for as a member of the commission?
McFARLAND:Although politicians have not been the best in the past, it is to the credit of the current NT Government that they have re-instated the Liquor Commission after the previous government shut it down and made decisions behind closed doors.
NEWS: The alcohol problems seem to be getting worse, not better.
McFARLAND: There is political will and a will in the community. We’ve had enough, we want it to stop. The major wins we had in petrol sniffing, something like a 94% reduction, were through supply reduction strategies. I am an absolute believer in the power of supply reduction. The mood in the community is right to make some changes, to cut back on the damage.
NEWS: How would these restrictions function? 70% of alcohol is bought from bottle shops. In discussions about take-away liquor, most people mention on-line shopping. Would that make obtaining alcohol more difficult but not more expensive?
McFARLAND: That’s true, you can get alcohol on line. But the demographic of people who are the really serious substance abusers are not getting it on line. They are exiting the pubs at two o’clock, when they can get cheaper wine at take-aways, they are moving in a wave across town creating chaos and disturbances in their path, and then they get taxis away from the CBD to go and drink somewhere else.
NEWS: Exactly! How will you stop that?
McFARLAND: One way is to have cops in the bottle shops, that’s proved to be an extremely good method of reducing supply. The [Justice Trevor] Riley Review recommended keeping cops on the bottle shops until other strategies can be implemented. At the moment we’ve got that magic wand that can vastly reduce the amount of alcohol getting in the hands of people who shouldn’t have it. It was the police’s idea initially, years ago. It’s a resource issue for the police but it’s such a drastic but effective tool. These are drastic circumstances. It’s like a tourniquet. The community is haemorrhaging.
NEWS: Do you see the commission as a source of initiatives or as a body dealing with initiatives put before it?
McFARLAND: I understand the commission will be reviewing any licence applications, review existing licences, if a pub wants to stay open until three in the morning, that sort of stuff. It will have a role in complaints referred by the Director of Licencing. That’s where the functional role of the Liquor Commission is.
NEWS: Does it shape policy?
McFARLAND: There is already a policy. Everything I’ve said to you so far is part of the Riley Review, a really well thought-out document which the NT Government is considering at the moment … to form a liquor policy, making sure the community has lots of access into these decisions, which is what the Liquor Commission is all about – public hearings, capacity for considering the community’s well-being, and so on.
NEWS: Is the Liquor Commission bound by the public view, if is is expressed by a clear majority?
McFARLAND: It is not a democratic process. Are you proposing we have a referendum on every licence application? How would you know what the pubic want unless you did some sort of time consuming democratic process? The commission takes submissions from the public and then makes its decision based on that. They look at what comes in and they look at policy.
NEWS: Who sets the policy?
McFARLAND: The government. That’s why we have governments.
NEWS: Are you saying the Liquor Commission enforces government policy?
McFARLAND: Yep. I’m pretty sure that’s what it is. And I don’t see the Liquor Commission would be making policy on the run. I don’t think we have to. The Riley Review is brilliant.
NEWS: Should the commission communicate with the broad public?
McFARLAND: Yes, we should. I will be making myself available to a great degree. [Mr McFarland says over many years he has built a rapport with media, mostly to publicise the CAYLUS initiatives in curbing petrol sniffing.]
NEWS: When there is a difference of opinion between the government and clearly expressed views of the public, which should prevail?
McFARLAND: When you say clearly expressed views of the public, what do you mean?
NEWS: The commission is obliged to communicate with the public. How will you be doing that? How do you find out what the public wants?
McFARLAND: Like I said, it’s not a democracy. This isn’t a process where there is going to be a referendum on every decision. What do you mean by public? It will have capacity on input. That will be advertised, the signs will go up on the premises. This will be collected, collated, read by the commission, considered. That’s the community input. There is no better way to do it. Consultation isn’t the same as letting the public make the decision.
NEWS: If the sum total of the public input is in a certain direction, in favour of a certain action, and that is in conflict with what the government wants to do, who should prevail?
McFARLAND: That would depend on the policy.
And the policy, as Mr McFarland has said earlier, is made by the government.