By ERWIN CHLANDA
The public can have the power to guide policies and actions controlling alcohol use and abuse, and in the Liquor Commission it has a powerful instrument.
The word “public” features prominently in the description of the instrumentality by its new chair, appointed for three years, long-time Alice Springs resident Russell Goldflam (pictured).
The Commission’s job is to “minimise the harm with the consumption of liquor in a way that recognises the interest in the public in the supply, sale, service and promotion and consumption of liquor,” he says.
“It’s a balancing act between minimising alcohol related harm and recognising that we live in a community where liquor is consumed and sold.
“We don’t give advice. We make decisions,” says Mr Goldflam, within the confines of the NT Liquor Act, which is passed and amended from time to time by the Parliament whose members, of course, are elected by the public.
“The Commission has to be satisfied that decisions it makes are in the public interest and that they will not have a substantially adverse affect on the community. We have to assess what’s in the public interest,” says Mr Goldflam.
The government’s views are represented at Commission hearings by the Director of the Office of Liquor Licensing or a representative.
The Commission’s functions are granting liquor licenses, setting conditions of licenses, dealing with complaints and conducting enquiries into the conditions of liquor licenses.
Without “knocking on every door” the Commission canvasses public views, including through open hearings.
Decisions are reviewable, including by the NT Civil and Administrative Tribunal and by the Supreme Court.
The recent reintroduction of dry areas in the bush and the town camps are an example of public participation: Locals are able to “opt in” the presence of liquor, if they have a 60% majority.
The commission has broad powers.
A case in point was Tennant Creek’s Thirsty Thursday, introduced in the mid-1990s: No bottle shop sales on that day, which was also the day all Federal welfare payments were made.
The scheme fell in a heap when the Feds decided to spread the payments across the week, an example of governments not only failing to cooperate, but in fact acting against each other.
We now have the thirsty Monday and Tuesday in Alice Springs, a supposedly temporary introduction by the Minister for Alcohol Policy, expected to result in drops of domestic violence on those days.
Mandating “thirsty” days is a device available to the Commission. How about four days? Six – if it prevents many violent deaths?
Mr Goldflam says just one take-away day a week, albeit with no quantity limits, and on the day before welfare payments, again bundled into a single day, has never been “seriously” proposed, to his knowledge: “It doesn’t strike me that would be achieving the sort of balance the Liquor Act requires us to implement.”
Would it be in the Commission’s power to introduce such extensive restrictions?
“Yes, the Liquor Commission would have the power to do that, but it would not exercise that power without going through the procedures that the Liquor Act establishes.
“It would have an enquiry, and in the end it can issue a notice of proposed variation of licence conditions, give 28 days for licensees to respond. After that the Commission makes its final decision.”
The issue of the “bona fide traveller” entitled to buy alcohol on “thirsty” days was considered by the Commission in the Barkly some years ago.
Mr Goldflam says that in that case it accepted submissions from the police and others that it “would not be practical to separate bona fide traveller from everyone else”.
It is clearly a grisly lotto: Liquor for lives.
Is there such a thing as a human right to drink alcohol – similar to the rights to free speech or religion or assembly?
Mr Goldflam says the Queensland government consulted “over years” with people in the state’s north about issues related to that question.
“Different people had different views.”
There was no consensus about very serious restrictions in various parts, including Palm Island.
An appeal went all the way to the High Court. It was asked to answer: Is there a right to drink?
“The court upheld the Queensland legislation,” says Mr Goldflam.
“There is not an unfettered right to drink. The government has a responsibility to regulate the supply of alcohol. The right to live safely overrode objections to restrictions.”
Mr Goldflam obtained a law degree in 1995 following a 10 year career in adult education in Alice Springs. He was the Managing Solicitor of the Northern Territory Legal Aid Commission’s Alice Springs office from 2001 until his retirement from legal practice in 2018. He is a former president of the Criminal Lawyers Association of the Northern Territory and continues to serve on a variety of boards, committees and advisory groups.
He is also a musician performing at many charity functions in The Alice.
Meanwhile a media release from the Opposition yesterday claimed, in alarming tones, that “the corner store has been a cornerstone of suburban life for generations but it could become a thing of the past under Labor’s chaotic alcohol policies.
“Outgoing Liquor Commissioner Richard Coates today hinted at a bleak future for small grocery stores as the Commission enforces Labor’s 25% cap on liquor sales.”
Quoting Shadow Minister for Business Marie-Clare Boothby the release said: “The government set a cap on alcohol sales at an arbitrary 25% of total sales but there is no evidence to show a cap of 25% will reduce alcohol-related harm.”
The 25% rule came into force in October 2020 with a grace period of 12 months.
The Commission is required to deal with complaints that are referred to it, usually by the Director of Liquor Licensing.
Since coming into force there have been five referrals. Two were withdrawn and three breaches, including the Milner Road Foodtown in Gason Street, were found proven.
In May 2019, before the introduction of the measure, it came under fire from the general manager at the time of the three IGA stores.
PHOTO at top: Police car used by Point of Sale Intervention (POSI) auxiliary police in front of Alice Springs store with a bottle shop attached. According to police, the annual direct staffing cost of maintaining POSIs at the premises is almost $160,000.