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Australian Indigenous HealthBulletin Alcohol and other drugs knowledge centre Yarning Places

High Court upholds alcohol restrictions on Palm Island

Date posted: 20 June 2013

The High Court has dismissed an appeal claiming the alcohol management plan on the Queensland Aboriginal community of Palm Island breached the Racial Discrimination Act.

The court's full bench heard the case brought by a Palm Island woman, Joan Maloney, whose lawyers argue her alcohol-related conviction was based on a racist law. A majority of judges found while the law was inconsistent with the Act, they ruled it did not apply because the alcohol management plans were exempted under ‘special measure' provisions.

Palm Island woman Joan Monica Maloney was convicted in 2010 under Queensland laws restricting alcohol in 19 Aboriginal and Torres Strait island communities. Australia's High Court has ruled that while the law is racially discriminatory, it is a ‘special measure' under the Racial Discrimination Act, and so is exempt.

Peter Coombe, the lawyer representing Ms Maloney said,  ‘My personal view is that any legislation which has the effect of turning decent, honest people, which is what the majority of residents of Palm Island are, of turning them into reluctant criminals by virtue of purchasing alcohol, is a bad law.'

Palm Island's mayor, Alf Lacey, said, ‘I think it is disappointing. alcohol, yes it is a problem in our community. It's also a problem in a lot of non-Indigenous communities too, but I don't see any 'special measures' being implemented in those communities. Palm is like every other community: you'll always have a rotten egg in the crowd tarnishing everyone with the same brush. It's probably not the best way to implement 'special measures' into a community.'

The full bench of the High Court in Canberra said the special measure provision of the Racial Discrimination Act allows laws like the alcohol management plans because they protect the residents of communities like Palm Island from the effect of alcohol abuse and related violence.

The Queensland government and the minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, Glen Elmes, applauded the decision.‘The Queensland government is very pleased with the result and we can now continue to work with the community of Palm Island - and all the discrete [separate] communities for that matter - so that the review of our alcohol management plans progress not only for the benefit of Palm, but all the discrete communities.'

There was also relief from the Queensland Police Union, who feared lifting the alcohol restrictions would result in a flood of alcohol into the communities.

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Mick Gooda, says governments must now renew efforts to tackle alcohol and violence, using a community-based approach.

‘We decided as a commission to intervene in this case not to take sides but argue the principle of equality before the law, and to clarify the issue around the application of 'special measures' and the issue around consultation and consent. We'd argue that we've got to do something in Australia about the affect of alcohol abuse, the violence in our communities, but we'd also argue that the best response is where the community takes responsibility.'

The High Court decision ends a long journey for Ms Maloney who was fined $150 in 2010 for possessing bottles of rum and whisky on Palm Island.

Source: SBS News and World News Australia Radio


Last updated: 20 June 2013
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