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Alcohol abuse costs the Northern Territory (NT) about $642 million annually in police time, corrections, judicial support, medical treatment and lost productivity - equivalent to roughly $4000 per person or 4 1/2 times the national average - according to research quoted by the government last year. The latest figures show per capita alcohol consumption is again on the rise, ending a six-year decline. Last financial year saw almost 40% more alcohol-related assaults and almost 60% more domestic violence related assaults than the equivalent period five years ago.
Since the Country Liberal Party (CLP) took office 18 months ago, Aboriginal groups and legal and health policy experts have accused the Territory government of criminalising drunkenness, ignoring evidence and favouring the interests of the alcohol industry.
The CLP's first act in office was to abolish Labor's Banned Drinker Register (BDR), a point-of-sale supply restriction designed to curb heavy drinking. For almost a year, while the new government convulsed with internal ructions, nothing replaced the BDR. Then less than a month after Giles took power in March, his government unveiled a forced alcohol rehabilitation program called Alcohol Mandatory Treatment (AMT). The scheme, which has been running for seven months, involves sentencing habitual drinkers to treatment centres with fences and guards.
Associated legislation was passed in the face of vocal opposition. At about $43,000 per drinker treated, AMT is more expensive than many private rehabilitation clinics. More than 150 people have completed the program. Alcohol Rehabilitation Minister, Robyn Lambley, says some patients have had their lives changed, but others are known to have relapsed.
A doctor who played a key role in establishing AMT, Lee Nixon, walked out in disgust. 'A large number of (AMT patients) had little understanding of the process, and at the end of the time when they were there, were still asking, 'Why am I here?',' Nixon told ABC's Lateline. 'At the outset it was clear that we were introducing a program with no evidential base for effectiveness.' One drinker had her treatment order overturned by a court on the grounds she received it without proper legal representation. Justice groups say few drinkers appear before the AMT Tribunal with a lawyer.
Before Christmas, a system of on-the-spot alcohol bans, Alcohol Protection Orders (APO), was also legislated, again despite opposition. These affect people charged with, but not necessarily convicted of, offences in which alcohol was deemed a factor.
Priscilla Collins, Chief Executive of the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency, thinks both AMT and APOs unfairly target the most disadvantaged, who are often also the most visible. 'They will probably end up going back to the long grass,' she says. AMT is now being reviewed.
One new policy that does appear effective is stationing police officers outside bottleshops. Regrettably this has also stirred up racial tension. The officers check drinkers' IDs to see if they live in a proscribed area, and confiscate their purchases if they do. John Boffa, a spokesman for the People's Alcohol Action Coalition, estimates reductions in domestic violence of up to 50% in Alice Springs when police cover all 11 liquor outlets at once.
Combined with AMT's high price tag, the government's measures do not look at all cost effective. Assuming the number of people taking up drinking is proportional to population growth overall, the government would need at least five times the present number of AMT beds just to keep the number of people with alcohol dependency stable. The cost of that would exceed $1 billion by the end of the decade, or roughly 20% of last year's Territory budget.
Alcohol bans in remote communities push drinkers into towns, where their drinking often worsens. Proscribed urban areas leave residents who can legally buy takeaway alcohol unable to legally drink it. Stationing police outside bottleshops increases familial pressure on those living in non-proscribed areas to become involved in the alcohol supply trade; anecdotal evidence suggests the black market is thriving.
Some federally administered draft alcohol management plans are stuck in limbo, in part because it is unclear what the basic requirements are for Aboriginal communities to responsibly manage alcohol themselves. Community leaders often blame disenfranchisement for their giving up on the task. Many people familiar with these issues say the solutions lie not in textbooks or boardroom chats, but in the lives of Aboriginal people.
Source: National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO)