A town like Alice: alcohol and the Intervention

January 17, 2009

Alice Springs, the heart and pulse of Australia. While that is true in terms of location, few Australians know very much about their heart.

Alice is a harsh but strikingly beautiful place, full of spectacular rocky outcrops, gaps and red, red dust, and not far from a mammoth rock. It is a city unlike any other in Australia.

I have family there so visit about twice a year and each time the unique beauty of the view takes my breath away. Each time now, though, I leave with a heavy heart.

In 2007, under what now seems like stage-managed action for maximum impact theatre, the Coalition government's John Howard-Malcolm Brough leadership team sent the Australian army into Northern Territory (NT) Aboriginal communities and suspended the Racial Discrimination Act under new "NT intervention" legislation.

They stridently announced that this was not race-based legislation, despite the fact that it only applies to one race.

Since then, much has been written about the pros and cons of the NT intervention. For me, it is breathtakingly racist and designed to blame the victim.

The immense relief we felt when the new Kevin Rudd Labor government made the wonderful apology to Aboriginal Australians soon after taking office was misplaced. Rudd and the new minister for Indigenous affairs, Jenny Macklin, are extending the Intervention. They are not in a hurry to restore the Racial Discrimination Act.

One major so-called justification for the NT intervention is alcohol abuse. Do Aboriginal people have a problem with alcohol?

Comparative studies of alcohol consumption by Indigenous and non-Indigenous people conducted in rural and remote areas have shown that:

•up to 35% of Indigenous men do not drink alcohol, compared with 12% of non-Indigenous men;

•up to 80% of Indigenous women do not drink alcohol, compared with 19% to 25% of non-Indigenous women; and

•in the NT, 75% of Aboriginal people do not drink alcohol at all.

However, among those Indigenous people who do drink alcohol, the level of consumption is very high. A survey of Indigenous drinkers in Australia showed that 22% of Indigenous people drink at harmful levels, compared to 10% of non-Indigenous people. In the NT, more than two-thirds of Aboriginal male drinkers are classified as "binge drinkers".

There is no doubt that for those who have real alcohol dependency problems, the choices are very limited. There are no rehabilitation units or help to lure people away from alcohol, just prohibition.

Under the NT intervention, half of all welfare payments are now quarantined. Once rent and other essentials are taken into account there is often no money left. Nothing is left for treats for kids, shoes, clothes or birthday presents - nothing left of individual choice.

In Alice, if you go shopping on food voucher day you will see an apartheid-like system of separate aisles for proscribed store card holders. When I tried to join a card-holders queue out of a sense of solidarity, I was told to get in the other aisle.

"The white aisle", I thought to myself. However, Aboriginal people who do not come under the intervention laws can join that lane, so I guess it is for whites and honourary whites. Nothing like a bit of divide-and-conquer to keep people quiet.

The Rudd government is moving to quarantine all welfare payments. I shudder to think of the implications.

It is hot in Alice and I don't mind a cooling drink, so I've made a few treks to the bottlo. The first thing I noticed was that you have to show picture ID to buy grog now, even just one stubby. Every purchase of alcohol is also recorded.

At last, I thought, they are keeping track of the amount of grog that Territorians drink. But no, they couldn't give a fig how much people drink; it's all about controlling what some of them drink.

When I went to a retail outlet at 4pm one day to buy a two-litre cask of wine for a sup over dinner and a bottle of green ginger wine to make my favourite dessert, I was told that neither could be bought until after 6pm. I tried to argue, asking whether I could buy brandy for my dessert instead and the answer was yes. In fact, I could buy enough brandy to make dessert for an army, and scotch and vodka too, indeed any spirits.

And I could buy wine by the bottle too, as much as I wanted so long as I showed ID and signed a statement saying I wouldn't on-sell it to Aboriginal people.

Surely, I asked the store worker, a carton of whiskey is worse for you than a two-litre cask of wine? Then it dawned: green ginger wine, like port, is fairly cheap and is fortified. Blackfellas drink it. They drink cheap cask wine too.

Another facet of the intervention that is unfathomable to me is the practice of erecting signs outside people's homes marking them out as part of a prescribed area. They are like giant bar codes, telling everyone passing by and the inhabitants that the people living behind the signs are different, implied boozers and users of pornography.

It doesn't matter if it is a house full of women and children, there is no getting away from the implications of the sign.

So given all that taxpayers' money, all that inconvenience, not to mention the total inhumanity of it all, is the intervention working? If it is, it is not evident. But prohibition has never worked, anywhere.

One side effect, though, has been the large number of Aboriginal families who have left Alice.

For prescribed people, the intervention follows them, even interstate. However, many Aboriginal people who live in private accommodation, do not receive Centrelink payments and therefore do not come under the prohibitive rules of the intervention, have family members who do.

Providing alcohol to a prescribed person is illegal, even if that person is your brother, cousin, daughter or whoever, and even if you used to regularly have a few beers with them around the barbeque on a weekend. Now, when your relatives turn up for the regular barbie, you can be fined for giving them a drink, and jailed if you repeat this "offense".

Rather than accept the indignity and shame of it all, families have quit their jobs, pulled their kids out of school and left for friendlier environments.

Nothing good can ever come from racism and the NT intervention is racist in the extreme.

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