COMMENT by RUSSELL GUY
Updated July 18, 2012
In the wake of the Victorian Auditor-General’s report into that state’s drinking culture and its range of damning observations that point to its $4.3b p.a. and growing alcohol-abuse problem, there have been a number of other reports this past week, echoing concern about Australia’s dependence on alcohol. In Western Australia, evidence given to the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs, revealed that one in five students at a Kimberley high school (20%) is believed to suffer from Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), where the mother’s alcohol consumption during pregnancy causes brain damage and other birth defects, similar to autism. Teachers are having to deal with this in the classroom.
Other evidence given to the Committee by the National Drug Research Institute (NDRI) backed a floor price, claiming that “pricing was a big factor” in reducing problem drinking. It pointed out, yet again, that the tax on alco-pops was insufficient because many young people shifted to a cheaper source of alcohol, a move which would have been prevented had a suitably aligned floor price been in place. This problem has a close parallel with Alice Springs with the availability of cheap cask wine, etc. remaining on the shelves of two hotels’ bottle shops at a price below an agreed price per standard drink of beer, recommended by Alice Springs’ People’s Alcohol Action Coalition (PAAC).
There is a voluntary accord in existence in Alice among some alcohol suppliers over a floor price, but this is regularly in need of independent scrutiny to ensure bottle shop staff continue to adhere to the agreement. There is a call for the new Stronger Futures licensing inspectors to take on this task, along the lines of similar criticism found in the Victorian Auditor-General’s report.
Following similar calls in Newcastle earlier this year, the Sydney Morning Herald (July 13, 2012) reported that the head of trauma at St Vincent’s hospital has called for new strategies to limit drinking in inner-Sydney suburbs, saying that doctor’s were “reaching the limit of their capacity” to treat seriously injured victims, after a fatal assault on a young man in King’s Cross this week. The same doctor claimed that alcohol availability and lower pricing were strongly linked to higher alcohol consumption, concluding that they were seeing an increase in violence and alcohol related injuries.
NSW and Victoria are not the only states with increasing alcohol-related problems. Alcohol accounts for 50% of all substance-abuse treatments in WA, increasing from 33% in 2004, to 49% in 2009/10. Statistics reported in the Alice Springs News Online earlier this year pointed to a separate study which revealed that alcohol content in wine products had increased over the past 20 years and marketing of the popular one litre Hardy’s Chardonnay featured a sticker which spruiked “over 33% more than a regular 750m bottle”.
The Leader of the NT Opposition, Terry Mills appeared on ABC TV last night stating that in terms of his party’s alcohol policy, he considered “behaviour to be the problem rather than the substance.” What is so far known about the Country Liberals’ policy is that “drunks will be taken off the streets and forced to undertake rehabilitation before being released back into the community.” As alcohol-related violence continues to increase in NSW and Victoria, the Country Liberals’ focus on a Law and Order solution recommends that “people convicted of serious assault will not be eligible for a suspended sentence, and genuine jail time will be imposed for repeat offenders as follows:
• Where the second offence is any assault, a minimum sentence in one month
• Where the second offence is an aggravated assault, a minimum sentence of three months.
• Where the second offence causes serious harm, a minimum sentence of one year.
The Country Liberals will toughen the Bail Act to include any crime that poses a risk to the general public. This will include home invasions, house breaks, motor vehicle theft, arson and fraud.
Mr Mills, in a media release (10 July 2012), said: ”We will introduce a new section into the Criminal Code which will establish a minimum three-month prison sentence for an aggravated assault against anybody who serves the public. This will include taxi drivers, bus drivers, public servants, bank tellers, retail and hospitality workers.”
Whilst, Mr Mills considers “alcohol isn’t the problem – irresponsible drinking is”, he will allow the alcohol supply tap to continue at full bore, funding expensive “prison farm” type rehab centres, rather than focus on welfare reform which is at the root of the problem and has been since the 1970s when Aboriginal people were forced off cattle stations and into welfare by the Equal Rights Movement.
Mr Mills has also said that “Labor’s ‘Banned Drinkers’ Register’ simply does not work. Assaults are up.” If he was to spend any time hanging around roadhouse take-away counters, he would have to eat his words. He also states that “law-abiding (sic) Territorians are tired of having to pay the price for the actions of a small group of re-offenders. Under a Country Liberals Government you will NOT have to show your license to buy take away alcohol.” As a Liberal politican, rather than a Socialist, he doesn’t say that taxpayers have to foot the bill for his Law and Order policy, a policy already under strain according to the NT Police Association submission to the Briscoe Inquest, or for the construction and management of a chain of additional, secure, Rehab options.
With the current alcohol-related cost to the NT Community running in excess of $640m p.a., Mr Mills is perhaps hoping to rob Peter to pay Paul, while shuffling the root of the problem into prisons. He has learnt nothing from the evidence-based data, gathered at the expense of many alcohol-related, and often violent deaths in our Community.
Where there is more alcohol, it’s reasonable to assume that there will be an increase in alcohol-related violence. That should be a warning that calls to turn the tap down are being ignored at our own peril. The NT, along with Qld and WA, collects data that surveys alcohol consumption, however, rather than act on available data and trend, it’s often “a case of placing the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff”.
The president of the Uniting Church in Australia, Alastair Macrae released a statement recently in which he reiterated their call for a floor price in the NT. Given the strong recommendations in the recent Northern Territory Police Association’s (NTPA) submission to the Briscoe Inquiry seeking alcohol supply reform, it can be argued that Australia’s drinking culture is in need of urgent restriction at all levels of availability, and that here in the NT, where our own consumption is twice the national average, a floor price and a take-away sales restriction should be implemented immediately. However, with the NT election in August, political parties are sending mixed messages.
Our Brave New World tasks its police and doctors with a certain responsibility, but when it comes to alcohol policy, both, at least in the NT with the former and in Australia’s largest city with the latter, are saying that they are up against it this incoming king tide. After another violent assault on the Gold Coast, Victoria’s police superintendent has joined with forces in NSW and the NT to voice the same message.
One of the salient quotes to emerge from the Victorian Auditor-General’s Report is that, in terms of alcohol reform, “what works is unpopular, while what doesn’t work is popular”. Australians can be fairly accused of having their head firmly stuck in a bottle when it comes to the urgent need to support the unpopular call to curb an increasingly grog-related, violent society.
In the 1980s, the Italian magic-realist author, Umberto Eco published a collection of essays called TRAVELS IN HYPER REALITY. Attaching the name “Thirsty Camel” to a chain of take-away alcohol outlets is a sign that we have lost our footing and are travelling on a tide of psycho-babble towards a place that has a substantially increased acreage reserved for use as an alcohol killing field. Conversely, “Come Hell or High Water” is no longer a folksy cliché. We can’t afford, literally, to play politics with alcohol reform. This is a high water mark in Australian social policy.
Photo: A traffic jam at the “Thirsty Camel” last Sunday afternoon in Alice Springs.