December 26, 1996

Public Drinking: How Coober Pedy fixed it.

Report By The Alice Springs News

As Alice Springs is entering yet another year with public drunkenness and anti-social behaviour largely unresolved, its nearest neighbour to the south has taken giant strides towards fixing those problems on its own turf.
Since Coober Pedy declared itself "dry" in August, prohibiting the drinking of alcohol in public, "instances of urination and defecation in public places have been practically eliminated," according to the first three-monthly evaluation of the measure by the town's Dry Areas Review Panel.
"There has been a noticeable decrease in vandalism and property damage.
"In general, instances of broken windows and damage to shops and cars are now almost non-existent in the town retail area."
What's more, the former perpetrators have accepted the new regime: After a six weeks moratorium, when the new measure was allowed to settle in, police "have recorded a sharp decrease in people detained under the Public Intoxication Act," according to the panel's report.
"We almost can't believe how well it's working," says Andrew Hemming, chief executive officer of the Coober Pedy District Council since August 1995.
He says success was far from instant: Two earlier applications to declare the town dry, during the 80s, were rejected by South Australia's Attorney General.
"There was not enough support from the Aboriginal community," says Mr Hemming.
The turning point came when elders from Umoona, an Aboriginal community on the north-eastern outskirts of the town, joined the council and the business community in declaring that enough was enough.
Umoona's leaders had grown tired of the mayhem caused principally by visitors from out of town.
The problems had become "chronic", says Mr Hemming: "There were people drunk at 10 o'clock in the morning. There were instances when you had to step over bodies to get into shops.
"Locals were doing their shopping in Port Augusta. Tourists were intimidated.
"Violence against Aboriginal women was escalating. The dog problem was getting out of hand."
The council took the lead: It was unanimous in its resolve that a new application for a dry area should succeed.
The council set up a consultative committee embracing all the major groups in town – from Umoona elders to the police, business, tourism bodies, government departments as well as private "social conscience" groups, including churches.
The town's united stance finally convinced – in this order – the Liquor Licensing Commissioner, the SA Attorney General and the SA Cabinet. Cooper Pedy became the state's third dry town, for a trial period of one year.
To get on side the Family and Community Services and Aboriginal Affairs departments was crucial – as was the police.
Coober Pedy learned from Ceduna, in the state's south-west, one of South Australia's "dry" towns.
Mr Hemming says having reached a consensus, the council had to work on the implementation: Ceduna's experience had shown that a key factor was the attitude of the police.
"Would a young copper walk up to a drunk and take a can of beer out of his hand?" says Mr Hemming.
"The support of the senior sergeant is crucial. He agreed whole-heartedly."
The next problem was to get the three take-away liquor outlets to cooperate.
The council was in no mood to take "no" for an answer, says Mr Hemming: "We regarded the issue as crucial, and conveyed that to the outlets."
In the end the stores collaborated on the basis of "if the others are doing it, we'll do it", largely motivated by the need to save the town's tourism industry, under threat from the public disorder and violence.
Mr Hemming says it was important to ensure that none of the liquor outlets would get a competitive advantage over the others.
Now the outlets play a key role in the success of the measure: "For example, attendants won't sell just one can of beer," says Mr Hemming. "When they sell a carton they ask, 'Where will you be taking this? Do you have a car?'
"They use their discretion. This is greatly assisted by the co-operation of the Aboriginal community who have accepted the measure and mostly welcome it."
The implementation of the scheme started with a $5000 TV, radio and print advertising campaign.
"The purpose was two-fold," says Mr Hemming. "Firstly, the locals needed to know the starting date, and out-of-towners needed to know that Coober Pedy had gone dry, and they shouldn't even come here to drink."
To everyone's "pleasant surprise" it worked: Bush visitors, whom Mr Hemming estimates made up around 95 per cent of the problem drinkers, simply stopped coming.
Says the council's communications officer, Trevor McLeod: "Port Augusta has reported an increase in drinkers, but they, too, can bring in dry areas provisions if they wish."
Mr McLeod says the next few months will be a test as the Pitjantjatjara travel frequently during this time of ceremonies.
The review says some drinking by locals has been transferred to the Umoona community which initiated moves – not yet finalised – to go "dry" at the same time as the town generally.
The review says: "It appears the community has been subject to an increase in groups of drinkers frequenting the community and binge drinking day and/or night.
"This is causing increasing conflict between residents who are non drinkers and in particular the elderly and school children, all of whom are affected by the lack of sleep during the night."
The review says creating designated "wet areas" and alcohol rehabilitation facilities will need to be considered.
However, Umoona residents have made it clear they don't want a wet area within their community.
"If you want to bring in a dry area you have to have a united front, and the local Aboriginal community on side," says Mr Hemming.
"You must have the support of the police. You need a close monitoring of the trial, and you've got to take early action if problems emerge. You can't let it go off the rails. "If we don't get it right, the government won't extend the 12 months' trial."

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