The chief minister’s endorsement of drinking as a core social value in the Northern Territory has not helped to tackle the problem drinking of indigenous people, a federal inquiry has heard.
The House of Representatives Standing Committee on Indigenous Affairs is in Darwin conducting its inquiry into the harmful use of alcohol by indigenous communities and a number of NGOs have given evidence that the NT government’s punitive approach to alcoholism is expensive – and failing.
Territorians are known for the way they drink, “and it doesn’t help when our chief minister last year said alcohol is a core social value”, said Wendy Morton, executive director of the NT Council of Social Services.
The Territory as a whole has an alcohol consumption rate 30 to 40 per cent greater than the rest of Australia, and has the second-highest rate of alcohol consumption in the world, she said.
She painted a grim picture with a barrage of statistics: alcohol-related deaths are three times the national average, hospital admissions are double the national average, and 60 per cent of police resources are used to deal with alcohol-related issues.
The hearings in Alice Springs, Tennant Creek and Darwin have repeatedly heard social services organisations call for a re-instatement of the Banned Drinkers Register, which was dismantled by the Country Liberals government when it won the August 2012 election.
“The BDR didn’t discriminate by background; while it was an inconvenience for people, it appeared to have an impact on the problem drinkers on the streets,” said Jillian Smith, CEO of the Council of Aboriginal Alcohol Prevention Services.
A number of people giving evidence at the hearings have criticised the NT government’s punitive approach to dealing with alcoholism by incarcerating people for what is a health and social issue.
“A lack of progress coincides with policy responses that have been pretty dismal” from both levels of government, said John Paterson, CEO of the Aboriginal Medical Services Association of the NT.
“By and large, the government has failed to make the transition from coercion to empowerment.”
The cost of Mandatory Alcohol Treatment is about $45 million for its first year of operation, and only five per cent, or 40 of the 800 people passing through it, are expected to succeed in reducing their drinking, said Jonathon Hunyor, principal legal officer for the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency.
“To go to the punitive and really expensive (way) first seems like a terrible approach,” he said.
Submissions for how to change driving behaviours included limiting the advertising of alcohol, instating a license to drink, investment in intervention programs that reduce demand for alcohol, investment in early childhood programs, and bringing treatments back to the bush.
“Hopelessness is a word that comes up often,” Ms Smith said.
“Loss of hope and loss of interest in the future is a very dismal place to be.”