A town like Alice: alcohol and the Intervention
Alice Springs, the heart and pulse of Australia. While that is true in terms of location, few Australians know very much about their heart.
Sue Gilbey - 12 December 2008
Alice is a harshly 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.
Pine Gap, the United States' tracking facility, operates from just out of Alice and there is something bizarre about the prevalence of left-hand drive, petrol-guzzling SUVs in the rich part of town. You can often see US personnel washing their cars with a power hose, blissfully unaware that they are living in a drought-ruined country.
The very existence of Pine Gap is bizarre: US-owned and operated, but on Aboriginal land. Few Australians have any idea of the appalling Third World conditions endured by Central Australia's Aboriginal population.
Last year, 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 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.
However, 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".1
In order to curb the bad effects of excessive drinking, some Aboriginal communities have chosen to limit the availability of alcohol to their members, or have elected to be dry. They were policing this themselves.
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 often is no money left, just vouchers, which can only be used in government-designated stores (such as K-Mart, Woolworths and Coles) via plastic store cards. Nothing left for treats for kids, shoes, clothes or birthday presents - nothing left of individual choice.
The store cards have no PIN numbers and can be easily stolen or lost, and often require extensive travel, sometimes several hundred miles, to be able to be used. The travel expenses often use up the other half of the welfare money.
The Rudd government is moving to quarantine all welfare payments. I shudder to think of the implications.
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.
When I was in Woolworths once, my heart went out to one old woman who must have been shopping for the family. She had the wrong card and she clearly did not understand why the food she had put in her trolley and queued for ages to buy was being put back on to the shelves. She ended up wailing and was escorted out by security. When I got through the checkout she was still outside crying.
The quality of the food in the big chains has deteriorated too. One woman with a loud US accent told me that since the intervention she shopped there only for toilet paper and cleaning products. The reason, she said, is that the "Abos" had to shop there and since they don't really care if food was fresh or not the quality of the fresh food had gone downhill.
So the broccoli is yellow and the lettuce brown on the edges, but it costs the same! On the other side of the same coin, many local retailers are facing closure. Small grocery outlets, and second-hand clothing and furniture stores, previously patronised mainly by Indigenous people, have been hit hard.
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 - all 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.
This practice also implies that it is OK to be a substance abuser and a pornographer anywhere else, just don't do it in a prescribed zone.
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.
Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, Alcohol Report, AGPS, Canberra, 1995.
Northern Territory Liquor Commission, Australian Bureau of Statistics, National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Survey 1994, AGPS, Canberra, 1995.
Commonwealth Department of Health and Family Services, National Household Survey on Drugs, AGPS, Canberra, 1996.
Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, Aboriginal Alcohol Use and Related Problems, Expert Working Group Report, 1991.
d'Abbs P., Hunter E., Reser J. and Marlin D., Alcohol Related Violence in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Communities: A Literature Review, Commonwealth Department of Health, Housing, Local Government and Community Services, 1993.
Source: Green Left Online, please see: http://www.greenleft.org.au/2008/777/40107
Reproduced with the kind permission of Green Left Online.