Concerns over NT alcohol control plans

(Transcript from World News Australia Radio)

To many observers, it’s the Northern Territory’s biggest social and health problem: excessive alcohol consumption.


The most recent measure proposed by the N-T government to tackle it is Alcohol Protection Orders, designed to block supplies to problem drinkers.

But critics say it’s misguided, and they’re calling for postponement of the legislation to introduce the orders.

Andrea Nierfoff has the details.

(Click on audio tab above to hear full item)

Attempts by successive Northern Territory governments to tackle alcohol abuse have included a Banned Drinkers Register, limiting sales of alcohol to one unit per person and the introduction of I-D cards.

Now, it’s proposing introduction of Alcohol Protection Orders.

Under these orders, particular people could be banned from possessing or consuming alcohol, and could notenter places licensed to sell it.

Police would be allowed to stop and search someone they think may possibly be subject to an Alcohol Protection Order, as well as seize any containers they believe likely to contain alcohol.

Dr Jonathon Hunyor, from the Aboriginal Peak Organisations group, says these new police powers would be excessive.

“The powers that are given to police are really broad and are not adequately defined. Police are given the power under this law to criminalise someone’s alcoholism. Police can put someone on an APO if they’re charged with pretty much any type of offending, including something as simple as loitering. Police can also search people without a warrant. We don’t give police that power to deal with people who are accused of drug trafficking for example, so why should we give it to the police to deal with a problem like drinking in the Territory?”

The Melbourne-based Human Rights Law Centre is also critical of the proposals.

Spokesman Ben Schokman says the new scheme is unlikely to succeed.

And he worries it will lead to further discrimination against the Territory’s large Indigenous population.

“One of the concerns that always emerges from powers that are quite broadly drafted and where there is large discretion that is given to police to enforce them is that it ends up being particular communities that are disproportionately affected. We know from a range of evidence that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are overly targeted by police. We know that the tough law and order policies are measures that have been tried to be introduced previously, they haven’t worked so we’re repeating mistakes that have been made previously. At the end of the day they’re measures that are being introduced that simply aren’t going to be effective.”

But not everyone believes the new orders are too harsh.

Vice President of the Northern Territory branch of the Australian Medical Association, Dr Robert Parker, says the legislation may be necessary to deal with an entrenched cycle of alcohol abuse.

“The police have most of the contact with problem drinkers. It’s easy to criticise. It’s a very difficult job for them. I’m not opposed to them having reasonably wide powers to deal with the situation. The current legislation does, to a degree, deal with significant problem drinkers. Locking people up for a period may seem a bit draconian but for people who are physically and mentally addicted to alcohol, it gives them actually a period where they are forced to get off the substance. Although obviously there are concerns about the legal and ethical implications about locking people up for a substance abuse issue.”

However, Jonathon Hunyor from Aboriginal Peak Organisations says trying to impose laws onto a health problem is doomed to fail.

He says the Territory government ignored the advice of health experts in developing these laws.

Dr Hunyor says Indigenous people acknowledge that excessive alcohol consumption is a big problem in their community.

But he says the proposed legislation should be postponed, while the Territory government consults more with Indigenous people on the best way to tackle the issue.

“The experts are saying that it’s supply reduction that’s a big problem…but that’s not what the government’s chosen to do, they aren’t engaging with the rivers of grog that pour into our community everyday. There’s no evidence that this tough-sounding policy is actually going to work. It’s a very heavy-handed way of dealing with a difficult social problem. We want the government to start working with Aboriginal people to come up with real solutions to these problems, we want them to base their approaches on what the evidence shows and what the experts tell us.”


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