Many thanks to Dr John Boffa, PAAC spokesperson, and Bob Durnan, PAAC member and community development worker, for this piece on one of the Northern Territory’s most challenging health issues.

The People’s Alcohol Action Coalition (PAAC) is an Alice Springs-based coalition of organisations including churches, community groups and private individuals.  It has lobbied since 1995 for progressive reforms to alcohol policy and regulation.

PAAC is concerned about recent attempts by the Chief Minister (NT Legislative Assembly 15th May), to portray it as a ‘left-wing’ organisation aligned to a particular political party or view.  These politicians apparently prefer to evade rational public debate about evidence-based alcohol policy in favour of accusations of partisanship.  The recent ‘Turn Down the Grog Tap’ rally organised in Alice Springs was the first since the election of current NT Government. There were rallies with the same theme during the time of the former Labor administration.

Neither political party has accepted PAAC’s persistent key message: that the most effective way to reduce alcohol-related harm in our community is through ‘population-based’ measures (those that apply to the whole community) and which also have a strong impact on the heaviest drinkers.

Most of the rigorously evaluated evidence – in the NT, nationally and internationally –  shows that population-wide measures are the most effective in reducing crime and other alcohol-related harm (1, 2, 3).

We need to turn down the grog tap by:

  • increasing the price of the cheapest alcohol, for example cheap wines;
  • introducing a ‘floor price’ based on the current price of popular full-strength beer brands;
  • reducing take-away alcohol trading hours (including with a day or days free of take-away alcohol sales); and
  • restricting the purchase of large volumes of alcohol.

This message was supported by several speakers at the 13th May PAAC rally, including those representing the Central Land Council, the NT Criminal Lawyers Association, the Public Health Association, Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (NPY) Women’s Council and others (not just the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress.) Several CLP politicians were invited, but advised that they were unable to attend. The Labor member  for Barkly, Gerry McCarthy, Shadow Minister for Central Australia, did speak.

NT Police recently suggested some similar alcohol policy measures to address serious grog problems in Borroloola.  PAAC supports this, but does not support the Labor Party’s response to the police (the NT Opposition said that the measures sought by police would not be necessary if only the Banned Drinkers Register (BDR) still existed.)

The BDR alone could not solve the majority of alcohol-related problems.  Similarly, alcohol treatment and rehabilitation (the CLP’s response) in whatever form, will not be enough; and nor will alcohol education alone.

These measures can contribute to the over-all solution, but they must be complemented by population-based supply reduction.  All the research shows that this is what will reduce consumption the most.

This is why sections of the alcohol industry oppose population-based measures.  Governments who kowtow to the interests of the liquor industry also put commercial interests over and above the well-being of the community.  Just like the tobacco companies, did, alcohol manufacturers and marketers will try to protect their profits.  This becomes an even bigger problem when government stands shoulder to shoulder with the liquor industry to oppose the most effective ways to address the problem.

Is the $100 million Alcohol Mandatory Treatment plan just an ‘alcohol industry assistance package’ that takes the focus off the need for lower alcohol sales and profits, and instead sets up a non-evidence based, largely  ineffective ‘treatment’ system?

PAAC’s policies are not party-political.  They are based on solid research and evidence.

There are elected members along the political spectrum who do support evidence-based population measures and policies. Tony Abbott is on the public record in support of an alcohol floor price, a population-wide measure, although this is not Coalition policy. He also supported and funded Opal ‘non-sniffable’ fuel.

Many conservative politicians know that there are parents who are very concerned about alcohol and its effect on young people. They don’t want to hear political leaders glorifying a grog culture.

If a political party takes on an alcohol policy that is based on established evidence, or has strong theoretical grounds for being trialled and evaluated, we will support it, but only as part of the required policy mix. The Banned Drinkers Register and the use of photo ID was such a policy.

It is not reasonable to impose criminal justice sanctions on people who have grog problems if they have not committed an offence.  We support social consequences, such as prohibition orders, but without a point-of-sale photo ID system these can have no practical effect. PAAC also supports income management of up to 70% for some alcohol-dependant people who are on Centrelink benefits and do not want to engage in treatment.

These are things that make it harder for problem drinkers to act on their impulse to drink, and could help them to reduce the harm they do to themselves.

Police are not renowned for being left-wing, but now they have been gagged on speaking about the BDR. Is the Government afraid that they might say the BDR was a good thing?

This silencing of senior officers is worrying, just like the CLP’s attempts to shut down public debate through the use of slogans such as ‘left-wing.’

Community members should be asking their politicians questions, and checking that they are getting honest answers.

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