This is a guest post by Matt Punch, a Darwin-based lawyer who grew up in Sydney.
Recently I’ve found my Facebook news feed to be inundated with story after story – and angry comment after angry comment – about Sydney’s so-called ‘lockout’ laws.
As someone born and raised in Sydney, but who now lives in Darwin, it makes me sad to think of the Sydney CBD as a fun-free zone, the apparent effect of alcohol restrictions implemented to stop a ‘crisis’ of violent acts committed by boozed-up agro types. If I still lived in Sydney, I would have joined many of my friends at Sunday’s march to Keep Sydney Open.
However, looking on from Darwin, there is a lack of comparative perspective in many opinions being vented (particularly on social media) regarding the lockout laws. No doubt, as Matt Barrie’s viral Linkedin piece stated, it is silly that you can’t buy a bottle of wine at a restaurant after 10pm or that people must drink from plastic cups after a certain time.
But none of these complaints – which have forced Australia’s most popular Premier to rapidly back pedal – really compare to the authoritarian prohibition and law enforcement model targeting Aboriginal Territorians. Sydney is experiencing just a small slither of the alcohol-regulation thrust upon Aboriginal Territorians.
Sydney residents may consider themselves unlucky to be forced out of venues and onto the streets after having a few drinks. By way of contrast, it should be noted that in the Northern Territory Aboriginal people are routinely arrested for being intoxicated in public. Territory law says people can be arrested and thrown into a cell to sober up – with no warrant and no Court oversight.
Ken Parish, a respected Territory legal academic, describes this as “just chucking drunks in the police cells for a few hours with little or no formality”. The NT Police have apparently taken thousands of people, mainly Aboriginal, into custody for drinking and or other minor offences in just the past couple of years.
This approach to Aboriginal incarceration – including arresting Aboriginal people for minor ‘social order’ offences that are punishable by a fine – is literally the opposite approach recommended by every respectable report or study since, and including, the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.
Sydney, it may be terrible that bottle shops close at 10pm. But at least they’re not patrolled by cops. In the NT, police are busy acting as quasi-security guards at our bottle shops. At hotels/bottle-shops in places like Katherine, Tennant Creek or Alice Springs, NT Police question Aboriginal people as to the location they will consume their purchased alcohol. If the purchaser gives the wrong answer, the grog is confiscated and tipped out.
And Sydney, though you may think places like the CBD and Kings Cross have been ruined with many venues closing, consider for a moment the regulation of remote Aboriginal communities. Alcohol is prohibited in wide swathes of remote Aboriginal Australia. Like every prohibition effort in history it hasn’t stopped the drinking, but rather most likely entrenched supply with unregulated, un-taxed, profiteering grog-runners.
Those communities who have sought to implement alcohol management plans to regulate, and promote responsible, drinking in their communities (and stop the flow of cash into criminal hands) have been almost universally stone-walled by the Minister for Indigenous Affairs. Parliament house in Canberra can have a café serving alcohol; a remote Aboriginal community can’t.
Like the lockout laws in Sydney, prohibition of alcohol in remote Aboriginal communities has had many negative side-effects. Anecdotally, people with alcohol problems often shift to a town where they have better access to drink but less access to family, culture and support. Violence is probably not reduced overall (even if it does reduce in communities), just transferred from one location to another.
And the core problems – addiction, illiteracy, lack of housing, lack of employment and reliance on sit-down money – are certainly not addressed. Those problems remain comfortably hidden from view whilst the ‘tough on crime’ narrative is promoted by government press releases and staged photo-ops.
The above examples do not dispute the existence of Aboriginal Territorians who have problems with or addiction to alcohol. The above examples do not dispute the tragic circumstances of many Territory families who have witnessed lives wrecked by grog, drugs and the violence that often comes with addiction.
But the above examples do illustrate that the alcohol regulation affecting Aboriginal Territorians is punitive compared to what is implemented in places like Sydney – even with its current lockout laws. Indeed, the current outcry by Sydney-siders begs the question of what would happen if the full plethora of alcohol prohibition and punishment were thrown at the good cool youth of Sydney as wantonly as they are flung on Aboriginal Territorians.
My two cents worth? A comparison of Sydney and the Territory reveals the same underlying problem. Government alcohol policy is too commonly beholden to short-term political agendas. Instead, we should be looking for community consensus on credible policy measures that work – an example was the Territory’s repealed Banned Drinkers Register – to reduce access to alcohol for those individuals who face alcohol demons.
When it comes to alcohol we should be helping troubled individuals instead of focusing on locking us all out or locking them up.