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Controlling "rivers of grog": the challenge of alcohol problems in Australian indigenous communities.

In June 2007, Ms. Pat Anderson, co-author of an inquiry into the sexual abuse of children in Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory (NT) of Australia, and a respected Aboriginal leader with a history of involvement in Indigenous health services, was quoted in a national newspaper as saying "Alcohol is totally destroying our communities and our families. Something needs to be done to curb this river of grog" (Board of Inquiry, 2007, p.102). On the same day, an editorial in The Australian embellished the metaphor, asserting that "Rivers of alcohol flow through townships, corrupting all within them" ("Children are Sacred," 2007). Within days, the metaphor had been taken up by politicians, media commentators, and others as a symbol of the imputed disintegration of remote Aboriginal communities in the NT, and the need for a radical change in policy. In effect, the metaphor implied what some people believed but were reluctant to state explicitly: that Aboriginal people in these communities had proven themselves incapable of managing the access to alcohol to which, as Australian citizens, they were legally entitled. In the minds of those who held this view, no other conclusion could be taken from the report, which portrayed a nightmarish world in which rampant alcohol abuse, combined with pervasive unemployment, widespread illicit drug use, and viewing of pornographic DVDs, left no child safe from sexual predators, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal (Board of Inquiry, 2007).

The report became a policy watershed, although whether this was due to new thinking generated by it, or whether the report served as a pretext for changes already in train, remains a matter of conjecture. Within a week of the report being made public, the Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Mal Brough, called for new legislation that effectively jettisoned the principles of Aboriginal self-determination that had framed Aboriginal policy for more than 30 years. Among other changes, the impending laws would ban the sale, possession, transportation, and consumption of alcohol in Aboriginal communities in the NT (except in a handful of communities where alcohol could be purchased for consumption in licensed clubs), quarantine 50% of all long-term income-support payments to Aboriginal recipients for spending on approved purchases only, and implement compulsory health checks for all Aboriginal children in NT communities. Introducing the Northern Territory Emergency Response Bill 2007 (NTER) into Parliament a few weeks later, Minister Brough acknowledged the implications for Aboriginal drinking rights, but was unapologetic: "When it comes to a choice between a person's right to drink and a child's right to be safe, there is no question in my mind which path we must take" (Marr, 2007). For good measure, the new act also suspended the provisions of the Racial Discrimination Act with respect to any actions taken under it. Although the government responsible for the policy shift was defeated at the polls later in the same year, the incoming Labour Government quickly declared its intent to review but not abandon the new policy.

Not surprisingly, the NTER has triggered controversies that continue to the present day, with critics (among them the U.N. Special Rapporteur on human rights of indigenous peoples, Prof. James Anaya, who concluded that it breached Australia's international human rights obligations [Narushima, 2010]) depicting it as blatantly racist and a return to discredited assimilationist policies of the past, while defenders insist that the sheer scale of social dysfunction that had engulfed many Aboriginal communities meant that the need for immediate action had to take priority over equality of rights. These controversies, however, important though they are, are not the focus of this article. Instead, I shall concentrate on issues generated by the policy response to the "rivers of grog." I begin by exploring the assumptions and propositions that lie behind the metaphor and the policy, then propose a conceptual framework through which we can put these assumptions to the test, with a view to developing what I shall argue is a sounder basis, both theoretically and empirically, for understanding and addressing alcohol-related problems in Indigenous settings.

Alcohol policy and Australian Aboriginal society: The legacy

The notion that Indigenous Australians are somehow incapable of managing alcohol is hardly a new one. On the contrary, for more than 100 years it formed a cornerstone of the Aboriginal policies put in place by Australian states and territories (Brady, 1990). (Under the Australian federal system of government, laws governing both access to alcohol and the rights and entitlements of Aboriginal Australians have rested largely with state and territory governments rather than the national government, although in recent decades the latter has come to play a growing role in Aboriginal policies. The NT constitutes a partial exception: because it is a "territory" rather than a state, the national government enjoys greater constitutional scope to intervene than it does with respect to the states--a factor that enabled it to mount the NTER unilaterally.) Under the protectionist policies that dominated Australian administration of Aboriginal people from the mid 19th century to the late 1950s, Aboriginal Australians (who were not in any case accorded citizenship) were not permitted to possess or consume alcohol. It was also an offense for a non-Aboriginal person to supply alcohol to an Aboriginal person.

Although some Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal activists had long opposed these and other restrictions (Clark, 2008), it was not until the early 1960s that laws prohibiting Aborigines from drinking began to be dismantled. The shift was a product of three main factors. The first was the assimilationist policy introduced in 1953 by the national government under a newly appointed Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Paul Hasluck. Assimilation involved replacing "protection" with a somewhat paternalistic program aimed at "guiding" Aboriginal people towards full citizenship in the Australian community--a notion of citizenship, however, that was steeped in Western liberal individualism, and that accorded little place to the retention of a distinctive Indigenous cultural identity (Rowse, 1998, 1999). Part of this program called for the progressive removal of discriminatory protectionist laws. Hasluck used his limited constitutional powers to cajole state governments-which in many cases remained protectionist in outlook--to cooperate in these changes. In this he was assisted by two additional factors: the first was Australia's exposure to international criticism, much of it fanned by Cold War antagonists, for discriminating against Aboriginal people. The second was the patent ineffectiveness of the laws in actually preventing Aboriginal people from acquiring and drinking alcohol. In 1964, introducing a bill to rescind prohibition of Aboriginal "wards" in the NT from drinking, the Director of Welfare H.C. Giese informed the Legislative Assembly that of 1,251 convictions recorded against wards in Alice Springs and Darwin in 1963, almost 90% (1,115 convictions) had involved offenses against the Licensing Ordinance--that is, possessing or consuming liquor (Northern Territory of Australia, 1964).

The policy shift, however, required a corresponding change in the underlying rationale, since the notion that Aboriginal people were incapable of controlling their alcohol use was clearly incompatible with official policies entitling them to drink under the same conditions as other Australians. Evidence of the somewhat torturous rethinking brought on by the change can be seen in the following extract from a report by a parliamentary inquiry into proposed legislative changes in the NT in 1964. Responding to claims that Aborigines "as a race are more adversely affected by liquor" and "inevitably become violent when intoxicated," the report asserted:

Your Committee accepts that there have been observed incidents indicating a greater tendency in the aboriginal towards violence when drunk. It may also be true that at the present time aborigines resort to excessive drinking more frequently than other races in the community. Your Committee cannot accept that this tendency is inherent but believes that it arises from lack of self-discipline stemming from the circumstances in which many aborigines are currently placed. The under-privileged fraction of all communities is apt to resort to the comfort of alcohol more frequently than the successful majority who can cope with the environment. That the aboriginal is under-privileged cannot be denied, and any tendency to excessive drinking may be attributable to this cause. But there may be a combination of causes--the type of liquor consumed and the practice of hasty drinking to avoid detection. Again, it may be that those aborigines who now drink to excess are not necessarily typical of the race and if all aborigines are permitted to drink the percentage of drunkards may not be higher than in other races (Legislative Council for the Northern Territory, 1964).

In other words, social circumstances replaced inherent biological attributes as the explanatory motif for the new policy. Although the Committee referred to scientific evidence that appeared to refute the existence of a biological basis for racially discriminatory policies on alcohol, it did not present any evidence in support of its own preferred explanation, and there is no indication from what we know of the Committee's proceedings that it drew either on new evidence or a reappraisal of existing evidence. But evidence perhaps was not the key issue here. The Government's purpose in adopting a new explanatory model was to provide a rationale for replacing a policy that had become politically embarrassing with one more compatible with principles of human rights.

Over the following decade, other Australian jurisdictions followed the lead of the NT in ending prohibition of Aboriginal drinking. Unfortunately, as it turned out, they did so at a time hardly conducive to ameliorating Indigenous social disadvantage. The 1960s witnessed two other changes that were to reshape the place of many Aboriginal people in Australian society. The first was a progressive decline in employment opportunities for Aboriginal (and, in some cases, non-Aboriginal) people in remote and regional Australia. The best known landmark of this change is a 1965 decision of the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission to extend industrial award conditions to Aboriginal pastoral industry workers in the NT. As Anthony has shown, and contrary to popular belief, the Commission's decision did not enshrine a principle of equal pay for Aboriginal workers, merely that the latter were entitled to the minimum Award wage, and even that requirement was subject to qualifications, including a "slow worker" clause which allowed pastoralists to continue paying lower wages to some Aboriginal workers (Anthony, 2007). The decision nonetheless accelerated a change already underway in the industry from a labor-intensive mode of operation in which Aboriginal people constituted a cheap labor force to a more technology-driven capital intensive mode which offered fewer employment opportunities for Aboriginal workers. The second concurrent change was a progressive increase in Aboriginal access to social-security payments. Together, these changes created an environment in which many Aboriginal people in regional and remote Australia have been enmeshed ever since: with ready access to alcohol, permanent, sometimes intergenerational dependence on welfare, and continuing economic, social, and geographical marginalization.

Evidence that this milieu was generating damaging patterns of alcohol misuse was not long in emerging. In a passage evocative of the "rivers of grog" discourse 30 years later, a parliamentary committee in 1977 concluded: "Alcohol is the greatest present threat to the Aboriginals of the Northern Territory and unless strong immediate action is taken they could destroy themselves" (Commonwealth of Australia House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs, 1977, p. xi). The committee went on to link alcohol abuse with a broad range of problems, including breakdown in culture and traditional authority, brawling, domestic violence, rape, neglect of family, promiscuity and prostitution, destruction of property, absenteeism among school children, and even, in some places, a decline in fertility. (In a subsequent final report, the committee noted that these problems were not confined to Aboriginal communities in the NT, but were to be found in similar communities elsewhere in Australia [Commonwealth of Australia House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs, 1978].) The committee identified a number of causative factors: the role models historically provided by binge drinking, White, rural workers; unemployment, poor living conditions and marginal social status; a lack of culturally sanctioned mechanisms for handling alcohol; and a high level of alcohol availability (Commonwealth of Australia House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs, 1977).

Other observers also drew attention to the limited capacity of traditional, local social control mechanisms to cope with the devastating consequences of alcohol misuse in Indigenous communities (Bain, 1974; Brady & Palmer, 1984). Edmunds, in a paper commissioned for the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in 1990, argued that traditional control mechanisms, which had evolved among small, mobile groups, were no longer effective in modern, larger settlements. Confronted by the additional stresses of dealing with alcohol, many individuals and groups, she observed, had turned to one of two external agencies for assistance in controlling drinking: Christian churches and the police (Edmunds, 1990). Becoming a Christian helped individuals to legitimize and reinforce personal decisions to give up the grog, while police were often looked to for support, particularly by women, who bore the brunt of much alcohol-fueled violence. Edmunds' observations raise an issue of continuing practical and theoretical interest in any consideration of Aboriginal attempts to deal with alcohol problems: the relationship between local, informal mechanisms of social control and the social control institutions of the state and other external agencies. In a conclusion that is apposite to the policy response to "rivers of grog," Edmunds also stresses the need for formal policies and measures that build on and promote local mechanisms of social control, rather than simply attempt to sweep them aside.

In another important research paper commissioned by the Deaths in Custody inquiry, Aboriginal anthropologist Marcia Langton took issue with the view, which had by now attained the status of orthodoxy in public commentaries, that Aboriginal alcohol problems could be explained by social disadvantage. "It may well be argued," she wrote, that substance abuse by itself is not a cause of Aboriginal people dying in custody, and that there are further underlying reasons or causes, for example, dispossession, poverty, lack of education, hostile police practices, and so on. Without doubt this is true in an absolute sense: we do not argue that substance abuse is a single cause. Clearly there is a complex of issues involved. Nevertheless, the Aboriginal Issues Unit has found that from an Aboriginal perspective and from the Aboriginal experience alcohol plays a primary role in both the reasons for detention, and for the subsequent chances of deaths occurring. (Langton et al., 1990, p.285)

Alcohol misuse in Indigenous communities, according to Langton, was a product of three interrelated factors: the addictive chemical properties of alcohol; an absence of adequate informal social control mechanisms; and lack of incentives for meaningful activities in either employment or cultural activities. More recently, another prominent Aboriginal thinker and activist, Noel Pearson, has mounted an even more assertive attack on explanations that attribute Aboriginal alcohol misuse to structural factors such as unemployment or poverty--a view that he dismisses as "symptom theory." Like Langton, Pearson insists on the primary causal role of alcohol and other drug misuse in contemporary Aboriginal problems. In a series of papers written between 2001 and 2008 (Pearson, 2001, 2002a, 2002b, 2004, 2006, 2008), he has elaborated not only a distinctive diagnosis of the ills besetting Indigenous people, but also a critique of what he sees as the misguided analyses of researchers and policy makers. In a 2001 lecture ironically entitled "On the human right to misery, mass incarceration and early death," Pearson asked:

Why are my people disintegrating, and why are we unable to do anything about it? I will go straight to the core of the matter and talk about addiction and substance abuse. Our worst mistake is that we have not understood the nature of substance abuse.

In Pearson's view, the symptom theory of substance misuse rests on a failure to recognize that what he calls epidemics of addiction have become the primary mechanisms for attracting new recruits into substance misuse.

Of course substance abuse originally got a foothold in our communities because many people were bruised by history and likely to break social norms .... But when a young person (or an older non-addict) is recruited to the grog and drug coteries today the decisive factor is the existence of these epidemics themselves, not his or her personal background. And for those who did begin using an addictive substance as an escape from a shattered life and from our history, treating those original causes will do little (if indeed you can do anything about those original causes). The addiction is in itself a much stronger force than any variation in the circumstances of the addict.

Implicit in Pearson's analysis here is not just his insistence that substance misuse must be treated as a critical social problem in its own right, rather than as a product of other causal factors, but also a view of addiction as a sociological or systemic phenomenon, rather than purely a clinical condition afflicting particular individuals.

While Pearson's critique has generated almost no discussion in academic writing on substance misuse, there is little doubt that it has influenced the architects of contemporary policy shifts on Indigenous alcohol problems. This is most apparent in a 2001 inquiry into violence and substance misuse in Aboriginal communities in Cape York, Queensland, commissioned by the Queensland Government and conducted by retired judge Tony Fitzgerald (Cape York Justice Study, 2001). Like the authors of the NT study on child sexual abuse, Fitzgerald's report painted a bleak picture of the ravages of alcohol abuse in remote communities which, he concluded, compounded by a failure on the part of those communities to engage successfully with institutions of the wider society, had led to "a self-perpetuating cycle of poverty, tragedy and despair" (Cape York Justice Study, 2001, Vol. 1, p.56). The situation was so serious in his view that "despite constitutional obstacles, unless significant improvement is reported within three years consideration should be given to a prohibition on the supply and consumption of alcohol" (Cape York Justice Study, 2001, Vol. 1, p.60). Fitzgerald's analysis marks an early sign of a shift away from an equal rights approach to alcohol use. In signalling it he drew on the critiques of both Langton--who was seconded to Fitzgerald's team during the inquiry, and helped to draft his report--and Pearson, whose analysis of alcohol problems the report described as "irrefutable" (Cape York Justice Study, 2001, Vol 2, p.41).

The cumulative effect of these inquiries and critiques is apparent in the 2007 NTER: a paradigmatic shift in policy from formal adherence to the principle of equal rights to alcohol to a framework in which systemic alcohol misuse is viewed as a primary cause of chronic family and community dysfunction by virtue of a perceived collapse in family and locality-based capacities to control alcohol use. It is this perception that I now propose to examine more closely, first by looking more broadly at sociological approaches to social control, and then by reviewing evidence relating to Indigenous social control of alcohol.

Understanding social control

As a sociological concept, "social control" enjoys a less than distinguished history. Sociologists and anthropologists in the early 20th century conceptualized it broadly to refer to the norms, mores, and laws that contributed to maintaining conformity with the prevailing social order (Room, 1982). As later critics pointed out, this conceptualization suffered from at least two flaws: first, it was so all-encompassing in scope as to be practically useless as a concept for delimiting specific domains of social action; second, it implied that social order is primarily a product of normative consensus, with little consideration of the role of coercion in maintaining social order. In the 1960s a new generation of social theorists, many of them drawing on Marxist or "conflict" models of society, redefined social control more narrowly as societal responses to deviance. Cohen, for example, developed this approach to define social control as "the organized ways in which society responds to behavior and people it regards as deviant, problematic, worrying, threatening, troublesome or undesirable in some way or another" (Cohen, 1985, p.1). From this perspective, social control consists of mechanisms through which the more powerful social agents maintain their dominance over the less powerful.

The nature of these mechanisms in turn underwent a radical reappraisal as a result of the work of Foucault, whose studies of the growth of techniques of discipline in a variety of institutions through the 18th and 19th centuries, and theorization of "power/knowledge" as a foundation for domination, resulted in a view of social control as dispersed, pervasive, and often insidiously concealed by its benign appearance (Rabinow, 1984). Lacombe argues that much of the work influenced by Foucault is in fact based on a simplistic misreading of the latter's work, in particular of Foucault's conceptualization of power/knowledge. While recognizing that power for Foucault is an instrument of domination and constraint, Lacombe points out that Foucault conceptualized power as having a capacity to enable as well as constrain, the extent to which it does either being a function of the social relationships within which it is exercized (Lacombe, 1996). More recently, Lianos has argued that Foucault's explanations of changes occurring in the 18th and 19th centuries cannot simply be extrapolated onto contemporary societies, in which technological developments in communications and surveillance are changing not only the methods and logic of social control, but the very nature of sociality itself (Lianos, 2003). Llanos distinguishes between social controls generated spontaneously through interaction and interconnectedness in small groups and what he calls institutional control, which is deliberately created for the management of human subjects in complex social systems. Examples he cites of the latter include credit-rating agencies and closed circuit TV systems for the prevention and detection of shoplifting. Lianos, too, criticizes what he calls the "demonization" of social control--that is, the assumption that improvements in the technical efficiency of social control necessarily erode human liberties and entrench the subordination of the less powerful.

While perspectives such as these help us to understand the way in which social control is exercized at a societal level, and can bring to light the less immediately visible mechanisms employed for this purpose, they are less helpful as guides to understanding the problem posed in this article: namely, how do the processes of social control grounded in families and local communities interact with state-based regulatory mechanisms? For this purpose, it is more useful to return to a framework proposed much earlier by Lemert, who viewed social control as having passive elements--conformity with norms--and a much more dynamic component arising out of a continuous process in which groups and other social agents seek to promote or defend particular values and act collectively to have their values defined as dominant and normal (Lemert, 1972). Writing specifically about the impact of alcohol among indigenous peoples in North America, Lemert stated:

A general analysis of alcohol and social control deals with the universal qualities of alcohol, the values and costs of its use, the distribution of power in social structures, the available means of control, the probabilities of resistance, and patterns of values in cultures and individuals (Lemert, 1972, p. 102).

Although Room (1982) later drew attention to Lemert's work as a promising basis for further development in understanding the social control of alcohol, his suggestion does not appear to have been taken up by later sociologists. This article can perhaps be read as a belated step in the direction Room suggests, at least with respect to alcohol use among Indigenous Australians. In this vein, social control--defined along the lines proposed by Lemert---can be conceptualized and examined with reference to a number of key dimensions: these include the instruments of control deployed in particular settings--be they social norms, laws or (as, for example, recently introduced in some towns of the NT) such specialized devices as electronic ID-based systems designed to stop certain individuals from purchasing alcohol; the groups or agencies that attempt to use these instruments, the occasions when they do so, the bases of power and legitimacy (not the same thing) on which their attempts rest, and the resources available for enforcement. Another set of questions has to do with responses to the attempts at social control: Under what circumstances, and by whom, are these measures obeyed, challenged, circumvented or simply ignored, and with what consequences?

This framework, it should be noted, entails no assumptions about social control inevitably being a top down or one-way process. It allows, conceptually, for a phenomenon to which Edmunds, as already noted, has drawn attention, and for which we have a number of empirical examples (see below): namely, attempts by local communities, or organizations representing local communities, to mobilize statutory control mechanisms such as restrictions on the sale of alcohol in order to augment local efforts at control. Social control, from this perspective, is dynamic, often contested, and liable to lead to outcomes that change over time.

By adopting this framework in comparative studies of social control of alcohol in a range of settings, we would, in principle, be better placed to answer a number of important questions about which, at present, we know little. For example, it should be possible to adduce evidence about the ways in which local informal mechanisms interact with state-based institutional mechanisms, and the conditions under which they complement or, conversely, undermine each other. It would also be possible to identify conditions under which particular combinations of social control mechanisms afford protection against the harms of alcohol misuse, and conversely, the combinations least likely to be protective. More speculatively, systematic comparison might bring to light potentially effective strategies for control of alcohol at a local level that have not been considered in particular settings.

While the prime purpose of this framework is to guide future research, it can also be used to draw lessons from historical examples. In the remainder of this article, I shall briefly review some such instances.

Social control and Aboriginal drinking

That local social controls of alcohol among many Aboriginal groups and communities are in a state of crisis is beyond dispute. In addition to the analyses, already cited, by Edmunds, Langton and others (e.g., Brady, 1990), and accounts such as the "Little Children are Sacred" report that gave rise to the "rivers of grog" metaphor (Board of Inquiry, 2007), epidemiological and criminological indicators of the intensity of alcohol-related harms leave room for no other inference. Surveys of Indigenous and non-Indigenous alcohol use conducted in the 1980s and early 1990s indicated that, while the proportion of Indigenous people who drank at all was lower than among the non-Indigenous population, Indigenous drinkers were considerably more likely than their non-Indigenous counterparts to drink at high-risk levels (Fleming, Watson, McDonald, & Alexander, 1991; National Drug Strategy, 1994). A recent review of trends over the last two decades, however, shows that while the percentage of people who have recently consumed alcohol has risen among Indigenous and non-Indigenous drinkers alike, it has done so more rapidly among the former, and that the proportion of Indigenous people who are consuming at levels exposing them to high risks of both short- and long-term harm is at least twice the level among non-Indigenous people (Gray, Stearne, Wilson, & Doyle, 2010).

Indicators of harm reveal the consequences of these disparities. For example, a study of hospital admission rates among Indigenous and non-Indigenous patients in 2005-2006 in five jurisdictions--New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia, and NT--found that the Indigenous to non-Indigenous ratio of admissions for assault injuries, almost half of which are alcohol-caused, was 6.2 for males and 33.0 for Indigenous women (Gray et al., 2010). Between 2003 and 2007, alcohol-related death rates in Queensland, Western Australia, South Australia, and NT were between 5 and 19 times higher for Indigenous than non-Indigenous Australians (Gray et al., 2010).

Yet these indicators, alarming though they may be, do not justify assuming that social control has collapsed. On the contrary, recent decades also furnish evidence of a tenacious search by Aboriginal organizations and communities for more effective ways of managing alcohol. Some initiatives have involved trying to utilize the regulatory powers of the state to control supply, others have attempted to build on culturally appropriate ways of resolving disputes and fostering acceptable behavior. Much could be learned from a systematic study of these initiatives, and of the relationships between initiatives, contexts, and outcomes (insofar as these could be deduced from the limited data available).

One of the earliest examples followed closely on the attainment of limited self-government by the NT in 1978 (prior to which the NT had been administered directly by the national government from Canberra). Under a new Liquor Act introduced by the NT Government, residents of a community or locality could apply to the Liquor Commission to have either a total ban placed on importation, possession, or consumption of liquor in that locality, or a set of restrictions tailored to the wishes of residents of the locality. In the event of receiving an application, the Liquor Commission was obliged to ascertain the extent of support for the proposals and, if it was satisfied that these had broad community support, to make them legally binding. Although in principle the "restricted areas" provisions, as they came to be known, were available to all communities, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, it is only Indigenous communities of the NT that have made use of them. Within a few years of the Liquor Act taking effect, many communities had opted to become "dry" and, as of June 2010, 96 NT Indigenous communities, including all of the more populous communities, remain dry or subject to restrictions under the Act (Northern Territory Licensing Commission, 2010). Over the years several reviews of the restricted areas provisions have been conducted (d'Abbs, 1987, 1989, 1990; Legislative Assembly of the Northern Territory, 1993; Northern Territory Liquor Commission, 1982), all of them finding that, on balance, the provisions helped to reduce alcohol consumption and associated problems in remote communities and, contrary to repeated allegations, did not contribute significantly to increased public drunkenness by Indigenous people moving into towns in order to avoid the restrictions. Under the 2007 NTER, however, bans and restrictions on alcohol negotiated under Section VIII of the NT Liquor Act are unilaterally overridden by the blanket bans imposed under the Emergency legislation (subject, it should be added, to a sunset clause that will see the NTER prohibition measures lapse in 2012 unless they are extended in the meantime).

In the 1980s, a number of Aboriginal organizations and communities, especially in Central Australia, became increasingly concerned with what they saw as a crucial weakness of General Restricted Areas (as they are now officially called). While defining areas as out of bounds for alcohol consumption, these restrictions do nothing to stem the supply of alcohol from retail liquor outlets in NT towns and licensed roadhouses, a problem aggravated by the presence of a level of liquor outlets per capita well above the national average (Lyon, 1991). In response, Aboriginal organizations and groups turned to measures for controlling supply of alcohol. In some instances, such as the small town of Elliott (Bennett, Plummer, & Lea, 1996), local licensees were willing to negotiate agreements under which retailers would either not sell liquor to local Aboriginal people at all or would do so only under agreed restrictions. Many outlets, however, refused to consider such requests, in some cases invoking the antidiscriminatory provisions of the Race Discrimination Act (RDA) as justification. Under its chairman at the time, the NT Liquor Commission consistently took the side of the liquor outlets, refusing on several occasions to impose restrictions sought by Aboriginal communities and organizations (Lyon, 1991). The stance of Aboriginal organizations at the time was succinctly stated by the Pitjantjatjara Council in a 1990 submission to a NT parliamentary inquiry:

Without government support, particularly in the important area of limiting the availability of grog, the ability of Aboriginal individuals and communities to address alcohol abuse in a constructive way--through effective community decision making, jobs training, education programs and other rehabilitation efforts--will be seriously crippled, if not destroyed (Pitjantjatjara Council Inc., 1990).

In frustration, two organizations--the Pitjantjatjara Council and the Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Women's Council (NPY)--appealed to the Commonwealth Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC), claiming that the RDA was being misused in the NT to justify an assault on the wellbeing of Aboriginal communities, and seeking HREOC endorsement for restrictive measures targeting Aboriginal communities (d'Abbs, 1996). In April 1990, in one of the biggest rallies ever seen in Alice Springs, more than 300 women from 16 Central Australian communities converged on Alice Springs to protest publicly against alcohol abuse by their own menfolk and to demand tighter controls over sales of alcohol from takeaway outlets in the town ("300 women," 1990).

While most of the activism around this time was directed at creating more effective controls on the supply of alcohol to Aboriginal drinkers, some innovative initiatives were also directed at strengthening the capacity of individuals and communities to control alcohol use. One ambitious example that commenced in the early 1990s was the Mwerre Anetyeke Mparntwele (Sitting Down Good in Alice Springs) Project initiated by Tangentyere Council in Alice Springs, and set up under the umbrella of the Four Corners Council of Elders and the Women's Elders' Council (Memmott, 1992). Through processes of consultation and education, the project aimed to define and foster appropriate social norms, rules and behavior relating to alcohol use in Alice Springs, and to promote social cohesion by utilizing culturally appropriate mechanisms for conflict resolution, and both utilizing and strengthening the authority of elders and leaders of town camps. The project was aimed at three categories of people: residents of the 19 town camps in Alice Springs; permanent and more transient occupants of small camps in Todd River and Charles Creek; and visitors from outlying communities who often, when they came to town, caused disruption in town camps by engaging in drinking sprees. Another initiative that utilized local, culturally based means of resolving conflicts as an alternative to the laws and procedures of the police was the nation's first "night patrol," started at around the same time in the NT town of Tennant Creek (Curtis, 1993). Night patrols have since become important vehicles (in several senses of the word) for reducing alcohol problems in remote communities, regional towns, and urban centers. In most instances, their prime purpose is to pick up drunks and remove them to where they will not harm themselves or anyone else. The founders of the Tennant Creek patrol, however, insisted that this function was subsidiary to that of strengthening local community capacity to avert and resolve conflicts (Curtis, 1993).

In 1995, somewhat belatedly, HREOC issued a report in response to the questions raised some years earlier by Pitjantjatjara Council and NPY (Race Discrimination Commissioner, 1995). The report argued that, while in principle any action that excluded Aboriginal (or any other) people from enjoying the same drinking rights as others purely on the basis of their ethnicity potentially contravened the RDA, Section 8(1) of the Act allowed for so-called special measures, that is, discriminatory measures requested by representatives of disadvantaged groups or communities on the grounds that such measures were needed to enable these groups to protect and exercise their basic human rights and freedoms. Any such measures, the report added, should be regarded as temporary only (Race Discrimination Commissioner, 1995).

By the time the report was released, however, the struggle by Indigenous community groups had in many ways moved on, at least in the NT. In 1996, at the request of the Julalikari Association in Tennant Creek, the NT Liquor Commission (by now under a new Chairman more sympathetic to community initiatives) conducted a 6-month trial of measures in Tennant Creek that included a ban on takeaway sales on Thursdays, reduced hours on other days, and a ban on sales of 4-liter cask wines. When an evaluation demonstrated that the measures had not only led to a drop of around 20% in alcohol-related assaults and hospital admissions, but also enjoyed majority community support among both Indigenous and non-Indigenous residents, the Liquor Commission extended their operation indefinitely (d'Abbs, Togni, & Crundall, 1996). Over the next few years the Tennant Creek restrictions were evaluated on two more occasions, in 1998 and 2000 respectively (d'Abbs, Togni, Stacey, & Fitz, 2000; Gray, Saggers, Atkinson, Sputore, & Bourbon, 1998). They also became a prototype for similar initiatives in other northern Australian towns (d'Abbs & Togni, 2000; National Drug Research Institute, 2007). (In July 2006 the Tennant Creek restrictions were rescinded and replaced by a number of other measures, which are currently under evaluation.)

Many of the more innovative attempts at strengthening local controls over alcohol use in Indigenous communities--and certainly most of the well documented ones--have taken place in the NT. Martin, however, has described an initiative that took place in the Cape York (Queensland) community of Aurukun in the late 1990s (Martin, 1998). The Aurukun Alcohol Law Council was an advisory and decision-making body recognized under Aboriginal tradition and also under amendments to the Local Government (Aboriginal Lands) Act 1978. The Council was authorized to designate specified areas--both public and private--as dry or subject to restrictions on alcohol availability. However, declarations over private places could only be made by the Law Council following written or personal application from the occupier (in the case of a dwelling) or from those with authority under Aboriginal tradition (in the case of an outstation or traditional land area within the Shire). Once made, declarations had the force of law and infractions could be investigated by State police or Aboriginal police officers. In some ways the Aurukun system of declarations over private residences foreshadows the provision for Special Restricted Areas in the NT under the NT Licensing Act. Under this measure, householders in NT towns and communities can have their own residences declared alcohol free, thereby helping householders to resist "humbugging" by other Aboriginal family members who might attempt to drink on the premises by invoking kinship-based obligations. In Tennant Creek, a town with a population of 3,000, some 50 Aboriginal householders have now made use of this measure.

In another, more recent, local initiative, the Groote Eylandt Mining Co. has cooperated with Anindiliyakwa Land Council and a local Aboriginal community to trial a system in which only those who have a permit can purchase take-away liquor. An evaluation of this trial showed it to have reduced alcohol-related violence (Conigrave, Proude, & d'Abbs, 2007).


None of the examples cited above can be cited as evidence--much less a model--of fully effective social control of alcohol in Indigenous communities (leaving aside the question of what, in any case, would count as "fully effective"). Moreover, few initiatives have been evaluated; many have languished after a brief period for want of anything beyond pilot or seed funding. What these examples do indicate, however, is that Aboriginal desire to control alcohol use has not been simply swept away by "rivers of grog." Many communities, on the contrary, harbor a wealth of experience, energy, and commitment, all of which is in danger of being crushed by the external imposition of heavy handed, blanket measures that take no account of local priorities and capacities for social control.

If that, simply stated, is the challenge for policy, the challenge for research is to bring a more analytical and theoretically-informed inquiry to bear on the nature, limitations and powers--existing and potential--of the social control of alcohol, one that will help to identify barriers and enablers that impact on what must be both a short and long-term goal: social control structures and processes through which local rules, norms and values, and external laws and agencies complement each other in enhancing the capacities of individuals, families and communities to manage the harms caused by alcohol misuse.


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AUTHOR'S NOTE: The author would like to thank the two anonymous reviewers for their comments on an earlier draft of this article. For additional information about this article contact: Peter d'Abbs, Menzics School of Health Research, PO Box 41096, Casuarina, NT 0811, Australia.
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Publication:Contemporary Drug Problems
Date:Sep 22, 2010
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