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Problematizing alcohol through the eyes of the other: alcohol policy and aboriginal drinking in the Northern Territory, Australia.

In 2010, in an article published in the Medical Journal of Australia, Skov, Chikritzhs, Li, Pircher, & Whetton reported that in 2005-06 the rate of alcohol-attributable deaths among Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory (NT), Australia, at 21.4 per 10,000 adults, was around 10 times the national rate of 1.9 deaths per 10,000 adults. The corresponding rate among non-Aboriginal residents in the NT was 4.0--still more than double the national rate. These are among the more disturbing outcomes associated with a region that has consistently recorded apparent per capita alcohol consumption levels around 50% higher than Australia as a whole. With a level in 2006-07 equivalent to 14.35 litres of pure alcohol, the NT--a thinly populated region occupying about one sixth of the Australian landmass--is one of the heaviest drinking regions in the world (Skov et al., 2010). Economic indicators tell a similar story: In 2009-10, average household weekly expenditure on alcoholic beverages in the NT was $54.47, higher than in any other jurisdiction and 68% higher than the national average of $32.35. Whereas nationally expenditure on alcoholic beverages accounted for 2.6% of total expenditure on goods and services, in the NT the figure was 3.6% (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2011).

Numerous articles in the popular media have presented graphic and sometimes harrowing descriptions of the kind of day-today (or night-to-night) life that gives rise to these statistics. Among recent examples, Rothwell, in February 2011 of this year, described the town of Alice Springs as a town "spiralling out of control" and "on the brink--of who knows what" as he documented a litany of sexual assaults and bashings among Aborigines intoxicated with alcohol and or cannabis (2011a, 2011b). Meanwhile Anna Krien, in a recent essay entitled "Booze Territory: the crisis of alcoholism," casts her journalistic eye a little more widely to describe some of the initiatives that have been adopted over the years to try to ameliorate the problem of pervasive binge drinking (2011). The NT's predilection for binge drinking and violence has also attracted the attention of the international media. When the head of the facio-maxillary unit at Royal Darwin Hospital drew attention to the high levels of alcohol-attributable jaw fractures that he was regularly called upon to attend, his remarks sped around the world under a headline proclaiming Darwin as "the broken jaw capital of the world" (see, e.g., Malkin, 2010).

For all their differences, most of these accounts share two common elements: first, they foreground Aboriginal drinking; consumption by non-Aboriginal residents of the NT rates scant comment; secondly, they write despairingly about policies and programs that have been tried in the past in attempts to reduce the problem. But this, analytically speaking, is about as far as they go. There is little evidence of any attempt to explain why things are as they are in the NT, either in journalistic or, for that matter, in more academic accounts. Krien, in her essay "Booze Territory," offers a partial exception to this pattern. Towards the end of her account she refers to the American anthropologist Nancy Lurie's 1971 description of heavy drinking among native North Americans as "the world's oldest ongoing protest demonstration," repeated in order "to maintain the Indian-white boundary" (cited in Krien, 2011). Similarly, Krien concludes, destructive drinking among Aborigines in places such as Alice Springs signifies a rejection of the mainstream society. While elements of Aboriginal rejection may be present, I shall argue that this explanation inverts the underlying dynamic which is, rather, one of a continuing refusal by the "mainstream" society to accept a fully inclusive place for Aboriginal people, especially in urban spaces--that is, for continuing marginalization of the latter.

The focus of this article, however, is not Aboriginal drinking per se, but drinking in the Northern Territory, and the alcohol policies that seek to shape it. I shall argue that Aboriginal drinking patterns and the way in which they are represented as problems for policy cannot be adequately understood in the absence of an historically informed analysis of the structure and culture of the civil society in which they take place. By "alcohol policies," I refer to all public policies by means of which the supply and drinking of alcoholic beverages are managed. Alcohol policies set legislative boundaries and rules within which various stakeholders pursue their interests--such as suppliers seeking profits, politicians seeking reelection and drinkers seeking the next drink. Politically--at least in liberal-democratic societies--policies derive legitimacy from, and in turn help to sustain, the less visible boundaries that define civil society in a given setting. I follow Alexander in conceptualizing civil society as "a realm of structured, socially established consciousness, a network of understandings that operates beneath and above explicit institutions and the self-conscious interests of elites" (Alexander, 1992, p. 290). Analytically the "network of understandings" constituting civil society can be conceptualized as comprising two components: classificatory systems that provide the categories in terms of which people assign meaning to their own and others' actions (Douglas, 1966) and the boundaries that separate categories from each other. Boundaries may be physical or symbolic (or both), relatively permeable or impermeable, inclusive and exclusive. Alcohol, as an intoxicating beverage, occupies a unique place with respect to civil society. On the one hand, as anthropologists in particular have observed, it is widely used in different societies as a marker of temporal, spatial, and cultural boundaries--for example, between work time and leisure time (Gusfield, 1987; Heath, 2000). As an intoxicant, however--and this aspect has attracted less attention than its utility as a boundary marker--it also threatens boundaries: sexual, spatial, functional. In this article, I explore both properties in the context of the NT. The analysis begins with events nearly half a century ago, at a time when alcohol policies and the social boundaries sanctioned by them were about to undergo radical change. It concludes with a critical assessment of the implications of contemporary alcohol policies for ongoing attempts to reduce alcohol-related harms among Aboriginal people, and suggestions for an alternative approach.

Dismantling boundaries: The end of Aboriginal prohibition

On March 19, 1964, the following item appeared in the Darwin newspaper--The Northern Territory News (Figure 1). Headed "Police pulled man out of bed court is told," it reports on a court hearing involving an Aboriginal man--Bobby Turner:

A Welfare Officer said in the Darwin Police Court today that a native had been pulled out of bed, charged with drinking liquor, and put in the ceils last night.

The Officer, Mr Ted Harvey, was speaking for aboriginal Bobby Turner of Bagot.

Mr Harvey said it was true that a call had gone out from Bagot to the police station, but that it was some considerable time before the police arrived.

In the meantime, Bobby Turner had returned to his hut and gone to bed. He had slept for some time when police pulled him out of his bed and arrested him.

Mr Harvey said Turner admitted he had been drinking and was under the influence.

"But he wasn't causing a disturbance or annoying anybody," Mr Harvey said.

"No doubt he had the appearance of being drunk when the police woke him--with the combined effects of a hangover and sleep."

Scanning Turner's lengthy record, Mr Leader S.M. commented: "This must be one of the worst records of minor offences on the police files."

He sentenced Turner to 14 days gaol.

The item invites comment on several counts. First, the man who is the object of arrest, judicial inquiry and incarceration--"aboriginal Bobby Turner"--does not get to speak for himself. Other people--White authority figures--speak about him, possibly (though we cannot be sure from the news item) to him, and on his behalf. The journalistic portrayal of Turner as a mute object of other people's interventions, including being woken and dragged from his bed in what might otherwise have been the privacy of his home, evokes a central feature of the assimilationist policies of the day. Aboriginal people, within this policy paradigm, were subject to comprehensive, paternalistic controls by agencies of church (in the form of missions) or state--including controls over where and with whom they lived, and what they could do with what little income they received. Secondly, the account offers a glimpse into the ways in which the state at this time responded to infractions of one of those forms of control: the prohibition of possession or consumption of liquor by Aboriginal people in the NT. This provision constituted one of several boundary mechanisms that served to exclude Aboriginal people from participation as equals in the young settler society of the NT.

According to a parliamentary report prepared in 1964, this society was composed of 29,782 "whites" and 18,700 "aborigines" (Legislative Council for the Northern Territory, 1964, paragraph 8). The former were predominantly town-dwellers: 20,500 according to the report were divided between the towns of Darwin and Alice Springs, with most of the remainder in "three or four smaller towns and in outback localities." The towns in turn were predominantly "white," with "about 1000 aborigines" (1) in Darwin or Alice Springs, and the remainder "concentrated in Administration settlements, missions and pastoral leases" (Legislative Council for the Northern Territory, 1964, paragraph 8). The boundaries between urban and nonurban were racial as well as spatial, with Aboriginal access to urban areas circumscribed by curfews and other restrictions. Of all the boundaries constraining Aboriginal people at the time, however, prohibition on drinking was said to be the most resented as a marker of their inferior status in the social order, and it was certainly fiercely contested. In 1963, some 1,251 convictions were recorded against "wards" in Alice Springs and Darwin, 1,115 of them--almost 90%-for offenses against the Licensing Ordinance (Northern Territory of Australia, 1964, p. 1522). (2)

This, however, was about to change. Indeed, at the time of Bobby Turner's incarceration for apparently having consumed alcohol, legislation was already before the NT Legislative Council to repeal the law of which he had fallen foul. On February 19, 1964, the NT Administration introduced into the Council the Licensing (Amendment) Bill, the main effect of which was to repeal laws prohibiting possession and consumption of liquor by "wards" (i.e. Aboriginal people--see note 1). At the time, control of the NT legislature was shared between the national government--that held a majority of seats through ex officio appointments--and locally elected members (Walker, 1986). Introduction of the new legislation sharply divided both the Legislative Council and the community. While many individuals publicly supported the proposed changes, arguing that the discrimination implicit in the existing laws could no longer be justified, others were passionately opposed. Most locally elected members of the Council opposed the change and attempted to stall its passage through the legislature (Walker, 1986), while the licensee of one Darwin hotel told a parliamentary committee set up to examine the Bill that white drinkers would be unwilling to drink beer from glasses that had been used by "natives" ("Police Pulled Man," 1964).

Inevitably, however, given the national government's majority in the legislature, the new laws were ultimately passed. In lifting the ban on Aboriginal access to alcohol in the NT, the national government was pursuing two objectives. The first derived from the policy of assimilation which, while sanctioning tight controls over Aboriginal life, was also directed towards trying to mold Aboriginal people into becoming equal partners in what was essentially a monocultural vision of the dominant society. Within this framework, discriminatory legislative provisions were to be removed as quickly as the authorities deemed feasible. The second objective was political: Australia's treatment of Aborigines had attracted criticism in international fora such as the United Nations, and while some of this criticism was no doubt part of the political theater of the Cold War, the Australian Government was anxious to minimize its exposure to opprobrium (Clark, 2008).

In calling for the dismantling of overt discrimination, however, the Australian government did not propose to remove all controls. At a conference of Commonwealth and State Ministers held in Darwin in July 1963--the year before the Licensing Ordinance changes were introduced--it was noted that in some jurisdictions, including the NT, a period of transition would accompany the ending of discrimination. A resolution of the conference stated:

It was agreed that in principle it would be preferable that any such restraint during a transitional period should be applied to areas and not to groups of people and that such restraints should preferably have general application throughout such areas in respect of the manufacture and disposal of liquor. (Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia, 1963)

In other words, while racially based restrictions on access to alcohol were no longer considered politically acceptable, spatially based "restraints" could be used to manage the consequences of the changes.

Partly as a result of debates generated by the initial tabling of the legislation in February 1964, the final version of the new Licensing Bill that came into effect in September 1964 contained three such restraints. One concerned the definition of "public place." Under the old legislation, drinking liquor in public places was prohibited. Under the new amendment, any place that satisfied certain criteria could be prescribed as a public place by regulation. A second was a provision prohibiting any person from bringing liquor onto, or consuming liquor in, an Aboriginal "reserve" without the approval of the person in charge of the reserve. A third was insertion of a clause under which holders of pastoral leases in the NT could apply in writing for a designated area within the lease to be declared a "Restricted Area." In the event of the request being granted, it would become an offense to bring liquor into, or consume liquor in, the Restricted Area.

Together, the new legislation with its amendments shifted the legislative framework for controlling access to alcohol from boundaries defined on the basis of race to spatially defined boundaries, thereby enabling the government of the day to claim that discrimination against Aboriginal people with respect to alcohol had ceased--at least in jurisdictions over which the Australian government exercised direct control-while maintaining mechanisms in place that primarily constrained Aboriginal people's access to alcohol.

By the mid-1960s, however, other social changes were underway that were to radically reshape the life circumstances of Aboriginal people in the NT. Nationally, Aboriginal activist groups and others were challenging the principles and practice of assimilation policy (Clark, 2008). In 1965 the Commonwealth Arbitration and Reconciliation Commission ruled that Aboriginal workers in the pastoral industry were henceforth entitled to Award wages. Although, as Anthony points out, the decision was far from the guarantor for equal wages that has subsequently been claimed, it nonetheless became a pretext for widespread expulsions of Aboriginal workers and their families from pastoral stations to the fringes of towns (Anthony, 2007). As Merlan has noted, the ending of prohibition on Aboriginal drinking in the NT in 1964 also coincided with a general weakening in the management of Aboriginal access to urban spaces and, in the years to follow, with an accentuated urban drift on the part of Aborigines (Merlan, 1998). In short, the boundaries defining the emerging settler society as a civil society were under threat.

Redefining boundaries: Territorians and problem drinkers

As Lamont and Fournier (1992) remark, symbolic boundaries ostensibly based on moral or cultural categories sometimes serve to mark racial or ethnic boundaries where these latter attributes can no longer be explicitly invoked for political reasons. The response of alcohol policy makers in the NT to the collapse of racially defined boundaries in the 1960s has taken two forms: a rhetorical form, through the creation of a policy discourse, and a legislative form, through numerous laws and amendments, most of them intended to prohibit drinking in defined areas.

Rhetorically, problematized drinking, as Gusfield (1996) has observed, implies the existence of drinking patterns and drinkers that are not seen as problematic. These, like problematized drinking, are socially constructed through one or more discourses. In the NT, the obverse of what, as I show below, has come to be labeled as "the problem drinker" is "the Territorian." The Territorian is White, usually male, a big drinker who always, however, maintains a capacity for self-control. An early appearance can be seen, fortuitously, in the same newspaper that reported on the unfortunate Bobby Turner (Figure 1). In a half-page advertisement for "'Vic': the beer that's really beer," we see a young Caucasian man, lean and muscular, dressed in sandals, shorts and a shirt unbuttoned down his chest, one hand resting on the bar in a relaxed pose, the other holding a glass of "Vic." Although he is portrayed as casually dressed, in both grooming and attire he is orderly, neat. He is, clearly, a man in control--of himself, and of the beer he is drinking. As Elias argued, the concept of self-control is central to the idea of civilization, and settling the northern tropical frontiers of Australia was seen at the time very much as a civilizing mission (Elias, 1982). Cultivation of a discourse in which the self-control of the White drinker was implicitly counterposed to its absence among "natives" was an important element in the formation of a Caucasian-dominated settler society in the NT.

That non-Aboriginal drinking patterns in the NT have historically taken a less benign form than implied in the advertisement for "the beer that's really beer" is attested to by a number of accounts. For example, in 1959, an official of the NT Administration, responding to complaints to the Minister about drinking by Aboriginal and (in the highly racialized political terminology of the day) "part-coloured" people in Alice Springs, wrote a draft letter:

It is suggested that the problem of excessive drinking by part-coloured persons is part of a wider social problem not only in the Alice Springs area but throughout the Northern Territory with regard to excessive drinking. This Administration, as an employer of a large staff, is seriously concerned at the effect of excessive drinking in the Northern Territory on its staff with the resultant effect of this on the efficiency of officers. With the strong example of European groups in the Territory in drinking, the limitation of the drinking of part-coloured persons to within reasonable levels is presenting, and will continue to present, a most difficult problem, the solution of which will require the assistance of all church groups as well as Government agencies, particularly Police and Welfare, in the Northern Territory. (National Archives of Australia, 1954-1958, folios 86-87)

The anonymous bureaucrat's reference to "the strong example of European groups in the Territory in drinking" proceeded no further than his or her superior's desk. The draft was rejected, and subsequently replaced by one that omitted all references to non-Aboriginal drinking and defined the problem purely in Aboriginal terms (National Archives of Australia, 1954-1958, folios 88-89). The latter draft became the official response. Similarly, in December 1963 an indignant visitor to Darwin wrote to the NT News, reporting that as she stepped out of the aircraft on arrival, one of the ground staff handling her baggage "was reeking of liquor, and was obviously under the influence," while in the town itself the hotels were "continuously jammed with men and women swilling their liquor raucously, and lurching out onto the footpath to the annoyance of sober pedestrians" (Aimers, 1963). Indignation aside, by 1968-69, retail sales of beer, wine and spirits in the NT amounted to $9.3 million--15.7% of total retail sales in the NT, and annual per capita expenditure on alcoholic beverages in the NT, at $132, was 50% higher than the national level (Commonwealth of Australia [Department of the Northern Territory], 1973).

For policy makers, however, it was not the baggage handlers or hotel patrons that demanded attention. In 1972, the election of a Labor national government saw the abandonment of the last vestiges of assimilation policy in favour of Aboriginal "self-determination," one consequence of which was that Aboriginal people's access to welfare payments was enhanced. In 1974, in one of its last legislative acts before surrendering control of the NT Legislative Council to a fully elected Legislative Assembly, the national government also decriminalized public drunkenness in the NT, making the NT the first jurisdiction in Australia in which this was done (Northern Territory Legislative Council, 1974, pp. 1149-1155).

In response, the NT Government embarked on a policy of attempting to control Aboriginal public drinking through spatially defined restrictions--a policy that it has maintained in one form or another up to the present. In 1980 the Government established a working party to consider options for dealing with public drunkenness. The working party's report, named after its chairman Brian Martin, proposed a return to a more punitive stance than the "social welfare" model that underpinned the earlier decriminalization of public drunkenness. Measures recommended included a broadening of the grounds upon which police officers could apprehend persons considered to be intoxicated, and the creation of a new offense of drinking liquor in a public place or on unoccupied private premises without the owner's consent anywhere within two kilometers of licensed premises (Northern Territory Government, 1981).

In 1982, the NT Government acted on the Martin Report by introducing what quickly became known as the Two Kilometer Law. Concerned at the possibility of an electoral backlash on the part of constituents who might interpret the new law literally, the Government drew up a pamphlet which was placed in every letterbox in the towns of the NT. It featured a message from then Chief Minister Paul Everingham:

Most Territorians would not live anywhere else. The Territory, with its weather, its wide open spaces, is a great place to be. Our relaxed way of life is the envy of most Australians.

Your NT Government intends to keep it that way.

Excessive drinking, littering, objectionable behaviour in public are very real social problems. Our Territory way of life could be spoiled by the actions of a troublesome minority.

The NT, like the rest of Australia, has always had laws restricting public drinking.

The old Territory law made it illegal to drink liquor ALMOST ANYWHERE in public. This does not suit our lifestyle.

The new 2 km law lets Territorians drink legally in any public place EXCEPT those close to population centres, where drinking could inconvenience others. It also provides for the exemption from the new law of popular recreation areas within 2 km of licensed premises.

The new 2 km law is designed to help you enjoy yourself in pleasant surroundings ... not hinder your relaxation. It will keep our parks and public areas for people ... not problem drinkers.

The rest of the pamphlet outlines the provisions of the new law and explains how to obtain an exemption. In doing so it makes it very clear at whom the new law is not aimed. For example:

Exemptions can be quickly obtained for those wishing to hold a special function in a public place. (For example, a wedding in the Botanic Gardens, a family reunion in a near-city public area, a sporting function at a local oval.)

So if your club plans a fund-raising champagne breakfast on the foreshore, or a wine-and-cheese promotion in the mall or main street ... have a chat to the Liquor Commission.

The symbolic and social boundaries would have been clear even to the most befuddled voters: on the one hand "Most Territorians," on the other, "problem drinkers"--a "troublesome minority"; on the one hand, weddings in the Botanic Gardens, champagne breakfasts overlooking the beach, on the other: "excessive drinking, littering, objectionable behaviour in public."

A more whimsical news item that nonetheless reinforced the representation of the true (White) Territorian as a heavy drinker whose consumption was characterized by self-control and respect for boundaries appeared in the Northern Territory News around Christmastime in 1999. Beneath a front page headline proclaiming "Deck the halls with boughs of green cans" appeared a photograph of a Christmas tree made out of beer cans. Beside the tree a man was mowing the lawn. His shorts and sleeveless singlet showed him to be a working man--a blue-collar worker--but, like the man in the pub in 1964 with his glass of beer, he too was tidily groomed: hair and beard were as trimmed as the grass he had just mown. A story accompanied the picture:

Getting ready for Christmas in Darwin can be thirsty work--but residents at a Berrimah caravan park have killed two birds with one stone.

It took two weeks of hard drinking and one week to create, but the beer can Christmas tree was well worth the effort, Overlander Caravan Park residents said yesterday.

It took 10 cartons--that's 240 VB beer cans--to build the 2.3m-high beer can tree.

The tree is surrounded by beer can "streamers" with the odd red Emu and gold XXXX cans for colour. (3)

Residents, headed by designer and non-drinker, Carol Mace, and supervisor Bob Barnard, began the "construction" stage of the tree two weeks ago.

Resident Ed Fink said: "We started drinking two weeks ago. It took a day to construct the frame, and a day to put them."

"And we keep adding to it all the time."

Mrs Mace said she got her unique idea from wanting to recycle beer cans.

She said: "There were a lot around, so I had the idea to put up streamers, and we went from there."

The tree's frame is made from aluminium rods, with the pierced cans threaded end-to-end as branches.

So far, the residents have threaded 30 cartons--720 cans--of beer for the tree and decorations.

Mrs Mace said: "About 30 of us will have Christmas lunch under the tree, and there will be presents and Santa."

A traditional star will be placed at the top of the tree--and empty stubbies will be used as candle holders, of course! (Baxter, 1999)

This is, one might say, a story about beer and symbolic boundaries, about how to do what Territorians, by implication, are culturally attuned to doing--that is, drinking lots of beer, especially at Christmas time--in a way that avoids posing any kind of threat to boundaries, spatial, temporal or social. There are no unseemly displays of public drunkenness here--no "littering" or "objectionable behaviour" by a troublesome minority. On the contrary, the man in the photograph, who has no doubt contributed his share of empty cans to the tree, is shown engaging in that quintessential act of maintaining suburban order--mowing the lawn. What makes the story newsworthy, of course, is a playful trick with cultural symbols: the Christmas tree has become a collection of beer cans, but neither the residents of the caravan park who have consumed such impressive amounts of beer nor the journalist writing the story convey any intent to deface or belittle the ancient symbol of Christmas.

The most commonly deployed symbol of belonging within the civil society of the NT today is the term "Territorian." Just as the 1982 letterbox pamphlet about the 2 km law began by appealing to "Most Territorians," the NT Government's decision in 2005 to reject a recommendation from its own committee that called for a reduction in per capita consumption of alcohol was justified by the then Minister for Racing, Gaming and Liquor's insistence that "most Territorians know how to enjoy alcohol responsibly. They are not the target of this framework. Instead, our focus looks to reduce the drinking behaviours that produce the unacceptable levels of harm, social disharmony and community costs that we are no longer willing to tolerate" (Northern Territory Minister for Racing Gaming and Licensing, 2005). Regardless of what "Territorians" know about alcohol, the evidence about how they drink it invites a less sanguine view. According to the 2007 National Drug Strategy Household Survey--that traditionally under-samples Aboriginal people--45.3% of NT residents aged 14 years and over consumed alcohol at risky or high risk levels of short-term harm, higher than any state or territory in Australia, and well above the national level of 35.6%. Similarly, the proportion of NT residents aged 14 and over who consumed at risky or high risk levels of long term harm was 16.5%, compared with a national level of 10.3% and, again, higher than any other jurisdiction (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2008).

Since then, however, the symbolic dichotomy of "most Territorians" and "problem drinker" has become even more deeply entrenched in the dominant alcohol policy discourse of the NT, as the NT Government moves to introduce a radical new set of policy measures, known as the Alcohol Reforms. The new measures include the creation of a "Banned Drinker Register" backed up by an electronic ID system, designed to prevent those on the Register from purchasing takeaway alcohol. Individuals are to be placed on the register if they are apprehended and taken to police cells for public drunkenness at least three times in three months, and/or if they are found to have committed a number of other offenses, such as high-level drunk driving or alcohol-related domestic violence. The new policy also embodies a model of "therapeutic jurisprudence," under which individuals may also, under certain circumstances, be compelled--or in other instances strongly encouraged--to undergo an intervention aimed at curbing their harmful drinking. (4)

In addition to these measures, spatially based restrictions on alcohol consumption have evolved into a palimpsest of often overlapping and therefore logically redundant laws and regulations. The Two Kilometre Law has been amended several times to augment police enforcement powers. The Liquor Act has been amended to provide for a category of "Public Restricted Area," under which local authorities have successfully applied to have drinking in public banned in virtually the entire area occupied by regional towns, while under Commonwealth laws introduced in 2007 possession and consumption of alcohol is now banned on all land officially defined as Aboriginal land. For example, the town of Katherine (estimated resident population in 2006 of 8,193, of whom 24.4% identified as Indigenous [Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2007]) like other NT towns, is subject to the Two Kilometre Law, which effectively prohibits consumption of alcohol in any public space throughout most of the town. In 2007, under the Commonwealth NT Emergency Response, possession and consumption of alcohol also became prohibited in areas in and around the town classified as Aboriginal land. In July 2007 the Katherine Town Council formally applied to the NT Licensing Commission to have the whole of the township declared a Public Restricted Area. In acceding to the request, the Commission took note of concerns expressed by some non-Aboriginal residents that the declaration would interfere with social gatherings such as picnics. Accordingly, in its decision it exempted from the declaration "a small portion defined as the barbecue area immediately above the Katherine River" between the hours of 7:30 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. (Northern Territory Licensing Commission, 2007).

In early August, NT Chief Minister Paul Henderson, in the course of announcing that 850 people had been placed on the Banned Drinker Register within the first month of the new measures taking effect, declared: "most Territorians drink responsibly and are not affected by the reforms, with the scan a small inconvenience to help curb alcohol-related crime and violence. The Banned Drinkers Register and ID system target are working to turn off the tap to problem drinkers across the Territory" (Northern Territory Government, 2011b). A month later, NT Alcohol Policy Minister Delia Lawrie was even more blunt: "Under our reforms, problem drinkers will be banned, but it is drinks as usual for the rest of us" (Northern Territory Government, 2011c).

Conclusions, implications, and alternatives

To summarize: in the near half-century that has passed since Bobby Turner was pulled out of bed and imprisoned for drinking alcohol, the basis for controlling Aboriginal drinking in the NT has shifted from prohibition based on Aboriginality to a system of spatially based restrictions that, while not overtly referring to Aboriginal drinkers, are primarily aimed at them, either--in the case of Commonwealth laws introduced in 2007--by banning possession or consumption of alcohol on all land officially designated as Aboriginal land, or by prohibiting consumption in public spaces in urban areas and prioritizing public drunkenness as a focus for alcohol policy. At the same time, alcohol policies are justified rhetorically by a discourse that counterposes "most Territorians" against "problem drinkers," thereby encoding racial distinctions in nonracial symbols. These changes, however, mask an important continuity: Aboriginal alcohol problems continue to be defined not by the Aboriginal families and communities who directly experience them, but by non-Aboriginal people according to their perceptions and priorities. And these priorities, now as in the past, coalesce around public drunkenness and perceived threats to urban amenity.

Does this matter, and what are the implications? I suggest that it does matter, but before explaining why, a precautionary disavowal might be in order. I do not imply that contemporary Aboriginal drinking patterns in the NT and the associated harms are figments of a racist alcohol policy discourse. The mortality rates cited at the beginning of this article are real and shocking. Public drunkenness in the streets and parks of towns, moreover, is unpleasant for those exposed to it, including tourists, and erodes the quality of life for other residents. Threats to urban amenity are also real.

Though an important issue, public drunkenness is by no means the only or most salient alcohol-related problem that Aboriginal people face. Domestic and other violence, including sexual assaults; financial hardships arising from the diversion of money for grog; the trashing of household order and safety-these are the issues that envelop Aboriginal communities beset by alcohol misuse. Legislatively, the recently introduced criteria for placement of an individual on the Banned Drinker Register include being charged with an offense of domestic violence. In promoting its policies, however, the Government continues to prioritize public order as the salient issue. To define Aboriginal alcohol problems primarily in terms of non-Aboriginal concerns about public drunkenness and urban amenity is, in effect, to ignore what Aboriginal people have to say about their experiences of alcohol misuse. By the same token, the proliferation of spatial boundaries designed to contain Aboriginal drinking only serves to emphasize the continuing marginal status of many Aboriginal people with respect to urban spaces. Neither of these outcomes, I suggest, is conducive to what any sustainable solution to the high levels of Aboriginal alcohol-related harms requires--and that is the engagement by Aboriginal people and organizations, as well as non-Aboriginal policy-makers, as partners in a quest that begins by acknowledging the full range and extent of the damage caused by alcohol misuse.

Conversely, to represent non-Aboriginal drinking patterns in the NT discursively through the glowing image of "the Territorian" or "most Territorians" is to deny the existence of what, on most readings of the evidence available, appears to be a problematic drinking culture.

Is there an alternative approach? In principle, there is, and it is a simple one: listen to Aboriginal people and work with them in defining the problem before rushing to solutions. Further, there are precedents where this has been successfully done in the NT. In 1995, the Julalikari Association, an organization representing Aboriginal residents of the town of Tennant Creek, approached the NT Liquor Commission with a request that takeaway sales from the town's major liquor outlets be stopped every Thursday. The Association argued, first, that it had already implemented a range of measures to reduce demand for alcohol, including the first "night patrol" in Australia (Curtis, 1993) but that measures to reduce the availability of alcohol were also required; second, it claimed that the proposed restrictions had the support of most Aboriginal members of the community (Wright, 2010). Not surprisingly, the proposal generated heated controversy. The Liquor Commission, however, acceded to the Julalikari Association's request, initially as a 6-month trial to be independently evaluated. When the evaluation showed that the restrictions had not only led to significant reductions in harm--including a decline of 34% in presentations featuring alcohol at the local Emergency Department (ED), and a drop of 21% in ED presentations for assaults--but also enjoyed the support of a majority of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal residents of the town, the Commission elected to leave the restrictions in place indefinitely (d'Abbs, Togni, & Crundall, 1996). Subsequent evaluations showed that the measures had a sustained effect (d'Abbs, Togni, Stacey, & Fitz, 2000; Gray, Saggers, Atkinson, Sputore, & Bourbon, 2000). In 2006, however, in a political climate less supportive of population-based approaches to alcohol problems in the NT, the restrictions were rescinded. A subsequent review of the impact of that decision found that, in the 12 months following the removal of restrictions, Indigenous presentations at the local ED for "mental and behavioural disorders due to use of alcohol" increased by 56%, with a further increase of 61% in the following 12 month period (d'Abbs, Ivory, Senior, Cunningham, & Fitz, 2010). By then, however, alcohol policy in the NT had become firmly focused on the "problem drinker."

What became known as the Tennant Creek model was subsequently adopted in other northern Australian towns, with beneficial effects as measured by indicators of harm (d'Abbs & Togni, 2000). My point in citing the example of Tennant Creek here, however, is not so much to argue the case for supply restrictions--although these have been shown to be among the most effective ways of reducing Aboriginal alcohol-related harms at a local level (Gray, Saggers, Sputore, & Bourbon, 2000; National Drug Research Institute, 2007)--but to show what can be achieved when Aboriginal voices are heeded in defining the problem as well as identifying solutions. To do this requires a mind-shift from the practice of defining urban alcohol problems from the vantage point of non-Aboriginal town dwellers concerned primarily with urban amenity. It might also require staring down, on the one hand, those diehard "Territorians" who still believe that if only Aboriginal people would retire to the bush, where they can be "real Aborigines," and leave the towns to white people all would be well and, on the other, those vested interests who consider that they have a moral as well as legal right to sell as much alcohol as they possibly can to Aboriginal drinkers. Surely this cannot be too much to ask of political leaders in the 21st Century?

AUTHOR'S NOTE: The author would like to thank those colleagues who attended the original conference presentation of this article and subsequently contributed to the development of ideas contained in it. An even greater debt is due to two anonymous reviewers whose thoughtful comments were very. helpful in clarifying arguments and ideas first put forward in the earlier conference version. For further information about this article contact Peter d'Abbs, Menzies School of Health Research, PO Box 10639, Brisbane Adelaide St.. QLD, 4000, Au. E-mail:


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(1.) Prior to 1967, in another marker of exclusion, Aborigines were not counted in official population censuses, hence the estimates in these figures.

(2.) In a not very successful attempt to disguise the racial basis of legal discrimination in the welfare legislation of the time, the word "Aboriginal" did not appear in legislation, which referred instead to "wards." In reality, virtually all Aboriginal residents of the NT were "wards" and all wards were Aboriginal, except for those who were officially defined as being "of mixed descent" (Long, 1992, p. 151).

(3.) XXXX (pronounced "Four-ex") is a well-known brand of beer in Australia.

(4.) The new policy is framed by three pieces of legislation passed in May 2011: the Alcohol Reform (Substance Misuse Assessment and Referral for Treatment Court) Act 2011; the Alcohol Reform (Prevention of Alcohol-Related Crime and Substance Misuse)Act 2011; and the Alcohol Reform (Liquor Legislation Amendment) Act 2011. A summary of the role of each new set of laws can be found in a media release issued by the NT Government (Northern Territory Government, 2011a).


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Title Annotation:Beyond the Buzzword: Problematising "Drugs"
Author:D'Abbs, Peter
Publication:Contemporary Drug Problems
Date:Sep 22, 2012
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