The shadow of war is falling across Northern Australia once again.
I think we all knew that Campbell Newman was going to be trouble, in many ways. The election of the CLP to power in the Territory under the leadership of Terry Mills came with a ballyhooed endorsement of the bush vote, with Indigenous leaders riding into power in four electorates along with Mills. But in recent days the conservative electoral victories have morphed into the promise of a pestilential renewal of the Grog Wars.
Just this week, Peter d’Abbs, Professor of Substance Misuse Studies at the Menzies School of Health Research, published a brief, incisive overview of the threat on The Conversation, “New singers, old song: alcohol bans in Aboriginal communities.” He looks back at the history of alcohol bans in Aboriginal communities, some hard fought for by members of the communities themselves, some imposed by outsiders, most notably through the legislation arising from the Northern Territory Emergency Response. Now, examining new developments, he summarizes:
In July this year a sunset clause written into the NTER took effect. The Gillard Government has since introduced its own legislation. Entitled Stronger Futures, the new legislation retains the framework of the NTER alcohol restrictions, while seeking to return decision-making power back to individual communities by encouraging and supporting them to formulate their own alcohol management plans.
How this policy will work in practice, and how it will articulate with NT legislation remains to be seen, but to suggest – as Mills implies – that most residents of Aboriginal communities are chafing for greater access to alcohol is misleading.
Further, it is difficult to imagine that he and his government do not know this.
So what is really at issue here? Two factors appear relevant. The election-winning strategies of both the LNP under Campbell Newman and the CLP in the NT involved forming alliances with individual Aboriginal leaders, some of whom are opposed to restrictions in communities.
Moreover, in both the NT and north Queensland, opposition to restrictions in communities stems in part from a belief that the restrictions aggravate levels of public drunkenness by Aboriginal drinkers in towns.
In the NT, successive governments have grappled with this by endlessly refining law enforcement measures such as the Two Kilometre Law, which legally bans drinking in public just about anywhere in towns.
But in the absence of any willingness to impose serious limitations on the retailers who profit from serving the appetites of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal drinkers alike, these measures have generally had limited effect.
d’Abbs concludes by noting that “To suggest that [the problems of the grog] can be addressed by opening up availability of alcohol in Aboriginal communities, particularly in communities that have indicated that they do not want alcohol, is a cruel hoax.”
Coincidentally, a few weeks before the NT elections, I had plucked down from my bookshelves Alexis Wright’s Grog War (Magabala Books, 1997), in which d’Abbs plays a role. I bought the book after reading Wright’s magnificent Carpentaria, but had let it languish. The 2007 Miles Franklin winning novel was a surreal tour-de-force and I wasn’t sure I wanted to rush too quickly into what I presumed would be a more conventional work of non-fiction by her. As it turns out, Grog War is, in its own way, almost equally surreal and far more disturbing.
In it, Wright tells the story of the long battle waged by the Julalikari Council and the Anyinginyi Congress in Tennant Creek (the town “where the beer truck stopped” as the title of Maggie Brady’s memorable study of Outback alcoholism was called) to bring the community together to restrict the sale of grog and alleviate the misery that the booze brought to most everyone who lived there, black and white alike.
It’s well known that alcohol consumption in the Territory outpaces that of the rest of Australia, and almost equally well known that Tennant Creek’s consumption outpaced that of the Territory. In the 70s and 80s there was not an Aboriginal family in the Tennant or surrounds that hadn’t been broken in some way by the violence and death that flowed in the wake of the grog. The main street of Tennant Creek, especially on pension-check Thursdays and the weekend following, was a short stretch of mayhem. Crowds millled about outside the hotels and disco, broken bottles became deadly weapons, shop windows were routinely smashed, and the police and the hospital staff struggled to keep up with injuries. The Town Council wanted to encourage tourism based on historic gold mining, but visitors were routinely warned to stay off the streets. Everyone was losing, it seems, except the proprietors of the drinking outlets.
Julalikari Council wanted the whole town to tackle the problem and what they wanted was simple and radical: a grog-free day on Thursdays when the pension checks arrived. Predictably, the proposal was met with outrage on the part of those who blamed the trouble on drinkers and conveniently ignored the question of supply. Banning the sale of alcohol, even for one day a fortnight, was judged to be “discriminatory”; ironically, the hoteliers invoked the Racial Discrimination Act, saying that banning the sale of booze to problem Aboriginal drinkers contravened its principles. Of course, the truth was more that it would discriminate against the purchase of alcohol by white people, and even more to the point, that it would seriously cripple the profits of the pub and takeaway shop owners. A ban would be racially divisive, and the backlash against Aboriginal people, some argued, would be devastating.
But Julalikari would not be deterred. Devastation was already upon their people, and they knew that unless the whole community came together to resolve the problem, half-measures would be doomed to failure. The main central section of Grog War details the extended legal battle the Council waged to institute grog-free days and to impose restrictions on the sale of strong beer, and four- and five-liter casks of wine. It is an ugly, sordid story in many ways. The licensees were so convinced of their rectitude that many of them didn’t bother to engage Counsel: they apparently believed that their case was so self-evident that they didn’t need to prepare carefully, that the NT Liquor Commission and the government would never give in to the patently outrageous solution of restricting sales to restrict the pernicious outcomes of overconsumption and its attendant violence.
In the end, Julalikari prevailed. They knew that the grog-free days would not in themselves resolve the deep-seated problems, but argued that without the chance to give families some relief, to allow women to spend their checks on food and clothing and toys for a day before the money was all pissed away, they would be unable to initiate the work of drying out the drunks, changing behavior patterns, and making even minimal progress towards changing the town’s culture. They argued for a trial period of six-months for the ban; in short, they asked for a chance.
And when the ban took effect, levels of violence dropped markedly. Children were seen around the town wearing new clothes; school attendance improved. The rates of call-outs at the police station plummeted and the hospital was no longer besieged with staggering loads of injury. Tennant Creek didn’t become a paradise, but it stepped away from the jaws of hell.
Magabala Books re-issued Grog War in 2009 with a new preface by the author. Wright remains passionate about the need to confront and control the problems of alcohol in Aboriginal communities, and perhaps it is time that her book is read, or re-read, by those contemplating the loosening of restrictions, many of which are in place at the insistence of the communities themselves, as was the case in Tennant Creek when the battle was undertaken in earnest in the 90s.
And while Grog War is largely a chronicle of that battle, and much of it is set in the courtroom, there is a section near the end, entitled “No Sleep at Mulga,” a mere twenty pages, that makes the case as eloquently as the rest of the book put together. It is the part of the book that most closely resembles the hallucinatory quality of Wright’s epic fiction, and perhaps for that reason contains some of the most powerful writing in the story. It breaks the narrative of the legal battle to take the reader inside a camp where kids are out all night looking for thrills, where old women wake from blackouts, and men battle depression and aimlessness. Its conclusion is utterly chilling and should give pause to anyone who wants to give the suppliers of booze a chance to wreak further destruction. Here’s is the end of Dwayne’s story, encapsulating all of the misery that Wright has documented throughout Grog War. It is, one hopes, sobering.
It was no surprise to anyone when Dwayne walked out onto the highway one moonless night and was hit by a car that did not stop. It was touch and go for several days in hospital. When his body regained consciousness in spite of his mind’s decision to die, he tried to detach all of the plastic tubes that fed him life until they strapped him down. Just the muscles in his face twitched when the police read out a list of charges which were enough to put him behind bars for a long time.
There are support mechanisms in the Aboriginal community to help people like Dwayne and his family. If they can get there in time when there are so many who need the same kind of intensive support. If their meagre resources can create the safety net strong enough to hold him. When there are other people around more than willing to cut holes in that net.
Because Dwayne will be able to find a way to commit suicide.
It is only a matter of time.