Gillard prepares for Aborigine liquor law battle

By Greg Ansley

I have a real fear that the rivers of grog that wreaked such havoc among indigenous communities are starting to flow once again, says Prime Minister Julia Gillard. Photo / AP
I have a real fear that the rivers of grog that wreaked such havoc among indigenous communities are starting to flow once again, says Prime Minister Julia Gillard. Photo / AP

The federal Government is preparing for a new battle against Queensland and the Northern Territory over access to alcohol in Aboriginal communities.

Restrictions were imposed during former Liberal Prime Minister John Howard's intervention in the territory after the scale of the social damage drink was wreaking was detailed in the report on Aboriginal child sexual abuse, Little Children are Sacred.

The measures were extended under Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard's Stronger Futures policy, linked to a banned drinkers' register in the NT and restrictions imposed in Queensland.

Labor Governments have since been ousted by conservative Administrations in Queensland and the NT, where the Country Liberal Party won support from Aboriginal leaders opposing the bans and lured a significant indigenous vote away from Labor.

Now Gillard, fearing a return of what she called "the rivers of grog", is facing a fight that she can only partially win through federal laws.

Gillard claims the policy had been working, greatly reducing alcohol-fuelled violence and emergency admissions to hospitals. The NT and Queensland say it has failed, and discriminates against Aborigines.

The Little Children report said that alcohol and other drugs were having a massive impact on the social fabric of indigenous communities, contributing to family and cultural breakdowns and endangering children.

It said extreme alcohol abuse had become the norm in the NT, with devastating effects: alcohol killed an Aboriginal Australian every 38 hours, one-quarter of those in the NT. Central Australia had the nation's worst rate of deaths caused by alcohol.

Gillard told Parliament that alcohol restrictions and the NT banned drinkers' register had been succeeding.

In the first year of the register's operation, alcohol-related assaults dropped in Darwin, Palmerston, Alice Springs and Katherine and there were 10,000 fewer "antisocial instances" reported, she said.

"Now, since it was pulled down by the Country Liberal Party in the NT, we're hearing worrying reports about the rise in admissions to the emergency department at Alice Springs Hospital due to alcohol-related accidents and abuse," Gillard said.

"People are witnessing more alcohol-related violence. In and around Alice Springs over the Christmas/New Year period there were at least five alcohol-related deaths.

"Former banned drinkers are now again on the long list of alcohol-related offences coming before the Alice Springs Magistrates Court each day."

Gillard said she was also worried about plans to wind back restrictions in Queensland.

"I have a real fear that the rivers of grog that wreaked such havoc among indigenous communities are starting to flow once again."

Gillard cannot force the NT to reintroduce the register, but she can use federal laws to impose bans on indigenous communities. She has little power to counter laws passed in Queensland.

Indigenous leaders have been divided. In Queensland, prominent Aborigines, including academic and activist Noel Pearson and former Labor Party national president Warren Mundine, have strongly opposed plans by Premier Campbell Newman to ease restrictions.

But others support an end to the bans. In Queensland indigenous leader Gracelyn Smallwood described Gillard's claims of success in reducing alcohol problems as "fanciful".

NT Acting Chief Minister Robyn Lambley said she would not let Canberra axe policies that had been mandated by the people, granted when her party won power last year with a clear majority on the promise the drinkers' register would end.

"We did that for one reason and one reason only," she said. "It wasn't working, and we do not intend to reinstate the banned drinker register."

Newman said the bans "inappropriately discriminated" against Aborigines and Queensland would continue with a review of alcohol policy.

- NZ Herald

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