Op-ed: Alice Springs and alcohol policy

My first printed opinion piece was published in the NT News as a follow up to my commitment to quit alcohol for one year.  I was grateful for the opportunity.  The piece suggests three policy ideas concerning alcohol in Alice Springs.

Over the fold is a pdf version of my original submission and a scan of the News piece.

The following is my original submission:

As the first from the Generation Y (those born 1980-1995) to be elected to a municipal Council in the Territory I was honoured in March this year to be elected Deputy Mayor of Alice Springs. My generation lives within a specific set of circumstances and I am obliged to advocate reform with this in mind. In my new role my first decision was to quit alcohol for one year.

My main motivation is to set an example. If the National Health and Medical Research Council recommends no more than 4 standard drinks on any single occasion then excessive alcohol consumption in the Territory is commonplace. Too often we leave the task of finding solutions to policy makers without realising that it is also us who can build a social and cultural intolerance of alcohol misuse.

(continued over the fold)

My second motivation is to send the right message. Excessive consumption is detrimental to personal health. It takes time away from other obligations such as work, family and community life. Too much disposable income in the Territory is spent to fuel excessive consumption and this reduces the ability of families to exercise choice, build assets and participate in the broader economy. Whilst abstinence is not the sole solution I advocate at 28 I want to send a positive message to others in my generation.

My third motivation is to promote discussion open to more innovative and creative ideas. In the political arena the issue of excessive alcohol consumption is not a high priority partly because too many politicians and too many community leaders engage in this very activity.

In the contest of ideas the camps of public opinion appear divided along the lines of either furthering or eliminating alcohol supply restrictions, and little else. The nominal Left resist measures that apply only to certain groups of people. The nominal Right resist measures that apply to everyone and not just the problem drinkers. Racial undertones masked as either political correctness or subtle racism divides our population. Such thinking obstructs long overdue reform.

In my opinion the issue to confront is not just political courage but a deeper understanding as to the factors that motivate alcohol misuse.

For individuals alcohol is an out. Responsible drinking is a way to wind down. For too many Territorians alcohol is a sorry excuse to escape social, emotional or any other personal challenges of life. As Territorians the issue that we have is that this sorry excuse extends to too many people.

The late Swedish Professor Nils Bejerot was of the view that substance misuse (including alcohol) is a social contagion that spreads across a population if five conditions are present. That is, just as the common cold requires the conditions of cooler temperatures and close interaction between people the incidence of substance misuse and its reach within a population requires five social conditions. They are (and not in order): the behaviour of those in the immediate environment; a permissive social ideology; boredom; availability of the substance, and; availability of money to purchase the substance. In the Territory commentators refer to the ‘rivers of grog’ and these rivers flow in circumstances where the above conditions flourish.

For policy makers these conditions provide a tangible path forward. If all of our efforts, resources and political will were put towards this path then the social ills of alcohol misuse would be greatly reduced.

In my stance as Deputy Mayor the most useful condition to explore is the second: a social ideology that permits alcohol misuse. This condition is relevant because significant amounts of alcohol are consumed in public and restricted space within the Alice Springs municipal area (and many other urban centres in the Territory). Such misuse is linked to homelessness and life circumstances that would lead any person to alcohol misuse, but this does not mean we should accept it.

In my view Local Government in the Territory, including individual Councils and Shires, do not have access to the resources or tools necessary to bring about a desired solution. In my mind there must be a partnership across all levels of government.

Consider these three ideas.

First, in Alice Springs take-away customers are required to furnish valid photo ID with every alcohol purchase so as to deny those prohibited from purchasing alcohol as a result of a court decision. This net could be cast wider to include people who have infringed a By-Law (such as drinking in a public space). This would go some way towards sending the right message that By-Law infringement is not acceptable.

Second, around $1.5 million is spent annually by governments towards public and town camp Patrols in Alice Springs. We recognise that matters such as drinking in public and restricted space are not matters that must be dealt with solely by police resources. At present there is no link between these Patrols and an overturning of a social ideology permissive of alcohol misuse. Linking Patrols to By-Law enforcement, even in partnership with Police, would go some way towards focusing limited resources of government.

Third, there is widespread recognition that the 50% blanket welfare quarantining as part of the intervention has led to less money being spent on grog and more on positive products that benefit families. Putting in place a policy where authorised traditional owners could selectively quarantine the remaining 50% cash amount in certain circumstances and in a culturally supported model would go some way towards rebuilding social and cultural norms of authority. Many recognise that individual cash payments undermine communal obligations.

These three ideas require further detail yet what they represent is change and a move towards addressing the conditions that lead to widespread alcohol misuse.

Recently I was driving through a town camp in Alice Springs with two senior women from the western deserts of Central Australia. They shook their head in sorrow at the numbers of young people drinking. I was told with a sad tone how this did not happen with their generation. I asked, ‘what do you think needs to be done?’, and was told that these youth ‘should be picked up and taken back home’.

There was a lengthy pause and I was told that they needed to learn culture so that they could pass it on to the younger generation. There was a sense of hopelessness at how these conditions could be tolerated.

This encounter reminded me of the change between generations. It was a soft yet powerful voice hidden from the toil of media and the political exchange between individuals removed from the plight that affects so many Territorians.

original submission – opinion piece

NT News_Sat 6 June 2009

On another note, a number of contacts in the Territory have referred me to Chris Raine’s blog Hello Sunday Morning – an interesting read on the topic of binge drinking.


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