Thursday, 13 September 2007
Northern Territory National Emergency Response Amendment (Alcohol) Bill 2007
I am pleased to be able to contribute to this debate today and support the comments which have been made by the member for Jagajaga, the shadow spokesperson for these matters. I think it is worth reminding ourselves of what the Northern Territory National Emergency Response Amendment (Alcohol) Bill 2007 is about. It will amend the alcohol measures in the Northern Territory National Emergency Response Act 2007, a copy of which I sought this morning to remind myself of the complexity of some of it. It changes the 1,350 millilitre trigger for seeking and recording details in relation to takeaway alcohol sales to reduce the complexity of the provision—it makes it a $100 sale at the door; it makes changes to clarify the storage of records of takeaway purchases; it provides certain exemptions to the alcohol offences in relation to tourism operations in parks and other areas, if they are declared; it provides for the alcohol measures to be determined not to apply in a particular area, if warranted—for example, where comprehensive and effective local alcohol management measures are implemented; and it makes it clear that no past or future Northern Territory legislation undermines the emergency response alcohol measures.
As you would no doubt be aware, Mr Deputy Speaker—or, if you are not aware of it personally, you would imagine—this subject is cause for great discussion around the dinner tables in the Northern Territory. There is no doubt at all about the linkage between alcohol abuse, family violence and child abuse. There is no debate about that matter and no debate about the need to reduce alcohol consumption levels in the Northern Territory and in particular to provide rehabilitation and education programs for those people who are dependent upon alcohol. These matters are clear.
There has been a lot of debate in the Northern Territory over recent months about innovation and initiatives developed at a local level to address the issue of alcohol consumption. Alcohol management plans have been developed. The Groote Eylandt management plan has been spoken about in this parliament previously. The community came to a view about how alcohol should be treated within the community and they decided on developing a card system so that, if you were to purchase and consume alcohol in the community on Groote Eylandt, you would require a permit. That permit was reflected in an application and, once you received approval, you were given a card. If you abused that card by supplying alcohol or sharing alcohol with a noncardholder, you lost the card. Some might say that is a severe attitude, but it was developed by the local community in response to their concerns about alcohol abuse, family violence and crime. It has had a dramatic impact on reducing levels of family violence and crime on Groote Eylandt.
More recently, we have had the development of dry areas across the Northern Territory. Alice Springs is now declared a dry town as a result of dry area legislation being introduced by the Northern Territory parliament. There are some exempt areas at which people are able to consume alcohol for recreational purposes—for example, having a picnic with their family. That appears to work. Now we have proposals in the legislation which was previously introduced and which will come into effect on the 15 September 2007 for dry areas across the Northern Territory, including those already enumerated by the member for Jagajaga and the member for Solomon.
We need to understand that there are implications. The member for Jagajaga spoke about the situation at Titjikala. I am not certain about this, but I have had discussions with people over the recent week about the impact of the dry area legislation on Alice Springs once it has been declared dry. What we have seen, and it is apparent to all, is less visibility of people who are drinkers in the town area—a significant reduction in the number of problem drinkers. The problem is that we are not quite sure where they have gone. It might well be that we have part of the answer at Titjikala. As a result of the dry area legislation, people have relocated to drink in another place and, in this set of circumstances, they have chosen Titjikala. So while they have effectively been forced out of Alice Springs as drinkers, they have found another location which is unacceptable to the general community—and unacceptable to the community of Titjikala, I point out—nevertheless, it appears that they are there. We are not certain yet as to the implications it has had on the town camps in Alice Springs, such as whether there has been a higher incidence of violence or violent behaviour in the town camps as a result of the town area being declared dry. We will see the results of that emerge over the next period of time.
Last week I attended a hearing at the Katherine courthouse. The hearing was of the Northern Territory Liquor Commission about a proposal to declare the Katherine community dry. This hearing, as you would expect, received a lot of attention in Katherine. I went to the hearing for an hour or so in the morning and at that the hearing there were in excess of 100 people, a number of whom made contributions in the discussion with the Liquor Commission. We should not underestimate the feeling there is in the community about some of the measures which have either been introduced or proposed to be introduced by both the Northern Territory government and the Commonwealth government in response to the Little children are sacred report. We should not underestimate the impact, and nor should we underestimate the contention that has arisen as a result of the mooted proposals and the proposals which have been introduced, and indeed the proposals that we are debating here this morning.
We need to understand what the implications are. I go back to the point: there is absolutely no doubt in the world about the connection between the excessive use of alcohol and child abuse or indeed family violence more generally, especially the abuse of women. There is no doubt about that. We do need to find ways of limiting both the demand for alcohol through education and rehabilitation programs and the supply of alcohol. That is not a question. A little later I will come to a discussion about some supply-side measures for dealing with alcohol consumption. It is also important that we acknowledge that the bulk of the community drink responsibly. Whilst the amendments in this legislation are in part targeted towards grog runners—I have no truck for grog runners; I do not know any reasonable person who has truck for grog runners—I have to say that I am not certain that the proposals that have been put forward here, and that we are debating this morning, will be effective.
Let me make some observations. What we are being asked to do here is agree to legislation which will limit the amount of alcohol an individual person can purchase, as a takeaway item, in any single transaction at a liquor outlet to $100. Let us assume, for the purposes of discussion, that I am of a mind to buy 25 cartons of grog. How would I go about that in a city like Darwin? Fairly easily, really; I would just go to half a dozen different liquor outlets, or perhaps 10 different liquor outlets, and buy a couple of cartons at each. Not hard. Or, if I live over near the Western Australian border, I might just go into Kununurra and buy a truckload of grog and bring it across the border into the Northern Territory. Or, if I live near Camooweal on the eastern side of the Northern Territory, or if I live on the southern border of the Northern Territory, I might do a similar thing. There is nothing in this legislation which prevents people importing alcohol in substantial quantities from across the border in Western Australia, Queensland or South Australia—nothing. I just do not think it is workable. If we could find a way to absolutely guarantee that this was going to hit grog runners, I would say ‘Whoopee’. I suspect this legislation will not guarantee that, because there are so many ways you can get around it.
On the other hand, under this legislation—and this is a significant point of contention—people going about their everyday business, who may want to have a family barbecue or get-together with a dozen or so people and who go to a liquor outlet to purchase three cartons of beer or a couple of cartons of beer and half a dozen bottles of wine will have to have their names recorded and identify where they are going to drink that alcohol. Most people will say, ‘All right, I’m happy to do that.’ But you have to ask, I think, where the balance is. What evidence is there that the measures being proposed will actually have the outcome they are designed to achieve? Frankly and unfortunately, I do not think there is much evidence. I am concerned about the workability of this element of the proposals. I have no compunction at all in agreeing with the intention—that is, to stop large quantities of grog flowing into Aboriginal communities. That has my absolute, 100 per cent support. But these proposals will have an unfortunate side effect upon the general population. Some people may say, like me, ‘I’m happy to proceed down this course.’ But I can imagine circumstances where people who are ill-informed or do not understand what is happening could become very abusive if they front up to a liquor outlet, try to purchase a quantity of alcohol in excess of $100 and are told by the person at the counter, ‘You’re now required to provide me with your details and we’ll put them on record for a number of years.’ I can well imagine it. The sets of circumstances that could arise as a result of this need to be properly understood.
I am absolutely sympathetic to the view that we have to restrict alcohol into Aboriginal communities. I am just not certain that the proposals in the original legislation or as they are amended here will achieve that result. They will have unintended and, I think, unfortunate consequences on the broader population. I ask the minister to respond when he comes in to sum up. How does he expect to manage this if, let us say, a liquor outlet changes shifts at midday, four o’clock in the afternoon or six o’clock—it does not matter—and I walk into that liquor outlet in the morning and spend my $99.50c worth on alcohol and in the afternoon front up and spend another $99.90 on alcohol? The legislation stipulates single transactions, not multiple transactions. It does not ask for the monitoring of an individual’s purchase of alcohol over the period of a week or a day. It does not connect alcohol outlets. We are not talking about a smart card system where if you put the card down when you buy your alcohol it is recorded against the card and if you go next door to purchase another quantity of alcohol it is recorded against the same card so you have an absolute record of individual purchases. We do not have that here. I think that needs to be investigated as a potential way of dealing with the issue.
Another issue arises out of the question of who can consume alcohol in national parks or other prescribed areas under the legislation. Imagine you are a traveller—let us say you are a grey nomad, and there are a few of us about that vintage in this place—carting a caravan up the Stuart Highway and you decide to go into Nitmiluk National Park, which is Aboriginal land, or Twin Falls at Kakadu National Park. Right next to you there is a tour bus with a whole lot of people. They have the tablecloths out and they are having a sunset dinner with a bottle of champagne and a couple of reds. Under this legislation, you are not allowed to drink even though the purposes for which you are in that park are exactly the same as for those in an organised tour group. As an individual you are not allowed to have alcohol there. That is counterproductive.
There is another unintended consequence of this legislation. People who live in Darwin and fish on the Daly River often take a few beers. If you fish on the Daly River you will not be allowed to take alcohol, because the beds and banks of the Daly River are Aboriginal land. You will not be able to transmit alcohol across that land. If you are fishing on that river you will not be able to consume alcohol. That will happen across a large part of the Northern Territory. It means daytrippers out of Darwin who might go to one of these national parks with their family or friends to show them the sights of the Northern Territory will not be able to share a glass of wine at the camp site, because they are not on an organised tour.
One needs not to underestimate the impact this will have on the Northern Territory community or the implications it has for the Northern Territory tourism industry. I say to the minister again: I understand the intention of legislation, but it would be so simple to amend it to ensure that no-one who was there responsibly undertaking recreational tourism activities in a bona fide way would be penalised. This legislation penalises all of those people who are not on organised tours. That is not, I am sure, what the minister intends. If he does intend it, he should tell us about it. If he does intend it, the community needs to know about it. But I am sure that that is not what he intends. I say to him that it is not too late to amend this legislation further to ensure that the unintended consequences we have now identified in fact do not materialise. These are legitimate questions to be asked by the community. Again I stress that I do not know of an individual who does not believe that it is important that we hit the supply of alcohol in Aboriginal communities.
I now turn to some of those supply-side questions and point out the tremendous work that needs to be done. The Northern Territory, for all people, has the highest rate of alcohol consumption per capita in Australia: 15 litres of pure alcohol per person per year, which is 1,300 green cans per adult, as opposed to the national average, which is nine litres or 800 green cans. I do not know how many of you here in the chamber or in the galleries would consume 800 cans a year, but I am sure that I do not. Whoever is drinking our share is drinking a hell of a lot of alcohol. That is the problem. We have to find the problem drinkers and address their needs.
Across the Northern Territory, there are major regional variations. In the Katherine region, they doubled the national average in 2002 and 2003—doubled! They were consuming 1,600 green cans per head. I know a lot of people in Katherine. I do not know any who would consume that amount of alcohol, but someone clearly is. In terms of drinking patterns, 84 per cent of non-Aboriginal people have used alcohol, and 62 per cent of Aboriginal people are current drinkers compared with 72 per cent of non-Aboriginal people. We need to address the supply side. We need innovative proposals that will reduce the amount of alcohol that is sold, perhaps by restricting the sale of alcohol and the opening times of liquor outlets. There are a lot of ways in which we can do this. We ask—and our amendment reflects this—that the Commonwealth government work in conjunction with the Northern Territory government, the Northern Territory community and liquor retailers to address these issues in a constructive way. (Time expired)