Thursday, 13 September 2007
Northern Territory National Emergency Response Amendment (Alcohol) Bill 2007
Consideration in Detail
Bill—by leave—taken as a whole.
Minister, I want to get a bit of clarification on particularly proposed sections 12(3A)(b) and 12(5A)(b). They go to the question of who is allowed to drink in a national park. In your summing up contribution to the second reading debate you implied that grey nomads and other individual tourists who were in national parks participating in legitimate recreational and tourism activities would be able to consume alcohol. That is not the way I read the legislation.
What we want to do here—and the member for Lingiari would be very familiar with the sunset strip—is be able to excise those specific areas for very specific purposes, not whole national parks.
It is very important that we clarify this because it is an issue of some concern for the community generally. I take it now that you are saying to us that the only prescribed area for this purpose will be the sunset viewing area at Uluru.
Let me just clarify something. There are two things. Specifically here people have put good points to us for other specific designated areas. When I redid these amendments I was very keen to ensure that we did not do a carte blanche thing—for example, people going across Aboriginal land to put their boat in and suddenly it is a bit of a free-for-all. No, this applies to specific locations. There has to be a real purpose—tourism or whatever—and there has to be a strong case put through the task force and then it can be agreed to. Specifically in this bill is Uluru.
I appreciate that, but I need to be able to give a message to the constituents of Lingiari and travellers coming into the Northern Territory. Before these measures come into force on 15 September, they can go to a spot at Twin Falls, say, in Kakadu and camp and drink alcohol at night—with their meal or whatever. Will they be able to continue to do that, yes or no?
To facilitate the House, and this is in goodwill—we disagree on many things, but on this we do not—the whole idea behind these amendments is to ensure these things are functional and that we do not disadvantage people who it has no impact upon. So, if you have specific locations, I am happy to deal with those. If you wish to deal with them through the parliament, that is your prerogative. I am happy to have them and then give you direct answers and, as we have got the facility in this bill, excise those as is necessary.
Minister, I understand what you are trying to do here, but at the moment as this legislation reads, people travelling into prescribed areas—that is, national parks on Aboriginal land—will not be able to consume alcohol unless they get an exemption, as you have described.
In excess of 400,000 people visit Uluru each year. I do not know what proportion—probably 80 per cent—are on organised tours. Similarly, there are daytrippers from Darwin who may be fishing in Kakadu. There are real questions about whether, as a result of this legislation, they can drink on the rivers within Kakadu.
There are two things. No, people cannot just wander around drinking at fishing holes, which you mentioned, et cetera. There is an impost upon all Australians to try to deal with this issue, in the same way as you have some constraint if you purchase more than $100 worth of alcohol—you are being asked to write down where it is that that alcohol is going et cetera.
You mentioned Uluru. Obviously, it is not an issue if people are camping in the camping grounds of Uluru, which are privately owned. And it is not an issue in the excised area. If there are other specific localities, then the bill allows us to put them into the regulations. But daytrippers and others who are not supervised in some sort of a tour group—and I take your point that there are lots of these people—will not be able to take alcohol on the river when fishing and consume that alcohol on Aboriginal land in national parks.
I want to make sure that I absolutely understand this. I am sure I now do get the picture. I have lived in the Northern Territory for 30 years. Historically I have been able to visit and go camping with friends in parts of Kakadu and have stayed for a weekend and had a few beers. This is not selling or moving alcohol. But under these proposals that will no longer be possible?
During the emergency phase or during this first phase, it is absolutely true that people will not just be able to wander anywhere, plonk down anywhere and camp and drink alcohol. That, we understand, will be an impediment to what some people are currently doing. But it is in the interests of us all trying to fix the most insidious problem that faces Indigenous people and that leads to much of the violence and much of the abuse. These restrictions are not ongoing. Areas will be lifted because there are good, solid, ongoing alcohol management programs and their enforcement—and I think that is the key issue; the enforcement of them. Clearly the sooner that can be achieved, whether it be in Kakadu or anywhere else, the better, as that would be to everyone’s benefit. That is what we are aiming to achieve.
There are a lot of other rivers, obviously, where people fish. So you are saying, are you, that there will be an exemption for the purposes of recreational fishers on the Daly River—that they will be able to traverse Aboriginal land with alcohol if they are going fishing on the Daly River?
Yes, but at specific locations and not carte blanche all the way along to allow anything. I am sure that you would understand that there are only certain areas they put in anyway. That is not exclusively for the Daly River. But if you were to just say, ‘Oh well, if you are a recreational fisherman, you can just go across Aboriginal land, take whatever grog you like, put down and put it in,’ you are going to leave yourself wide open. So, again, we are looking for specific grid references, if you will, which will allow that to occur. The provision is there for those to be nominated as required.
Yes. It is just telling people what is going on. The bit I am interested in is the map—which you cannot read out. It depicts the prescribed areas, as I understand it. Across the Northern Territory there are a very large number of parks, either Territory parks, which are now, as result of successful negotiations with Aboriginal people about the future of parks, to become Aboriginal land if they are not already Aboriginal land. A lot of those parks are places where weekend trippers already attend and it is currently legal, because those parks are not yet Aboriginal land, for them to consume alcohol there. But if you schedule any of that land for the purposes of it being Aboriginal land to actually finalise the agreements between the Northern Territory government and Aboriginal people about those parks and their management, they will no longer be able to consume alcohol at those camp places, as I understand it.
There are two things, remembering how long that is going to take. That is ongoing and one would hope that we would have dealt with this serious issue and would have moved on to the next phase, so it would not apply. But the general point of what you are saying is correct. In the interests of people in the Northern Territory who have been regularly visiting point A, they can ring the number down the bottom and describe where it is and who it is, and people will be able to give them specific advice.
We are asking for the cooperation of Territorians and Australians everywhere—in the way that 400-plus people and doctors have volunteered to help. We are also asking for Territorians, without destroying their lifestyle, to say, ‘Can I make a contribution here to make this work and in doing so help people?’ The short answer is that the theory of what you say is right, but the reality is that it is not about to happen in a short time, and let’s hope that we have dealt with these issues in a fundamental way that would not require that to impact upon people.
I want to thank the minister for his participation in this discussion. I commend you for your interest in looking at a list of places. I think that is a terrific idea. Rather than me give you a list, I think it would be smart for us to invite the Northern Territory government and the tourism operators to talk to you about a list, because they will know what the most used areas are. I was this morning speaking to someone in the Northern Territory who referred to an Aboriginal person who owns Aboriginal land—he is an owner of Aboriginal land—who runs a tourism operation or alternatively goes fishing on his own. Under these laws he will no longer be able to go to a camp spot on his own country and consume alcohol. That is right, isn’t it? I assume it is. I will just come back to my point. Is it possible that there will be an arrangement by which, through your delegation powers in the legislation, you might delegate to an officer the capacity to issue permits on a regular basis for short periods for people to consume alcohol at a camp spot?
I will mention two things. We have a very comprehensive communications strategy for tourism concerning both day trippers and longer term tourist operators and individuals—the grey nomads that we have spoken a lot about today—to help facilitate them. This month, in conjunction with the Northern Territory, we are reviewing the many thousands of individual licences that people hold. As you would be aware, many of these places are dry now and the exceptions are people who hold licences. So we will be reviewing those, and we have the capacity to provide additional licences. I should not fall into the trap—I do not mean that in a negative sense—of ruling someone in or out when I do not know their specific circumstances. A person may well be able to go and do that on his land, wherever it is, because it may not be part of the prescribed lands. But we are here to help them not break the law, too, and to facilitate what is good commerce. That is the whole issue in the bill. The things you raise are the very reasons why we are being as flexible as we can without undermining our principles.
Can I clarify a point. We were and are working with the hotels and retailers associations and the tourism industry on alcohol management, so we would be only too delighted to work with people who want to provide that information and with you. If there is some particular information that we can provide, we would be only too happy to do that. This is about trying to make it work.
I appreciate that. I am exploring these issues because they will be contentious for people who live in the suburbs of Darwin, Katherine, Tennant Creek and Alice Springs. The people who access land for recreational purposes are going to be very concerned about the potential implications for them and their ability to be able to do things they have historically done. That is why I am asking you these questions. Any way in which you can give them guarantees, or at least satisfaction, that their concerns either are inappropriate or can be met—and it will be reasonable for you to tell them where they cannot be met—would be useful. Whilst not wanting to step into the shoes of the Northern Territory Liquor Commission, it seems to me there may be mechanisms whereby you could deal with those issues.
The second thing I want to briefly talk about is this: I understand the intent of the $100 limit. Quite honestly, I suspect it will not be very effective, not because I do not want it to be effective but simply because it seems to me there are many ways around it. But, leaving that aside, have you or your department given any thought to using electronic card systems so that you can gauge and track alcohol purchases over time as opposed to having someone’s name listed on a file?
Yes, we have been discussing that with the Territory government—the Territory government are doing that. We are working with them and we are very supportive of them doing that, particularly with respect to people who have been involved with the courts and who have alcohol problems. Clearly, stemming that tide, turning that tide back, would be a massive step forward. So, yes, in short, we are happy to continue our discussions on the work that they are undertaking.
Because we are talking about the initial phase of the emergency, is it your intention to review these aspects of the legislation in short order—in other words, in six months or so? I take your sincerity about this matter, but I am sure you will understand, as I understand, that people will be affronted by this and will find it very difficult to deal with, not because it is difficult to deal with but because of their attitude to life and the way they deal with things. I am wondering whether you are going to review the process to see whether it has had any real impact and what other supply side measures you might be discussing with the Northern Territory government and the liquor industry to address consumption levels generally, as opposed to the grog runners who might be purchasing large quantities of alcohol.
I think the situation that occurred at Imanpa the other night was probably instructive. I mentioned it in my earlier speech. The police were out of town for one night and people were selling six-packs of beer for $50. Extraordinary! And I know that someone was sent on a grog run to Alice Springs. So they have two choices in this instance: do they hang around town or do they get out? How do they get the amount of alcohol? If we can help reduce that, so much the better. To your direct point: this is a moving feast. Part of what we have allowed here has been on the advice of the task force, Major General Dave Chalmers and Dr Sue Gordon, to remove the restrictions in localities where it is quickly established that there is a solid foundation to go forward. We have gone with $100, as opposed to 1,350 millilitres, in consultation with various parts of the industry in the Territory, and we will continue to do that. What we will not do is undermine what we have to achieve. I fully accept what you say, that there will be some Territorians who say, ‘Blow me; I have never done anything wrong and I have to put up with this because somebody else has done something wrong.’ We want to minimise that, but I will not run away from the fact that—notwithstanding there will be some inconvenience, unintended as it may be, to a small number of people—we want a limit for as short a period of time as possible, but not say that the destruction that is occurring to other Australians is of lesser importance. We are asking people to participate.
It is a difficult message for some who do not really want to hear that, but it is one of the things you have to do if you are serious about trying to deal with it. I guess it is one of the reasons people have said in the past that it cannot be done. The member for New England mentioned a reason earlier—that you could bring it in from here and you can do that. Laws are laws and they are only as good as their enforceability and the agencies to do that, and there will always be those who try and circumvent them for their own purposes. I am not pretending for one moment that this is perfect; nothing here is perfect. The Queensland government has tried hard—it has had a big impact—but you find it then plateaus and you need to be doing different things.
I think the point the member for Lingiari is alluding to is crucial. Ultimately, reducing the amount of alcohol that people wish to consume—changing behaviour—is absolutely essential. You do not get to that point straight up; you have to do some things to forcibly prevent it. You implement substance abuse programs and get people engaged in things that are important in life, rather than thinking the only thing that is important is waiting for the bottle shop to open. That is what we really have to avoid.
I will finish on this point. In terms of the supply side measures, are you looking at any prospect of levies on alcohol? The reason I ask that question is that the research tells us that price and the type of alcohol are primary determining factors in alcohol consumption. If you increase the price of certain types of alcohol, you can drastically reduce alcohol consumption overall. If you limit certain products on the market—for example, two-litre cask wine—you can have a dramatic impact on the overall consumption of alcohol as well. I wonder whether or not you are looking at that, because there was a cask wine levy that applied in the Northern Territory. It was very useful in providing resources for remedial measures while, at the same time, increasing the price of alcohol so that the demand for certain products and the consumption levels of those products fell, and people were healthier as a result. That was overturned. There was a constitutional challenge because it was seen that the Northern Territory could not apply such a levy because it was a tax, but it is a levy which the Commonwealth could apply. The other way of doing it, of course, is to have a volumetric tax on alcohol. I have tried to push that around this place for a number of years. No-one takes me too seriously because the wine industry would go berserk, but there are other ways of doing it. An industry levy of some description might be useful.
Regarding the price controls on alcohol, I am advised that there is currently a joint Australian government-NT government working group. You are probably aware of it; it is lead by Minister Pyne, the Minister for Ageing. They have been considering the evidence of what works when dealing with alcohol issues. They have been conducting a feasibility study on floor prices on wholesale alcohol across the Territory. We are looking to the findings of the group before making any decisions on pricing controls. The group is also reviewing the current alcohol restrictions that have been in place in Alice Springs since September 2006 to ensure that future planning is underpinned by this. It has been going for six months. I understand that they are reconvening soon to consider the next steps.
As a final note, we are here because we do not believe the Territory government had the right laws in place. When I announced these measures with the Prime Minister, right at the start we said, ‘We are doing this until such time as the Territory government not only has appropriate laws but can demonstrate the enforceability of those laws.’ If the Territory government were to come to us with levies or whatever else then clearly we would consider that on its merits. I look forward to receiving this advice from Minister Pyne and the NT and Australian government joint working group, which will hopefully do it. I thank everyone for their contributions.