Government and governance, Social policy, Health, Arts, culture & society | Australia

8 August 2017

Will re-establishing a Banned Drinker Register help overturn years of alcohol policy failure in Australia’s Northern Territory? The answer depends on how well the government listens to public advice, Liam Grealy and Joanna Laidler write.

Over 70 submissions have been published and public forums have just concluded for a major alcohol policy review in Australia’s Northern Territory (NT). Despite this public consultation, the NT Labor Government appears fully committed to re-establishing the Banned Drinker Register (BDR) – a policy intended to prevent problem-drinkers from buying or consuming alcohol. With trials beginning in August and a full rollout scheduled for September, the devil is in the detail of this major alcohol reform.

Michael Gunner’s Labor Party returned to power in August 2016 following a landslide victory. Its platform included a commitment to dismantling mandatory treatment for alcohol abuse and reinstating the BDR, which was introduced by the former Labor government in 2011 but discontinued under the Country Liberal Party in 2012.

In January 2017, Health Minister Natasha Fyles announced the “Northern Territory Alcohol Policies and Legislation Review” (Review), later releasing an Issues Paper, calling for public submissions, and stating publicly that “everything is on the table” in the development of an integrated Alcohol Harm Reduction Framework.

In the meantime, the Alcohol Harm Reduction Bill 2017 was tabled in May, setting in motion the abolishment of mandatory treatment and the reestablishment of the BDR.

Submissions published in July provide broad support for abolishing mandatory treatment. Under the Alcohol Mandatory Treatment Act (AMT) a person can be referred to the AMT Tribunal if taken by police into protective custody three times in a two-month period. A residential treatment order requires twelve weeks of mandatory rehabilitation at an AMT facility, which in Darwin is at the old Berrimah prison.

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Mandatory treatment has been widely criticised. In addition to its significant operational expenditure of $24 million per annum plus capital costs, an external review found that mandatory treatment lacks evidence of long-term benefit for alcohol addiction and that 77 per cent of people qualifying for it did not proceed to treatment. Other shortcomings include sketchy treatment plans, inadequate record-keeping, inconsistent interpreter use, and deficient post-release services for addressing alcohol misuse.

Critics have also noted that people subject to the mandatory treatment regime have been almost exclusively Aboriginal. Such racialised outcomes are evident across other Country Liberal Party alcohol initiatives – such as “Paperless arrests”, Temporary Beat Locations, and Alcohol Protection Orders – which disproportionately affect homeless people and people marginalised from licensed premises.

The imminent conclusion of mandatory treatment and reintroduction of the Banned Drinker Register might thus appear as a cause for celebration. However, enthusiasm should be tempered by recently published Review submissions, which outline numerous policy features requiring urgent government clarification or consideration.

In its 2011 incarnation, the BDR prohibited listed persons from purchasing, possessing, and consuming liquor. Licensees were required to scan identification at the point of sale and it was an offence to sell alcohol to a person on the BDR.

The 2017 version is very similar. People will be added to the register under Banned Drinker Orders for a wide range of alcohol-related offences, infringements or protective custody episodes, and by self-referral. Predictions estimate approximately 2,500 individuals will be listed on the register by December 2017, although the lower threshold requirement could see this figure exceeded.

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In their submissions, the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA) and the Central Aboriginal Congress demand an independent and longitudinal evaluation of the BDR and other alcohol reduction measures, which did not take place in 2012. Obtaining accurate benchmark data (regarding alcohol-related offences, hospital and emergency presentations, and so on) depends on clear policies and procedures for collection, record-keeping, and sharing by governmental agencies at the outset. The mandatory treatment regime struggled to establish such systems effectively. This is important for evidence-based evaluations, and to reduce the likelihood of reactionary policy overhauls by future governments.

NAAJA also warns that the Alcohol Harm Reduction Bill 2017 lacks detail regarding any requirement to support people on Banned Drinker Orders to access culturally appropriate treatment options. The former BDR was established alongside the Alcohol and Other Drugs Tribunal and the Substance Misuse Assessment Referral for Treatment Court. These initiatives respectively referred banned drinkers to alcohol treatment options and diverted offenders from the criminal justice system into treatment. Such therapeutic and social support is necessary for addressing ongoing alcohol misuse.

It is also concerning that the new regime intends to make it an offence to knowingly supply alcohol to a person already on the BDR. This will disproportionately affect Aboriginal people who often have ongoing cultural obligations which might complicate a legal requirement to refuse supply of alcohol to family members.

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Such issues demand caution regarding the uniform implementation of the BDR across culturally and geographically distinct NT communities. Indigenous people should lead efforts to reduce alcohol-related harm in indigenous communities, including determining how the BDR will interact with precedent alcohol management plans or permit systems. It is also unclear whether Aboriginal Corporation identification cards constitute acceptable proof of identity, and what the implications would be for individuals who lack such papers.

The concerns of published submissions outlined here – regarding evaluation, therapeutic support, criminalisation, and uniform implementation – are a matter for urgent government consideration. If these issues are not addressed in advance, the BDR risks being another NT alcohol regime that is impossible to clearly assess, ineffective, and racially unjust in its application.

We have focused on the BDR because its reinstatement is significant and imminent. However, we hope the Review will also consider other submitted recommendations. These include reducing the density of liquor outlets and trading hours; the introduction of a minimum unit price for alcohol; the abolishment of the paperless arrests provisions and stricter limits placed on police protective custody powers; social strategies that address and alleviate racialised exclusion and disadvantage, and a ban on political donations from the alcohol industry in line with NSW legislation.

Thanks to public consultation, Gunner’s Labor Party has the opportunity to improve upon years of alcohol policy failure in the Northern Territory. The devil may be in the details, but now is the time to get those details right.

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