Hang Territory drunks out to dry

When it comes to government regulation of alcohol, consistency can’t be everything, writes Michael Koziol.

The Riverside Bar at the Todd Tavern, Alice Springs, is an infamous Territory drinking hole.
The Riverside Bar at the Todd Tavern, Alice Springs, is an infamous Territory drinking hole.

Over the past few weeks these pages have spruiked libertarianism in government policy, cheering on our freedom to drink, smoke, tell the cops to fuck off, and generally make merriment.

But consistency is not everything and this week the tables will be turned. On Saturday another Labor government fell, this time in the Northern Territory, and in its place stands the Country Liberal Party and its new policy for curbing the rampant alcoholism that defines the Top End: prison farms for repeat offenders.

The plan is more severe than the status quo, under which repeat offenders are put on a ‘banned drinkers register’, stopping them purchasing take-away booze but leaving them free to piss the nights away in bars.

Under the new regime, Territorians charged with drunk and disorderly behaviour three times will be able to choose voluntary rehabilitation or be forced into mandatory incarceration at one of two proposed rehab facilities.

It is worth trying. From the relative privilege of our lost weekends and cranky hangovers here in Sydney, it is hard to fathom the harsh reality of alcoholism in the NT, where the rivers of grog flow constantly and with chronic, dehumanising consequences.

Any who doubt the seriousness of this problem would do well to consult Anna Krien’s brilliant 2011 essay ‘Booze Territory’ in The Monthly. Her chronicle is not one of distant East Coast condescension: it is a devastating piece of reportage from the “animal bars” that line the highway between Darwin and the Alice.

These are the ramshackle wet houses with crowds waiting on the doors by mid-morning, into which they will amble and remain through to the blurry night. This is not drinking as we know it: not drinking to socialise, not drinking for sex, not even drinking to get drunk. This is pure, relentless, base: drinking because it is what’s done and because there is nothing else to do.

Clearly the Territory’s crisis won’t be solved by anything short of massive, generational social change. But the shortcoming of the incumbent policy is that it allows burgeoning alcoholics to keep drinking. Banning drunks from buying at the bottle-o, but not in pubs, only shifts the location of the problem.

The more people we prevent from becoming fully-fledged drunks, locked in an unforgiving cycle of dependence and blackouts and street fights, the better the Territory’s future will be. It is in that spirit that we should support the mandatory rehabilitation in the form that will be introduced by the CLP.

Special cases require special solutions, something lost on the captains of consistency out there marching against the NT intervention and income management. We should concern ourselves with how those looking back will judge us, and ask how proud they will be if we let the Territory drown itself for the sake of some misguided egalitarian principle.