The Queensland and NT governments have flagged ending the ‘grog bans’ in some Aboriginal communities, saying Aborigines should have the same rights as all Australians, including the right to drink.
Prominent Aboriginal leaders such as Noel Pearson, Marcia Langton, and Warren Mundine are critical of abolishing prohibitions on alcohol just as some progress is being made in remote communities.
Alcohol restrictions are not an easy subject to broach. There is a tension between liberal democracy’s attempts to regulate alcohol supply and the liberal philosophy of individual freedom and responsibility.
However, the problem is that not everyone behaves responsibly when consuming alcohol; not only do they harm themselves but they also cause significant harm to others.
Limitations on individual freedom have long been justified to prevent harm to others and protect the social order (see John Stuart Mill). Governments throughout history have introduced regulations and restrictions to control the supply, availability and consumption of alcohol.
Arguably, some restrictions on alcohol are necessary for a civil society to exist. Nor should we view alcohol restrictions as something imposed on just Aboriginal people because they can’t handle ‘grog.’
All Australians are subject to alcohol restrictions in one form or another. Common regulatory controls on alcohol include alcohol taxes; limits on numbers; types and trading hours of outlets; and general restrictions on the purchase and supply of alcohol, such as age limits and the responsible serving of alcohol.
There are also laws prohibiting the consumption of alcohol in prescribed areas and at certain times of the year when drinking causes problems, such as over the New Year period.
The reason why draconian measures such as prohibition were considered necessary in Aboriginal communities is because of the absence of ‘normal’ restrictions. Alcohol canteens in Queensland were owned and operated by local councils. The revenue from the sale of alcohol in these canteens created perverse incentives for councils to increase the sale of alcohol rather than address the harm caused by excessive consumption. Few canteens practised responsible serving of alcohol; rather, canteens served people until they became severely intoxicated.
In 1996, when canteens were in full swing, the per capita consumption per drinker based on sales from canteens in four Cape York communities was between 35 and 43 litres of pure alcohol a year compared to 10.9 litres in Queensland.
No one wants a return to the ‘bad old days’ when council ran canteens. In fact, councils will be ineligible to reapply for a liquor licence when alcohol management plans are reviewed. In reviewing alcohol management plans, councils should ensure restrictions are commensurate with levels of alcohol-related harm in their communities.
They must consider whether the right to have a drink is more important than the right for residents to feel safe in their towns and communities and not witness or experience alcohol-related violence.
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