3. History of alcohol management
Elliott has a long history of local action around controlling supplies of alcohol. In 1983 there was an agreement reached between the (now defunct) Gurungu Council and Elliott licensees not to sell takeaway wine and spirits to Aboriginal residents and their visitors.4 However by 1990, the extent of alcohol related harm was reaching serious proportions.5 The Health Centre staff prepared a submission to the NT Sessional Committee on the Use and Abuse of Alcohol by the Community that documented the range of alcohol related problems, both physical and social, that they were treating. These included fighting injuries (averaging one per 48 hours), delirium tremens (from alcohol withdrawal), fitting, vomiting blood, underweight babies and newborns with foetal alcohol syndrome, and other forms of child neglect. The Gurungu Council also wrote a submission pointing out the detrimental effects of alcohol on children (eg poor nutrition, poor health), on workers (tiredness) and on families and the community (domestic violence, sexual assaults, drunk driving). The Health Centre and the Gurungu Council continued to use every opportunity to put forth their case to a task force into licenses and an inquiry into roadside inns created under the Living with Alcohol Strategy (the NT Government’s response to the Sessional Committees report). They pointed out that having two outlets licensed for takeaways ‘created easy availability’ of alcohol.
On 11 December 1992, alcohol problems in Elliott reached crisis proportions. There was an alcohol fuelled ‘riot’ at the Elliott Hotel following a fight between a European employee from Newcastle Waters and a local Aboriginal man. It gained NT media attention and consequently, political attention. In January, a number of Community meetings were held about what to do about alcohol. The Gurungu Council proposed limitations on alcohol sales (half a carton) and reduced trading hours in a letter to the Liquor Commission. In February 1993 the Chairman of the Liquor Commission attended a Community meeting to listen to community views. He undertook to talk to the licensees to see if an agreement could be reached that addressed the Community’s concerns about alcohol availability. As a result, in house trading hours were reduced by three hours and takeaway trading hours by six and not selling wine and spirits to Aboriginal residents was reaffirmed. There was to be a review after six months. Not surprisingly, people with alcohol related injuries and problems continued to present at the Health Centre. The Health Centre Manager requested assistance from the Health Promotion Program to develop an approach that would enable community members to express their views in such a way that the Liquor Commission would take notice. It was decided that the best way was for a secret vote to take place, managed by Health Promotion staff who were not residents.
In August 1993, 65 per cent of eligible adults participated in a survey (in the form of a secret ballot) about restricting alcohol in Elliott.6 The results of the survey were presented to the Liquor Commissioner at a meeting. Forty-nine per cent voted for a six pack takeaway while the remainder of the vote was split between no change in restrictions and a dozen. With the community’s support, the six pack takeaway was put into place for everyone, including people passing through town. There were to be no takeaways on Sunday. No children were to be allowed in the Elliott Hotel bar. The Commission formally amended the two licences and the changes took effect on 13 September 1993. There was a commitment to review the changes after a six month trial period.
The positive impact of the reduction in alcohol supply was immediate. There were fewer call outs for both the Health Centre and Police. People reported that the town was quieter and more money was being spent on food and clothing. The Principal observed that children were more attentive and more able to take part in school activities after a good night’s sleep. Given these results, the restrictions were continued after the trial period. A review undertaken in 1995 asked whether the benefits of the reduced supply had been sustained. In short, the result was mixed, with alcohol related treatments returning to 1992 levels and police attending more call outs to the Hotel and the highway than to the town camps. The highly visible public drinking by Aboriginal people was a cause for concern for non Aboriginal residents; other community members were concerned that intoxicated people wandering alongside and across the Stuart Highway were in danger from heavy traffic. The report concluded:
It would appear, then, that restricting sales allowed a reprieve from the heavy levels of drinking and associated social trauma, distress and health damage that led up to the intervention – however, the underlying contributory factors remain...In the words of one Aboriginal resident: ‘This place will be all European soon - no Aboriginal people. All die from grog, you’ll see.’ (June 1995)
Just over ten years later in 2006, it was reported that the town was “experiencing a lot of public drunkenness and disturbances in the main street and around the community centres”7. As a result of this, and with the arrival of a new police officer in August 2006, there was a concerted effort by the Elliott Police and the two Aboriginal Community Police Officers (ACPOs), to reduce public drinking and encourage people to drink primarily in their own homes, through enforcement of the NT Two Kilometre legislation. There was a social order campaign. (Some Aboriginal people who wished to keep their homes and yards alcohol-free placed hand painted signs in front of their property, proclaiming “DRY AREA NO GROG ALLOWED”. The Police reported that they would attend calls made from those houses if people attempted to bring alcohol onto the property, or were intoxicated.) As a result, between August and December 2006, public drinking declined markedly. Police reported tipping out 30 to 40 litres of liquor a week at the beginning of the campaign to around 1 or 2 litres a week by December 20068, and the results were also apparent in alcohol related health data (see Table 1). The Police continue to have a zero tolerance to public drunkenness as well and will apprehend intoxicated people and lock them up for the night.
The situation described above continued until the houses and entire areas of the town camps were declared dry Prescribed Areas under the NTER, on 15 September 2007.
4. N.T. Government, Northern Territory Alcohol Framework. Interim Report 2004, p. 68.
5. The following information is based on an unpublished paper titled ‘Information for Community Action – The Elliott Story’ by Tess Lea, nd
6. Gwen Walley and Darrin Trindall, ‘Strengthening Community Action in the Northern Territory’, 1994
7. Elliott District Community Government Council (2007). Elliott Recovery Plan, p 5.
8. These figures were reported to us directly by Police, and are reported in the Elliott Recovery Plan 2007.