Intervention-era bans on alcohol being sold in some remote territories in the Northern Territory have come to an end.
With the Commonwealth bans expiring, Northern Territory liquor laws come into effect following the Territory Labor Government passing the Associations and Liquor Amendment Bill 2022 in May.
The amendment brought to an end the Stronger Futures Act which was established in 2012 by the Commonwealth Government, under Prime Minister John Howard. The Stronger Futures Act declared around 400 new areas alcohol protected areas (APAs) making it illegal for people to possess, supply or drink alcohol in those communities without a liquor licence or liquor permit. The Labor Government extended the ban by a decade.
In May this year when the amendment bill was passed, Chief Minister Natasha Fyles, said: “The Stronger Futures legislation is one of the last living remnants of the Intervention, which was a race-based policy targeting Aboriginal Territorians with little to no engagement or consultation.
“The Federal Liberal Government, which is responsible for the Stronger Futures legislation, notified the Territory at the eleventh hour that it would be walking away and leaving the Northern Territory Government to clean up its mess. This Government has accordingly acted quickly and responsibly to prepare for the Commonwealth walking away.
“This Government will not support continuing the mandatory restrictions and obligations of the Intervention.
“In line with our commitments to Local Decision Making and self-determination, this Bill empowers affected communities with a choice to decide what is best for their community, and we will continue to support them in making that choice.”
On Saturday, 16 July, alcohol restrictions were lifted in APA communities, affecting around 7,000 people. (It should be noted that in the NT there are also areas defined as general restricted areas (GRA) and these were designated as such prior to the intervention. Restrictions in those areas remain in place, according to the Liquor Act 2019.)
Most APAs are also general restricted areas (GRAs) but some are not and in those communities, people are now permitted to possess or drink alcohol unless the community has opted-in to request that alcohol restrictions remain in place, such as in Bagot. While the coastal town of Belyuen is going to run a two-month trial with alcohol permitted in the community.
The response to this is “opt-in” approach seems to be mixed. Some say that it gives Indigenous leaders a seat at the policy-making table and supports self-determination while opponents say that simply leaving the Commonwealth laws to recede is a threat to the safety of people living in the communities in region.
A coalition of Territory Peak organisations for Health, Justice and the Community Sector are strongly opposed to the new Liquor Act amendments.
Danila Dilba Health Service CEO Rob McPhee (pictured right) said: “Our frontline health services are stretched as it is, and the impact of this legislative change will be significant.
“Alcohol-related harm contributes to high rates of anti-social behavior, assaults, crime, domestic and family violence, and road fatalities.
“We know the devastating impacts of alcohol in our community and this decision is a step in the wrong direction. We urge the government to engage with our sector and with communities in a genuine way before this goes any further.”
Association of Alcohol and Other Drug Agencies NT, CEO Peter Burnheim said:
“The lack of consultation on this significant change to alcohol management in communities, and the Government’s lack of engagement or sufficient response to serious and legitimate concerns that have been raised around this change is highly problematic.
“We want to be working constructively with Government to identify and develop appropriate and effective solutions to the Territory’s alcohol crisis, but in this instance they have completely ignored members of the communities that will be affected, the Community Sector and Aboriginal Community-Controlled Organisations.”