The supply of alcohol in remote Aboriginal communities: potential policy directions from Cape York

Author/editor: Martin, D
Year published: 1998
Issue no.: 162


This Discussion Paper aims to outline some of the key issues surrounding alcohol availability and consumption in remote Aboriginal communities, focusing on those in Cape York. The legislative and policy background to the contemporary alcohol situation is outlined. Sales data from the Council-run alcohol outlets are presented for four sample Aboriginal communities, which indicate extraordinarily high alcohol consumption levels. The data suggest that virtually all drinkers in these communities, on average, are drinking at extremely hazardous or harmful levels. Such drinking levels underlie the very poor health and morbidity statistics for Cape York's Indigenous peoples.

The Paper examines various explanatory models in the literature for Aboriginal drinking, and suggests that the policies developed to deal with the issue tend to be dependent upon the theoretical model adopted. A syncretic model is proposed which has at its core the argument that Aboriginal drinking practices and understandings have to be seen as arising over time from the conjunction of factors located essentially in the dominant society, together with those whose origins lie basically within Aboriginal societies themselves. This suggests that actions at both levels are requiredÐthat of the institutions and structures of the wider society on the one hand, and that of the internal dynamics, values and practices of the particular Aboriginal group on the other. It is argued that this model provides a useful framework for the development of policies in the alcohol area, and four case studies are examined.

Policy implications

The first case study involves the relationship between the supply of alcohol and demand for it. If supply can be seen as one of the 'structural' factors impacting on Aboriginal drinking practices, then the locus of demand lies essentially with Aboriginal society. Taxes and other imposts are commonly used as a means of influencing demand, but such policies are predicated upon a degree of elasticity in the relationship between demand and price. Detailed evidence from one Cape York community is presented, which suggests that the demand for alcohol is essentially independent of its price, in this community at least. One of the main reasons advanced by those supporting the establishment of canteens on remote communities is that it will reduce demand for illicit alcohol, as well as encourage more responsible drinking patterns. The data do not support either of these contentions. A further implication that if the present extremely high levels of alcohol consumption in these communities are to be lowered, the supply of alcohol has to be controlled in some way.

The second case study examines who should have the responsibility to develop policy in relation to Aboriginal drinking. This is a contentious arena, where it is commonly argued that Aboriginal people themselves must control policy development and implementation. However, there is a need for complementary and interlinked policy and program development at both 'internal' and 'structural' levels. There appear to be no sustainable arguments that this latter area in particular should be the exclusive province of Indigenous people.

A number of different legislative approaches to controlling Aboriginal drinking are analysed. Particular attention is given to the scheme recently introduced for Aurukun, which attempts to operate at both structural and internal levels, and provides specific mechanisms for linking them.

The last case study considers the operations of the Cape York community alcohol outlets, presently run by the Councils. It is argued that there are irresolvable conflicts of principle between various statutory roles of the Councils, most particularly those relating to law and order, community wellbeing, and operating the canteens on a commercial basis. Further, the highly problematic nexus between the internal Aboriginal politics of alcohol, the pressure for Councils to maximise their canteen profits, and the political and commercial imperatives of the brewing industry, militates against any clear policy development. A number of ways are examined in which this nexus could be broken.

Firstly, the dependence of Councils upon profits from canteens has to be reduced or eliminated. Secondly, any scheme to deal with drinking needs to build upon Aboriginal values and practices, including customary law where relevant or possible. Thirdly, mechanisms have to be developed which allow individuals and groups greater control over drinking practices in their own homes and other private spaces, as well as in public areas. Fourthly, their isolation leaves remote Aboriginal communities highly vulnerable to the complex of problems which alcohol brings, and it is therefore necessary to develop a regional approach to alcohol issues. Lastly, policy options need to be examined for their potential impact at both structural and internal levels, recognising the necessary linkages between them.

It is suggested that one way to implement these principles would be to establish a regional 'Cape York Alcohol Trust' which would operate the community alcohol outlets, with specific mechanisms in place to ensure accountability to each local community while ensuring overall policies were implemented. The Trust's roles would include monitoring the impact of alcohol in each community, the employment, support and professional development of canteen staff, and funding of alcohol awareness, rehabilitation, and other such programs. Councils could be funded from consolidated revenue for a limited period with specific purpose grants equivalent to their current canteen profits, tied to community development and other beneficial purposes. Finally, schemes such as that being implemented in Aurukun should be instituted in each community, which enable more sophisticated controls over alcohol availability and drinking practices, establish Alcohol Law Councils separate from both community Councils and the bodies actually operating the canteens, and facilitate input from residents into control regimes.

ISBN: 0 7315 2597 3

ISSN:1036 1774

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