A detox is not going to drain the indigenous grog bog
Last week’s announcement of new minimum standards for alcohol in remote Indigenous Australia show that Jenny Macklin simply doesn’t get the grog battle which rages in our nation’s centre.
Her ideas, as reported last Thursday in The Australian, are neither tough nor new. For decades, state licensing authorities have had “tough processes” including public interest assessments and lodging of objections.
In NSW and Queensland, community impact statements assess the health and social impact of approving or varying a liquor license. But however tough the language, problems arise when processes become a “tick and flick” or conditions laid down fall upon the local copper for enforcement.
Minister Macklin’s standards are no less prone to a similar fate.
These federal standards betray what is not important to Labor; engaging Aboriginal Australia in the real economy. The standards, fixated on harm-minimisation and service delivery, are all about how to manage the damage.
Macklin’s wordy standards include “detoxification, treatment of dependent drinkers, harm reduction activities such as community patrols, sobering-up facilities, women’s shelters and sobriety groups.”
Life should be about opportunity and capability, not guaranteeing that every drunk is detoxed. Wherever it happens, dangerous drinking destroys economic opportunity long before it threatens community safety.
The other omission in Labor’s war on untreated alcoholism is that there isn’t a single red cent left in Treasury to fund even a fraction of these services they propose across central Australia.
The problem with a lower floor for Aboriginal Australia is that it quickly becomes their ceiling. Palm Island is right to object to the fifty-plus conditions on their liquor license, but wrong about the solution.
Rather than remove the conditions, their leaders should unapologetically connect every young person into the real economy.
The ludicrous endpoint of Macklin’s approach is that endemic alcohol is ok, so long as everyone consulted is happy, the sick get detoxed and no children are harmed. Truth is, drunks find a way to silence the sober, most don’t get rehabilitated in time and kids always end up getting hurt.
Someone needs to remind Jenny Macklin that it is better not to need a night patrol than pride yourself on how many are scooped up every morning.
Dangerous drinking undermines employability. It increases welfare, health and carer costs. It aggravates truancy, rental arrears and damage to public housing. It increases absenteeism and unreliability of a workforce and most important of all, reduces productivity of those who do turn up.
Pidd’s 2006 study of alcohol-related absenteeism identified direct annual economic costs in Australia of $437 million rising to $1.2 billion when indirect impacts of short-term and binge drinking was included.
In the same year, Norstrom found that a 1-litre increase in total alcohol consumption increased sick leave by 13 per cent.
Then in 2008, Collins and Lapsley reported that the $357 million cost of alcohol-related absenteeism was only 12 per cent of the $3.2 billion in alcohol-related productivity losses.
Anderson in 2010 found a linear relationship between mean alcohol consumption and getting to work late, leaving early and doing less work in between.
That is why Macklin’s time should be up if she isn’t serious about remote Aboriginal employment.
Young adults living in remote communities worldwide have to move to complete schooling, training or to get a job. That honest conversation should not be anathema in central Australia.
The solution must come from the top, from a Minister focussed on supporting those positive social norms which underpin safe alcohol consumption in every other corner of the world. Communities where three-quarters of adults are working are far more likely to manage alcohol than those where three quarters do not.
Take Alice Springs from 10am on any day where working-age adults queue for grog. Whether Newstart recipients should be there at all during working hours is a valid moral question.
Taxpayers funding welfare genuinely expect recipients to contribute where they can. A genuine search for work each day can’t begin with intoxication.
In the seminal 1989 Journal of American Medical Association paper “taxes of sin”, Manning, Keeler and Newhouse found that drinkers do not pay their way - that excise taxes on alcohol cover only about half the costs imposed on others. To fund support services needed for dangerous alcohol consumption, someone needs to be working.
If a community has no real economy, it is hard to see how the case for alcohol reintroduction can be sustained.
Minister Macklin may have the right intentions when she tries to protect children, but it’s close to impossible without economic self-fulfilment. If a driver has lost control of their car and it’s heading for a cliff, it’s pointless then worrying about the bald tyre on the back wheel.
When school leavers have dreams to fulfil and a family sober enough to help, grog mixed with world-class sobering-up shelters come a pretty distant second. The latter must never become a substitute for economic fulfilment and financial independence.
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