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Issue #1591      May 1, 2013

Editorial

A pretext for attack on rights

Australia has a problem with alcohol and the Northern Territory has the worst problem in the country. Territorians spend 4.5 times the national average per person per year on alcohol – $4,197. There has been a spike in alcohol-related admissions to its hospitals recently and reports of associated violence and harm are also on the rise. To the “rescue” comes the Country Liberal Party government which, when first elected, scrapped Labor’s Banned Drinkers Register and replaced it with … absolutely nothing.

Now that the Territory government has sensed people are fed up with the spate of anti-social behaviour, it is proposing a system of mandatory detention and rehabilitation that it admits is potentially “offensive” and could be in breach of the Constitution and the Racial Discrimination Act. While Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities both have their issues with alcohol, it is recognised that measures of this sort will affect Aboriginal people disproportionately. The results of dispossession, poverty, cultural oppression and racism need to be addressed at their root but that won’t happen as long as capitalism has an interest in Aboriginal land and can make a profit out of people’s misery.

The NT plan would allow three-member alcohol tribunals to order the detention of problem drinkers. They would have powers normally wielded by criminal courts to direct police to hold individuals for up to 72 hours without clinical assessment. If the ultimate assessment is negative, the person could then be locked up for three months while subjected to “mandatory rehabilitation”. The three month period could be extended.

The regime, set for introduction on July 1, could be seen as “extra-judicial detention in breach of the constitutional prohibition on the executive exercising judicial functions,” according to George Newhouse of Shine Lawyers social justice team. The point won’t be lost on reactionary legislators in the other jurisdictions of the Commonwealth. If the institution is allowed to stand, as the Northern Territory Intervention was, it could be a handy precedent for dealing with protest as the capitalist world heads deeper into crisis.

As then PM John Howard put it when asked why the Christmas Island centre, which at the time had just one detainee, wasn’t closed: “It’s for contingencies”.

In the four privately run detention centres, prisoner/patients may get “life skills” and “work rehabilitation” instruction. Upon release, they will be subjected to Compulsory Income Management and other restrictions established during this era of the “new paternalism”.

NT Minister for Alcohol Rehabilitation Robyn Lambley says the governments target is to keep 20 percent of those treated off alcohol. Experts disagree with such expectations and some anticipate a “big cycle” of problem drinking for those subjected to such an outrageous violation of their civil rights. The police don’t want a bar of the plan and Aboriginal communities have been, yet again, sidelined in the decision making.

Labor’s Banned Drinkers Register used to have the names of 2,500 problem drinkers, whose purchase of alcohol was restricted. The new detention plan will create 140 “beds”. What will happen to the 2,360 individuals not included in the CLP’s startling crackdown? You could be forgiven for thinking conservative MPs care more about perceptions of doling out “tough love” than actually addressing problems.

Studies show Compulsory Income Management doesn’t work but it is being extended at enormous taxpayer expense across the country. That is sheer political opportunism. No proper assessment of the Banned Drinkers Register was conducted and the concept of “alcohol tribunals” and “mandatory rehabilitation” certainly did not arise from professional circles. It didn’t come from the 44 communities to be affected.

It’s time governments gave ownership of own alcohol management programs to communities; genuine control with adequate resources backed by proper research. The guiding principle would be to empower people in their communities and workplaces. The question of genuine land rights is inextricably bound up in this solution. Until these outcomes are achieved, the struggle remains to prevent developments like the NT system of detention and to squeeze improvements from governments dominated by the big parties of capital. Along the way, however, we should never lose sight of the goal we need to reach if we are to eliminate such sources of human misery.

Next article – Clarification and corrections

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