Column: Drinking Limits and Australia’s Aboriginals

For the Valley News
Friday, February 03, 2017

Cairns, Australia

Imagine if the United States had one drinking law for African-Americans, one for Hispanics and another for whites. This is essentially the effect of Australia’s alcohol restrictions for Aboriginals, Australia’s indigenous population.

Since 2002, Australia’s state governments have enforced alcohol consumption limits in many indigenous communities. The limits vary by community; some have a daily consumption limit and others are completely dry.

“Having the government regulate the number of drinks (Aboriginals) are allowed in a day is crazy,” says Kelly Dekoning, a Canadian citizen who worked for several months at a remote outpost in the Australian Outback.

Because the outpost where Dekoning worked is more than a hundred kilometers from the nearest city, it is also a motel, general store, restaurant and the only licensed bar for miles.

Members of the nearby Aboriginal community often visit for “food, petrol, to sell their paintings and to watch the footie games,” says Dekoning. Sometimes they have a drink at the bar, but never more than four.

Somewhere behind the bar, the employees keep a list of every Aboriginal in the neighboring community. Dekoning remembers, “Before staff could serve the locals, they had to order food and we had to write their names down on a list behind the bar that indicated what they had eaten.”

There are four spaces next to every name on the list. After each drink, the bartender checks a box. Nobody on the list can have more than four drinks in one day. If doesn’t matter if the customer has four shots in rapid succession or four beers over as many hours.

These rules are part of an “alcohol management plan” in Australia’s Northern Territory. Other Australian states also regulate consumption in indigenous communities. Some communities are completely dry, and some allow alcohol but moderate the quantity.

Until the 1960s, an old colonial policy prohibited Australian Aboriginals from purchasing alcohol anywhere in Australia. Individual Australian states repealed the alcohol ban for Aboriginals in 1964 and 1965. Alcohol consumption and alcohol-related problems increased significantly in Aboriginal communities after the alcohol bans were lifted.

In 2002, the Australian state governments imposed community-based restrictions in conjunction with local community leaders. These “alcohol management plans” — such as the one in effect at the roadhouse where Dekoning worked –– remain today.

The regulations pose two major questions. Is it blatant discrimination to prevent Aboriginal communities from drinking alcohol? And are the restrictions effective?

The Australian High Court believes the answer to the first question is no. In 2010, the court ruled that Queensland’s alcohol management plans do not violate the Racial Discrimination Act, a 1975 law that protects minority rights. The court declared that the alcohol restrictions qualify as a “special measure,” a fine print condition in the Racial Discrimination Act that permits policies that “may be necessary in order to ensure such groups or individuals equal enjoyment or exercise of human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

Further, the community-based alcohol restrictions technically apply to a geographic area, not to a specific race. The alcohol laws apply to all residents of restricted communities. If a white Australian lived in an alcohol-restricted community, he or she would also be prohibited from purchasing alcohol.

However, indigenous communities tend to be isolated and homogenous. The law effectively discriminates between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians.

After the court ruling, the mayor of one Aboriginal community told the Brisbane Times, ‘‘That’s always going to be the case with a lot of our issues –– the ‘white is right’ mentality.” He said, “It kills self-determination and economic prosperity in Aboriginal people.’’

Aboriginals sometimes circumvent the laws. Some buy alcohol from unlicensed sellers called “sly-grogs” or brew their own alcohol. One homebrew is made by fermenting the popular Australian spread Vegemite.

Just as in Native American communities, alcohol abuse is rampant in many Australian Aboriginal communities. According to the Australian government, more than five times as many Aboriginals die from alcohol-related causes as non-Aboriginals.

Some evidence suggests that the alcohol restrictions are effective. Since 2002, the rate of alcohol-related deaths in the Aboriginal community has decreased faster than in non-Aboriginal communities.

Serious injuries have decreased significantly faster in Queensland communities with alcohol restrictions than in communities without restrictions. One government-funded study found that alcohol restrictions were more beneficial in communities with local support for alcohol restrictions.

Many Aboriginal leaders are in favor of the restrictions. When the Queensland government considered scaling back the regulations, several Aboriginal leaders spoke out against removing them. The former Indigenous Affairs minister has declared he is a strong supporter of alcohol management plans. He said in 2013, “I understand as do many, many Aboriginal leaders, the devastation of alcohol to their families, women and children in particular.”

America often wrestles with the trade-off between individual liberty and social well-being. Australia has taken it one step further, raising the question: do different groups need different levels of paternalism? Australians have decided the answer is yes.

Katrina Wheelan is a Hanover High School graduate who is taking a gap year to travel internationally. She is writing occasional columns about her experiences.