Aboriginal organisations, doctors and lawyers say NT’s failed alcohol laws should be scrapped

On the eve of a case in the Northern Territory Supreme Court challenging the Alcohol Protection Order regime, Aboriginal organisations, doctors and lawyers have united in calling on the Northern Territory Government to rethink harmful alcohol laws that negatively impact Aboriginal people, and to implement evidence-based policies that will have real impact.

An Alcohol Protection Order (APO) prevents a person from possessing or consuming alcohol, or going to licensed premises – which includes a number of supermarkets, restaurants, sporting venues such as TIO Stadium and airport facilities. Police can stop, search and arrest people subject to an APO. Breaching an APO is a criminal offence punishable by imprisonment.

The North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA); the Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance Northern Territory (AMSANT); the Human Rights Law Centre (HRLC); the NT Branch of the Public Health Association Australia (PHAA); and the People’s Alcohol Action Coalition (PAAC) are united in saying the Alcohol Protection Order regime should be scrapped in favour of evidence-based measures that work to reduce alcoholism and related harm.

Under the 2013 Alcohol Protection Orders Act, police can issue an APO if a person has been charged with an offence punishable by six months imprisonment or more; and where police believe the person was affected by alcohol at the time of the offending.

Pip Martin, Managing Civil Lawyer at NAAJA, who are bringing the case challenging the APO regime, said that the laws are unjust and ineffective.

“Alcohol Protection Orders set vulnerable people up to fail. Alcoholism is a public health issue, not a criminal justice issue. Our response should be treatment rather than punishment. Aboriginal people are being unfairly targeted by a regime which does little to keep the community safe, and which fails to properly address the underlying causes of addiction,” said Ms Martin.

The case involves Mr Munkara, an Aboriginal man who suffers from chronic alcoholism. Mr Munkara was issued with his first three-month APO in July 2014 after he allegedly stole a bread roll, some sandwich meat and an orange juice, totalling $4.20, from a supermarket while apparently intoxicated. These charges were ultimately withdrawn. Mr Munkara was subsequently issued with two further APOs prohibiting him from drinking until January 2016. Mr Munkara was arrested for breaching the APOs on a total of 20 occasions.

AMSANT CEO, John Paterson, said the Government needs to consult and work with Aboriginal people, communities and organisations to find beneficial ways to address the over-consumption of alcohol.

“We all want healthy and safe communities. Punishing people for being sick is bad policy – it is bad for the individual, and it does not keep the community safe. What we need are policies that further reduce alcohol supply, reduce demand, and promote rehabilitation and harm minimisation. The Government should commit to working with the experts and the community to achieve this,” said Mr Paterson.

Ruth Barson, Director of Legal Advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre, which is part of the legal team running the case, said that APOs disproportionately impact Aboriginal people. While Aboriginal people constitute approximately 27 per cent of the NT population; approximately 86 per cent of all APOs have been issued against Aboriginal people.

“At a time when we should be finding ways to reduce Aboriginal peoples’ contact with the criminal justice system, these laws do the opposite. The Northern Territory cannot arrest and detain its way out of a public health issue,” said Ms Barson.

Assoc Prof John Boffa, GP and public health advocate with PHAA and PAAC, said that the NT Government needs to listen to the evidence on what works to reduce alcoholism.

“National and international research is clear that restricting the availability of alcohol, including by increasing the price, is the most effective means of reducing alcohol consumption and related harm. If the NT is serious about addressing this problem, then there are a number of evidence-based steps the Government could immediately implement, which are proven and far more effective than criminalizing unwell individuals,” said Assoc Prof Boffa. 

The HRLC is coordinating the pro bono legal team comprised of lawyers from NAAJA and law firm Ashurst and barristers from the Victorian Bar led by Ron Merkel QC.

For all media queries, please contact:

Ruth Barson (HRLC): 0417 773 037

John Paterson (AMSANT): 0418 904 727

Assoc Prof John Boffa (PHAA and PAAC): 0418 812 141

Pip Martin (NAAJA): 0421 818 446