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For Indigenous communities in Arnhem Land, alcohol bans are forcing drinkers to gather in antisocial and dangerous roadside camps. By Clare Martin.

Arnhem Land’s Indigenous community alcohol bans

A Northern Territory road sign warns of the start of a “dry” zone.
Credit: CLARE MARTIN

Turn off the Stuart Highway 50 kilometres south-east of Katherine and not far along Central Arnhem Road is Roper Creek. Known to locals as the Little Roper, this is where the Aboriginal people from the community of Barunga stop to drink their takeaway alcohol. There’s nothing glamorous about this drinking place. Scrubby trees are the only shelter, the creek is often dry, and the water tank that was once there has gone. But Barunga residents can’t drink alcohol in their homes or in their community, and drinking in the pubs in Katherine is expensive, so they choose a patch of bush by the side of a busy road.

Barunga, like the majority of Northern Territory Aboriginal communities, is “dry”. The residents applied for it to be declared a restricted area under the Northern Territory Liquor Act many years ago. It’s illegal to drink alcohol in the community unless you have a permit. Very few of those are issued and mostly they go to non-Indigenous workers. 

The continuing dry status of communities such as Barunga has been widely and staunchly defended since the policy was introduced in the 1980s. Aboriginal women are often the strongest voices in that defence. Violence and dysfunction were significantly reduced in communities after alcohol was banned. 

But that dry status does not stop alcohol being consumed. Drinking just takes place well outside the community. In the case of Barunga, 15 kilometres down the road. The routine is well established. A drive into Katherine, buy supplies at one of the bottle shops, and then return to drink them at Roper Creek.

It’s not just Barunga where that drinking routine takes place. It’s outside almost all Northern Territory communities. Has been for decades. And despite the ongoing attempts by all levels of governments to restrict the purchase and consumption of alcohol by Aboriginal people, the drinking camps continue. 

Policy after policy has been tried – some well intentioned, some just punitive – but all within the paradigm of restriction. Except for a handful of communities that have had social clubs for many years, the basis of all policy is that dry communities should continue, that restricted areas around those communities be maintained and that buying alcohol if you are an Aboriginal person from a community is made as difficult as possible.

One senior man from Barunga expressed his frustration with these endless policies of restriction when he talked about his grandson just about being old enough to have his first beer. The man said it’s very likely that this first beer will be drunk sitting in the bush, in the heat, by the side of a road. That’s not what he wants for his grandson and this senior man would like change. 

So, too, would Anne-Marie Lee and Jamie Ah Fat, who are both increasingly concerned about the wellbeing of the drinkers at Roper Creek. The couple speak both personally and professionally. Lee is chairwoman of the Aboriginal-controlled Sunrise Health Service as well as a representative of the Barunga community on the Roper Gulf Regional Council. Ah Fat works with the Barunga Night Patrol, which assists with maintaining community safety. 

Settling into their chairs under the shade of a tree outside their home in the green and manicured community of Barunga they talk about their community and alcohol and what goes on at Roper Creek. Ah Fat starts the story in Katherine and explains what faces a Barunga resident wanting to buy alcohol. The current Northern Territory policy is headlined by temporary beat locations, which puts a police officer outside every bottle shop in the town. An ID has to be produced and the buyer has to say where they will drink the alcohol. Barunga residents can’t drink at home so, as Ah Fat tells me, “All we can say is that we have our drinking area at the Little Roper. They want to know if we have facilities, do we have lighting? But we say we’re just going to sit in the scrub beside the road.” Lee adds, “Some police will hum and haw about it, so I think a lot of our countrymen have a lot of problems purchasing alcohol in Katherine.”

Their description then moves on to Roper Creek and how on any night up to 40 or 50 people will be sitting around small fires drinking the alcohol successfully purchased in Katherine. The area has nothing in the way of amenities – no lights, no tank, no seating – and it’s right beside a narrow, busy highway. But it’s not just the drinkers who gather. Parents bring their children with them and the old people come as well. 

Lee is increasingly concerned about safety. “It’s very dangerous there, where people sit, because it’s right on the main road. I get worried about the old people sitting there. I also worry about parents sitting with kids out there, which is not right. Not safe for them. Too much violence.”

But not only is there regular violence at Roper Creek, there have also been deaths. One wet season, a young man drowned in the creek; more recently, a husband and wife died when a truck hit them. Ah Fat said getting struck by passing traffic is a constant danger. “You’ve got the mob that is too drunk and they want a lift back to the community. They sleep half on the road to try and stop a car, but they can’t get out of the [way], because they’re too drunk. That’s what happened. People got run over because they were asleep on the road.”

The Barunga drinking area hasn’t always been 15 kilometres from the community. Before John Howard’s “intervention” in 2007, there were a number of drinking areas within walking distance. What the intervention measures did was to force drinkers further way from their community in a move designed to give local residents better protection from alcohol-related violence. Both Lee and Ah Fat were adamant that the change has made things worse. 

Says Ah Fat, “They weren’t drinking on the highway before the intervention. When we had those other drinking areas, they were off in the bush, but now people just gather around the road.”

Like the senior man with his grandson, Lee and Ah Fat want to move alcohol consumption away from its marginalised position of dangerous drinking in the bush to safer and better-controlled surroundings. Their solution is a Barunga social club. But, I ask, won’t that put alcohol and its violence back in the community? Lee says it has always been there and it often comes home with the drinkers as they return from their drinking camp at Roper Creek. At least, she adds, having a social club would allow the community to establish rules around alcohol consumption. 

Lee is excited about the possibilities. “We could set up a social club here in Barunga. They would sell meals there, and also put in some pool tables. They’d have security at the main entrance. Have a few drinks, have a feed and head home. That’s what a lot of people want, a social club in Barunga, for families as well.”

She and Ah Fat want to visit other communities with social clubs and learn about their workings. She’s not certain how either the Northern Territory or federal governments will respond to what she’s proposing. “I would like government to come and see this community and see what the people are going through and why we really need a social club. Our population is getting lower because a lot of our people are taking off to Katherine or going to Darwin. And a lot of our people are getting killed – all related to alcohol.”

While a social club seems to make sense for Barunga, Lee and Ah Fat face many challenges in seeing it built. Many in their own community are reluctant to lift the current alcohol restrictions, reluctant to allow alcohol consumption within the community, fearful of the dysfunction it could bring. That same reluctance is shared by the federal government, which still has the final say about rules around alcohol consumption on Aboriginal land.

But drinking camps such as the one at the Little Roper are not the solution. They are too often places of desperate and dangerous drinking, and consuming alcohol in the scrub by a busy highway is simply demeaning for Aboriginal people. For the senior Barunga man I spoke to, his dream is to one day soon enjoy a cold beer with his grandson at the end of a hot workday in the safety and salubrious setting of a Barunga social club.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 10, 2015 as "On the verge". Subscribe here.

Clare Martin
is a Darwin-based journalist and a former chief minister of the Northern Territory.

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