After 15 years of prohibition, the Northern Territory's intervention-era alcohol bans come to an end - ABC News
Skip to main content

After 15 years of prohibition, the Northern Territory's intervention-era alcohol bans come to an end

Indigenous woman Helen Fejo-Frith leans against a fence in the front yard of her home.
Helen Fejo-Frith is the president of Bagot community in urban Darwin.(ABC News: Jesse Thompson)

At 75, Helen Fejo-Frith's life resembles a series of David versus Goliath battles against rivals, ranging from corporate giants to former prime ministers. 

She can recall who lives where in Bagot — the urban Darwin Indigenous community she presides over — with her eyes closed, and anyone causing trouble knows not to do it in her sight. 

But alcohol remains one of her biggest and oldest adversaries.

Despite being banned, liquor still finds its way into the grid of streets that make up Bagot, putting neighbours, elders and children in harm's way.

"I've had a few heartaches with my little family mob too," Ms Fejo-Frith said.

"All the brothers are gone. There's only three sisters left. And we're all in our 70s.

"It's really sad but a lot of them, it was through not looking after themselves, alcohol, end up with renal, end up with things like that."

Indigenous leader Helen Fejo-Frith walks through the gate of her home in Bagot community.
"Helen has never been afraid to say what she thinks" reads a sign on Ms Fejo-Frith's gate. (ABC News: Jesse Thompson )

It's a sunny dry season afternoon and a light breeze carries a faint bassline through the small community.

Ms Fejo-Frith said larger parties were likely to follow, sometimes leading to fights and pushing wandering children onto the streets.

"Police get called in, but like I said, they're in and out, in and out, half of the time," she said.

While alcohol remains banned in Bagot, liquor has begun flowing into other parts of the Northern Territory for the first time in at least 15 years, after intervention-era bans ended this month, when federal legislation quietly expired. 

Northern Territory laws have picked up where the intervention left off, except it has given communities the right to choose if they wanted alcohol to return, providing Indigenous leaders with a seat at the policy-making table.

Some say prohibition has never worked, and putting policy control back in Indigenous hands will encourage self-determination and healing after a dark, 15-year chapter. 

Others are bracing for the territory's sobering rates of alcohol-related harm to rise even further, due to what they say has been a "hasty" transition

A sign at the entrance to Bagot community in Darwin says alcohol is banned.
Alcohol remains banned in the urban Darwin community.(ABC News: Jesse Thompson)

'These problems flow on to women, children'

Advocacy groups are anxiously watching what happens next.

The Northern Territory's frontline services already deal with thousands of alcohol-related assaults each year, the country's highest rates of domestic violence and a number of intergenerational problems like fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. 

"There's no doubt that the majority of offending in the NT is alcohol-related," Martin Dole, an assistant commissioner with NT police, said before the laws came into effect.

"Alcohol-related domestic violence, alcohol-related assaults are at the highest levels that we've seen for over five years in the Northern Territory."

Two Jim Beam bottles lay on the grass in morning light in Darwin.
In drinking camps, in licensed venues and behind closed doors, Northern Territorians are the heaviest per capita drinkers in Australia.(ABC News: Jesse Thompson)

On the other side of the ledger, the territory's Attorney-General has said prohibition only fuels black markets and the blanket bans were punitive, discriminatory measures.

According to the government, only about 7,000 Territorians are affected by the changes, and accusations that "rivers of grog" will flow in communities have been overshot.

The new laws don't affect a vast majority of Indigenous communities where alcohol bans were in place well before the intervention.

But hundreds of sparsely populated outstations, about 10 remote communities and dozens of urban Indigenous communities, known as town camps, are required to opt in to restrictions if they want them to continue.

The NT Government was urged to start preparing for the end of the federal alcohol bans — first implemented by the then-Howard government and extended for 10 years under federal Labor — in a wide-ranging alcohol policy review in 2017.

Instead, health and Indigenous groups found themselves slamming the government for introducing legislation just months before they expired.

According to the Association of Alcohol and Other Drug Agencies NT, the main concern was inadequate time to prepare for change before grave problems potentially spread into more remote areas — out of the sight of specialist health and support services. 

"These problems flow on to women, children," Peter Burnheim from the peak body said.

"The problems with alcohol do always tend to flow on to broader society and broader communities."

A man sits in his office typing on a computer.
Peter Burnheim is the head of peak alcohol and drug treatment services body AADANT.(ABC News: Jesse Thompson)

Ms Fejo-Frith agrees with many Indigenous leaders that the intervention has left an ugly legacy

She says the government of the day didn't consult, "just came in and said 'this is what's going to happen and you've got nothing to say about it'".

Despite that, Bagot community's leaders have opted to retain the community's long-standing alcohol ban out of concern it could exacerbate the issues they already face.

"Everybody knows with the alcohol there’s always some type of problem, whether it’s a domestic one or something like that," Ms Fejo-Frith said.

A sign outside the community of Belyuen in the Northern Territory.
Belyuen community is a small community 140 kilometres outside of Darwin.(ABC News: Jane Bardon)

'Prohibition just does not work'

Other communities are hoping to fine-tune their alcohol settings according to local need.

"It's going good at the moment," Rex Edmunds, the mayor of the small community of Belyuen, said.

The coastal township, across the harbour from Darwin on the Cox Peninsula, has lifted its ban — but leaders could reinstate it if they choose to.

"We want to try going for that two-month trial and then see what's the go with the community here.

"Then we can sort of make that decision with the people, so everybody comes in together."

A 2017 review found Northern Territorians had the highest per capita rate of alcohol consumption in the world.

Community leaders hope lifting the ban may be the first step towards enterprises that could reinvest money into local services.

They will consider further whether spirits have a long-term home in the community, or whether restrictions should be tightened further, to only allow drinks like mid-strength beer.

"Like ordinary people, they buy grog from the bottle shop, go back home, drink," Mr Edmunds said.

Cars line up at a drive through liquor store.
Some bottle shops in Alice Springs have reported a spike in sales since the bans lifted.(ABC: Xavier Martin)

Alcohol sales triple after ban lift

Elsewhere, liquor sales almost tripled and domestic violence incidents spiked in the days after bans were lifted in the town camps that mottle Alice Springs.

Legal advocates warn the policy changes need to be backed up with support.

"There are communities that want their own on-country programs, their own residential rehabilitation services, their own support services around that," Nick Espie, an Arrernte man and legal director with the Human Rights Law Centre, said.

"Listen to the countless solutions that are put forward. Invest in those solutions.

"We have an opportunity to get that right now."

The Northern Territory government said it was supporting affected communities with ongoing support and resources.