Forced rehab: A solution for Australia's grog addicts?

Staff members (R) of the Tangentyere night patrol and of an alcohol centre (L) assist an intoxicated Aboriginal woman in the central Australian town of Alice Springs in this picture taken July 5, 2007

Australia's Northern Territory has a serious drink problem and has introduced some of the world's harshest measures to deal with it. Drunks can now be forced into rehabilitation - and jailed if they drop out.

Like many Aboriginal people, Alison Ferber doesn't drink. But there's no part of her life that isn't touched by alcohol.

Alison Ferber

As a battered car pulls into her driveway, the doors open and children spill out into the yard. At the wheel is Ferber's niece, and she's dropping the kids off so she can go to the pub. It's midday on a Thursday.

"It's getting worse," Ferber says of the violence and drinking in the community.

"When mothers get paid the man start belting the woman for the money to get grog."

"Grog" is the local slang for alcohol. One of Ferber's cousins killed a man while drunk, and the victim's friends still talk about revenge, she says, "when their guts are full of grog".

Alcohol affects everyone in the Northern Territory, but the impact falls most heavily on Aboriginal people. One study suggests that in Central Australia, also known as the Alice Springs region, they are 31 times more likely to die from alcohol-related causes than other Australians.

The toll is visible in this town - faded roadside memorials mark where drunken drivers ploughed their cars into telegraph poles, groups of Aboriginal patients mill in the sun outside the town's hospital.

One doctor told me the dialysis unit treats 250 people, some in their 20s - just one of many conditions made worse by alcohol abuse. It's little wonder the Northern Territory has a minister for Alcohol Rehabilitation.

Northern Territory

Map of Australia and Northern Territory
  • Population of 233,000 is 1% of Australia's total
  • Indigenous Australian people make up one third of this figure
  • Per capita, Darwin has the highest crime rate of all Australian cities, followed by Alice Springs
  • Per capita consumption in 2011-12 was equivalent to 13.3 litres of pure alcohol in the Northern Territory - more than three litres higher than the national average

But while the impact of alcohol is clear, over the past year there's been huge controversy over what to do about it.

It began when the conservative Country Liberal Party (CLP) won power in last year's Territory election. One of its first moves was to drop a Banned Drinker Register, which obliged customers to show identification at takeaway bottle-shops and banned problem drinkers from buying "grog". The CLP says it was ineffective and unfairly inconvenienced other drinkers.

Then, in July, the CLP brought in mandatory alcohol rehabilitation. If problem drinkers are taken into "protective custody" by police three times in two months they can be ordered into rehab, even if they have committed no crime. If they escape from rehab three times, it's a criminal offence.

This will cost around $95m (US) over three years and by the end of September around 65 people had been sent for treatment.

It's a tough love approach, and it's been accompanied by plenty of tough rhetoric.

Bess Price Bess Price: If we have to be harsh on these people, why not?

One minister said the primary aim was to "clear the drunks off the streets". The Chief Minister of the Northern Territory, Adam Giles, called critics of of the policy "lefty welfare-orientated people" and told them, in the bluntest terms, to get lost.

It would be easy to interpret these comments as appeals to white conservative voters sick of crime and public drunkenness.

But politics in the Northern Territory defies easy racial stereotypes - Adam Giles is Australia's first ever indigenous head of government.

Bess Nungarrayi Price is another member of this growing group of politicians in Australia - Aboriginal conservatives who argue that personal responsibility is the key to addressing indigenous disadvantage.

"Alcohol is used as an excuse," she says. "Nobody else is going to help us, we have to do it ourselves."

Price was one of a record five indigenous MPs elected for the CLP in last year's election, and was recently made minister for women's policy and community services. Like many supporters of mandatory rehabilitation, she sees it as a chance to halt a destructive cycle of drinking.

"At least we are doing something about it for them, and look at how many have died previously who have been ignored in the past," she says.

She also supports the threat of jail for those who run away from rehab.

Ros Forester (L) of Tangentyere council night patrol assists an intoxicated Aboriginal woman who had been stabbed during a domestic dispute in a town camp outside the central Australian town of Alice Springs in this picture taken July 5, 2007 A night patrol in Alice Springs assists an intoxicated Aboriginal woman stabbed in a domestic dispute

"If we have to be harsh on these people, you know why not?" she says. "Maybe some day they'll thank us. And jails aren't harsh anyway."

This slaughters one of the most sacred cows in Aboriginal affairs - that it's not a good idea to send more Aboriginal people into a jail system where they're already massively over-represented.

Find out more

'Grog is destroying our beautiful culture.' sign

James Fletcher's documentary is broadcast on Assignment on the BBC World Service on 17 October 2013.

"There's nothing else out in the communities," she counters. "I'd much rather see them somewhere where they're being looked after."

"You want to see what they look like when they come out of jail - they're healthier than when they went in."

A few weeks after mandatory rehabilitation began in the Northern Territory, Aboriginal organisations from around central Australia gathered in Alice Springs for a two-day Grog Summit. There was no shortage of criticism of the new policy.

"The worst thing of all about this legislation is that it criminalises having a health problem," says Russell Goldflam, a legal-aid lawyer and member of campaign group the People's Alcohol Action Coalition (PAAC).

Start Quote

I think one of the problems we have to overcome is this idea of the right to drink”

End Quote John Boffa Alice Springs GP

"The problem is so profound and endemic. We're way, way past the point where we can responsibly simply pass the ball over to the victims and say you fix yourselves."

Another sceptic is Dr John Boffa, a general practitioner for one of Alice Springs' Aboriginal health organisations.

"Ninety-percent-plus are going to relapse and relapse very quickly," he says of mandatory rehabilitation. "So it's going to be a very expensive approach and I don't think it's going to have much impact."

He's also concerned about the decision to drop the banned drinker register.

Figures leaked from Alice Springs Hospital earlier this year suggest that the proportion of alcohol-related admissions to the emergency department doubled after the register was dropped. The government has disputed the figures.

As well as reinstating the register, campaigners like John Boffa talk about "turning down the tap" - reducing alcohol supply through a minimum price for alcohol, and having one day a week when the bottle shops don't open.

This is a tough sell in a place where Chief Minister Adam Giles has described drinking as a "core social value".

"I think one of the problems we have to overcome is this idea of the right to drink. It's not true," says Boffa.

"It's a privilege, and it's a privilege that people need to allow to be regulated by government for the good of the community."

Sitting in the yard at Alison Ferber's house, the world of evidence and political debate feels a long way away.

But she has a simple solution of her own.

"What I think," she says with a mischievous grin on her lips "is to blow (up) the bottle shops."

She laughs a rueful laugh, then becomes more serious. "Just close it down, let the alcoholics drink water again."

James Fletcher's documentary is broadcast on Assignment on the BBC World Service on 17 October 2013. Listen via BBC iPlayer Radio or download a podcast.

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