Grog in the Northern Territory: A Story in Black and White

It’s 8.20 on a Monday evening and a small man with nothing much to distinguish him, except perhaps his lack of shoes, is sprawled in the middle of the footpath on Mitchell Street, the main drag in Darwin. It’s the end of the dry season so the nights are unforgivably hot and sweaty. The town is swollen with tourists and backpackers nursing hangovers but still keen to catch the last of the weather.

Mitchell Street is the nexus of Darwin’s nightlife and even on a Monday the street is heaving with a steady crowd of walkers and outdoor diners.

The sight of a (most likely) homeless Aboriginal man lying unconscious on the pavement is nothing special here.

Around the Territory police make more than 35,000 arrests a year for drunkenness (the population is under 250,000). It’s no surprise when you remember Territorians are the biggest drinkers in Australia. According to a recent survey by the Menzies School of Health Research, a Territorian consumes on average 15 litres of pure alcohol every year, compared to the national average of 10. You could say we represent the country on the world stage of drunkenness.

While many people on the street probably believe the problem is caused by long-grassers (the self-appointed term for homeless men and women in the NT, most of them Indigenous) the survey shows there is little difference between Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals who consume 16 and 14 litres a year respectively.

Numbers aside, you don’t need to look too hard to see the power alcohol exerts over people here. Darwin has been dubbed the broken jaw capital of the world (a title often challenged by Alice Springs), the NT’s per capita road toll rivals that of developing countries, alcohol related assaults have been rising year on year and Territorians are twice as likely as other Australians to die from alcohol related causes.

People step over the man uncomfortably and most don’t look down. Anyone who approaches his sprawled body is faced with a familiar dilemma: do I stop?

Anyone who approaches his sprawled body is faced with a familiar dilemma: do I stop?

Do I keep walking? There’ll be no thanks for stopping and no recriminations for ignoring what’s happening. It is a quiet question that doesn’t seem all that urgent but it’s bound up with how we see the world and our relations with each other.

On the one hand, we might see the man as being the custodian of his own problems who has no one but himself to blame. But on the other hand, you might ask how a problem as widespread as alcoholism can be seen as an individual issue. One woman seems so keen to avoid the question altogether she almost gets hit by a car as she dashes to the other side of the street.

Do you stop?

I remember an experiment conducted with variations by different media outlets around the world in which an actor dressed as a hobo lies on the ground in the middle of a busy city street while a group of hidden reporters use a stopwatch to see how long it takes for someone to check on the person, usually with dismal results.

Am I being watched now? I think. Will I have to explain my actions to anyone, or even to myself? As a secondary thought I wonder if he’s hurt and how many people must die on the streets because they look like drunks rather than victims of pneumonia or cardiac arrest.

By the time I approach, a group of tourists has surrounded the man. There is discussion about whether to call an ambulance when a woman from the noodle shop next to the section of pavement where the man has collapsed sticks her head out to say an ambulance was called half an hour ago but hasn’t arrived. She shrugs her shoulders. ‘He’ll be alright,’ she adds in the voice of a parent reassuring a group of children.

The backpackers prepare to scatter, seeing that the incident is becoming annoying and pointless. One of them is outraged at people’s indifference and the noodle shop woman becomes the focus of her protest.

This scene is played out on a daily basis around the country, but in the Territory the situation is accompanied by a kind of sluggish sadness that permeates everything around it. Reducing alcohol abuse was one of the objectives of the Intervention, currently in its third year of operation, and though most Aboriginal communities are nominally ‘dry’ it’s proven a difficult policy to enforce.

Some, like the Territory’s local governments and town councils, say the Intervention (now labeled the Northern Territory Emergency Response) has only made things worse. They blame the Intervention for pushing more people into urban areas where they are free to drink. You can see where they’re coming from: around the city long-grassers sit in circles in parks and on pavements drinking cask wine from plastic cups. Because they are both highly visible and at the same time ignored it’s easy to hold them responsible for incidents of vandalism and assault.

Meanwhile every night in Darwin soldiers, tradies and bureaucrats, many of them flush with cash wired up from Canberra to fund programs to help reverse the social decline linked to alcohol, get wasted in noisy bars. Here cocktails are served in fishbowls and the pints are cheap during happy hour, which is three or four times longer than the name suggests.

Both groups will suffer the violence and the long-term health problems, but somehow the shame attached to the man on the street will never fall on the employed (and overwhelmingly white) people.

One evening a group of friends were picnicking on the foreshore. I was one of them. By day the foreshore is an idyllic place of palm trees and lush grasses where families walk their dogs. Below, the Arafura Sea crashes into the chalky red cliffs and people fish from the rocks. At nighttime the foreshore becomes menacing as the trees and shrubs transform into hiding places for potential molesters and drunks wander the paths. The town is rife with stories of bad things happening at the foreshore after dark.

My friends were all white, reasonably dressed, young but obviously the type of people who have somewhere to go and something to do. When the good wine ran out someone went and bought a four-litre cask of dry white. It cost $20 and tasted like rust. Making it and selling it should be a crime akin to pedaling dope. I pitied myself, I pitied the people who drank it all the time and in vast amounts. It was the kind of wine you would scull quickly, because the longer it stayed in your mouth the more sickening it was.

Police drove up and down the road running along the beach, stopping to talk to the drinkers who sat in the shadows, cradling their plastic cups. Many were told to move along but no one bothered us, though we were drunk on cheap wine, loud and rowdy. When one of our party hit her head on a tree branch and collapsed onto the pavement, it was funny. She thought she had a concussion.

The Territory based People’s Alcohol Action Coalition (PAAC) has spent years calling for reform and at the top of the list is a floor price on standard drinks. This means no more four-litre wine casks for $20, no long necks of beer for $3. If PAAC got its way it would be illegal to sell a standard drink of alcohol for less than one dollar. If a cask of wine contains 42 standard drinks, you won’t be able to sell it for less than $42.

It’s not a popular measure and one that both sides of politics have been quick to rule out. Recently the Territory Labor Government launched its five-point plan to tackle alcoholism after a growing public outcry. It included a familiar raft of punitive measures, such as making it mandatory to show ID when buying alcohol and forcing people who have been taken into protective custody three times in three months into rehabilitation. Alcohol ‘policy’, at least in the Territory, has proven to be an unholy fusion of research, the warnings of welfare groups, the lobbying of the alcohol industry and greed for the taxes drinking brings in.

Alcohol ‘policy’, at least in the Territory, has proven to be an unholy fusion of research, the warnings of welfare groups, the lobbying of the alcohol industry and greed for the taxes drinking brings in.

It’s hard to imagine it could ever be otherwise, yet we keep looking to policymakers to solve the problem.

Back on the pavement, Monday evening, the Night Patrol van with its flashing yellow lights pulls up and two neat looking men in uniform jump out. They lift the man gently and bring him to his feet. They speak to him in soothing voices as he starts to wake up from his drunken daze, they’re not the police. The van drives away, the man slumped in the cage at the back.

E. Marich is a freelance journalist. She has just returned to Melbourne after spending two years reporting in the Northern Territory.