Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard warned on Wednesday that “rivers of grog” were beginning to flow again in Aboriginal communities as she unveiled a mixed report on tackling indigenous disadvantage.
Gillard took aim at local governments rolling back strict alcohol bans on Aborigines in the nation’s fifth annual “Closing the Gap” address on improving indigenous welfare, employment and education.
She said progress was being made on several important measures including halving infant mortality for Aboriginal Australians, but warned that literacy and numeracy had slipped and called for a review of state alcohol policies.
“I have a real fear that the rivers of grog that wreaked such havoc among indigenous communities are starting to flow once again,” the prime minister told parliament.
“We’re hearing worrying reports about the rise in admissions to the emergency department at Alice Springs Hospital due to alcohol-related accidents and abuse,” she added.
“People are witnessing more alcohol-related violence. In and around Alice Springs over the Christmas-New Year period there were at least five alcohol-related deaths.”
Alcohol and pornography bans were a key plank of the so-called “Intervention” in the Northern Territory in 2007, when troops were sent in by the former conservative government following claims of child abuse and neglect.
The new NT government dismantled a territory-wide banned drinkers register when it came to power last August, arguing that it failed to help with the problem and was unpopular with voters.
Gillard called for its immediate reinstatement and warned the Queensland government, contemplating similar moves, to “exercise extreme caution in reviewing remote community alcohol restrictions”.
“According to the then Northern Territory government, after [the register’s] first year of operation, alcohol-related assaults dropped,” she said.
“There were 10,000 fewer anti-social instances reported.”
Now, Gillard said “former banned drinkers are again on the long list of alcohol-related offences coming before the Alice Springs Magistrates Court each day”.
Aborigines are the most disadvantaged Australians, with indigenous children twice as likely to die before their fifth birthday as other children and Aboriginal men estimated to die 11.5 years earlier than other males.
They are believed to have numbered around one million at the time of British settlement in 1788, but there are now just 470,000 out of a total population of 22 million in Australia.