Alice Springs drinking stories


VB tinniesOn my last night in Alice, we went out to the pub. We drank and danced with some locals, who were as warm and funny as you'd expect in a remote country town.

One woman, Patricia, for whom English was a fourth language, had moved to Alice to be with her husband, and was doing a course intended to get her work-ready. She said she missed being home and with her family a lot, but liked living in Alice, because she was with her husband. Her manner of speech was beautiful. When she invited us to her table, she said, 'Come, I'll tell you a story.'

The racial current in Alice is difficult, as an outsider, to understand. On the one hand, there are town-camps for Aboriginals, and the early-opening pubs that are frequented by local Aboriginals are known colloquially as 'animal bars'. These two facts alone, notwithstanding some of the dodgier NT Intervention policy, are incredibly confronting to my East-coast sensibilities.

On the other hand, it's a place that constantly reminds one of Australia's pre-colonial history, and, like finding bulletholes in Roman ruins that poke through Gothic laneways in Barcelona, just how powerfully a people's long history in a place can haunt it.

While I did some grocery shopping one evening, I stopped by the liquor shop to pick up a cask of wine. As a poor person (I don't even have the excuse of being a student anymore), I generally veer towards value for money. But Coles and Woolworths had set 'floor prices' for liquor before I arrived in Alice. The cheapest bottles of wine available were $8, and casks had been removed from sale.

I splurged and bought a $14 bottle. What the heck, I thought. We'll be civilised tonight.

This initiative by Coles and Woolworths, of setting a regulated lowest price per standard drink, was trialed for a few months in 2006. Back then, the alcohol consumption rate dropped by 20 per cent. Its instantaneous effect on my own alcohol choice was remarkable.

The interesting thing about this initiative is that it is not a policy imposed as a part of the Intervention, but voluntarily taken up by local businesses in response to pressure from community bodies, such as the People's Alcohol Action Coalition.

It's clear the Territory has a serious drinking problem. The Intervention has not delivered significant outcomes in relation to substance abuse, but locally endorsed initiatives have.

Petrol-sniffing, for example, has been almost eradicated. Opal fuel (low aromatic petrol) is now used in as many as 106 communities in remote and regional Australia. It was campaigned for locally by organisations such as the Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (NPY) Women's Council.

I met with a youth worker from the Council. He stressed that controlling the supply of substances is only one facet of mitigating destructive behaviours. To really see change, it is essential that supply control occurs in conjunction with rigorous community-building efforts.

So much of mainstream journalism that comes out of the red centre sensationalises the dysfunction of Aboriginals without any attempt to put that dysfunction — and racialised perceptions of it — into any kind of historical context.

Substance abuse occurs in combination with the profound individual challenges that come with lived experiences of trauma, or with mental illness. Inter-generational trauma, which I argue is at the core of the Territory's social problems, is the passing on of grief, often expressed through dysfunctional behaviors, from generation to generation.

The Stolen Generations are well within living memory, and inexplicable Aboriginal deaths in custody, world record-breaking incarceration rates and inequitable access to resources are ongoing wounds.

If we deny the trauma associated with displacement and incredible persecution, we undermine any attempt, however well intentioned, to remedy its effects.

As we left the pub that night, intoxicated and in pain from trying to keep up with Patricia's dancing, her husband joined us outside for a cigarette. He was doing that quite nice thing that people often do when they're drunk, which is spout platitudes about universal love and friendship.

'This is my town. I was born here, but I welcome you here. Doesn't matter if you're an Englishman, Indian, if you're from Africa. We're all the same. We brothers.'

As we piled into a cab, promising to have a beer with him next time we saw him, he turned back to the pub's entrance. The bouncers refused him back in.

Ellena SavageEllena Savage is a Melbourne writer and the immediate past editor of the Melbourne University student magazine, Farrago.  

Topic tags: Ellena Savage, Alice Springs, Intervention, Racial Discrimination Act, Northern Territory, Opal Fuel



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Existing comments

It's been some years since I was living in the NT but, my God, you should have seen the white drunks there!

All over the place, driving drunk, working in mines drunk from the night before, going back for more in the wet canteen as soon as work was finished to start the cycle again.

Alice was a particularly nasty and violent town as I recall and when I was there, waiting for the train back to Port Augusta with my rig, I kept out of the pubs because I could not stand the people who lounged against the bar.

Overweight whities in black shirts and hats, with their Buffalo necklaces poking through their chest hairs, smoking like chimmneys and knocking beer back as if there was no tomorrow, glowering at new arrivals.

The 'blacks' were not allowed in, naturally, they had the street to drink in.

It's not so much the Indigenous people who have a problem with booze in the NT as the entire NT that has a problem with booze and violence and in kidding themselves that there is nothing wrong, with them.

Mind you, it's not as if all this is peculiar to Alice or the NT, is it?

This is very much 'country Australia' in RARA land but it's much easier for us all to pretend it is a 'black' problem in the NT because there are so many living there in obvious third world conditions, overseen by first world public servants and their slippery contractors, and of course, the inevitable 'religious folks' busy trying to pray the problems they helped to cause, away to Nevernever Land.

Oops, the NT is Nevernever Land.

Harry Wilson | 19 August 2011  

Elena, I liked this piece "substance abuse occurs in combination with the profound individual challenges that come with lived experiences of trauma, or with mental illness. Inter-generational trauma, which I argue is at the core of the Territory's social problems, is the passing on of grief, often expressed through dysfunctional behaviors, from generation to generation" but this type of grief is not only inter-generational but also intra generational, and it is never dealt with but continued and passed on unless a member of a generation takes action to sever the ties which bind with the unresolved trauma/grief.

Substance abuse, abortion, sexual abuse grief etc lead to a violent change of the psyche of human beings and unless dealt with is unconsciously passed on through behaviours of those suffering the trauma and grief of the abuse experience.
Today we have a society suffering transgenerational grief and the ensuing generation will more so because we have placed a canopy of unbelief over the wounds and errors of our day.

I have written and spoken much on transgenerational trauma and grief and its effects as I see these often in my area of work.

Anne Lastman | 19 August 2011  

Good on you Ellena. Now take the next step, if you haven't already, and include in your family and friendship group Indigenous people and their families.

jo dallimore | 19 August 2011  

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