With alcohol bans being reinstated in the Northern Territory, discussion has arisen concerning their effectiveness. Nyamal woman Tracy Westerman has stated that authorities are not addressing the root cause of alcohol abuse when speaking of her home state. I agree, as this is true for many other parts of Australia, for both non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal populations. To effectively help those impacted by alcohol abuse, we must take heed of Thoreau’s advice: “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” We must both continue to hack at the branches and identify the roots to start hacking at them.
Alcohol bans typically only cut off access to alcohol but do little to prevent the desire amongst an affected population to want to drink excessively. To understand why people drink excessively, we must look at the underlying emotional pain that people are trying to cope with. This can include boredom, a lack of self-worth, generational disadvantage, difficulty finding meaning in life, fear for safety, early death of family members, and a lack of hope for the future. One way of dealing with this pain is through alcohol abuse, which, while providing short-term relief, has tragic consequences.
Employment is one solution that plays an important part in addressing emotional pain, and the Albanese government will provide $250 million (US$173 million) in extra funding for a range of initiatives in Alice Springs that includes employment. This is encouraging, and similar investments should be replicated around the country where the same needs exist. Alcohol bans should not be hastily criticised and dismissed, as they can be used in conjunction with other strategies while employment solutions are being implemented.
To explain why alcohol bans must be used in conjunction with other strategies, consider the metaphor of a boat with several holes in it. If both you and a friend are bailing out the water and patching up the holes, but the water continues to enter through the unpatched holes faster than you can bail it out, the boat will sink. It is easy for critics to say that bailing out the water and patching up holes doesn’t work, but this is not the case. Alcohol misuse represents one hole in the boat, but other large holes, such as high Aboriginal unemployment, must be dealt with. Unless all the holes are patched, the boat will sink.
Alcohol bans must be used in conjunction with other strategies to effectively help those impacted by alcohol abuse. If governments have failed to make Aboriginal communities peaceful and functional, it is because they have failed to provide a multipronged solution that addresses both symptoms and underlying causes.