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The nation’s most severe restrictions on the sale of alcohol would be imposed across the entire northwest of Australia, including in the tourist hubs of Broome and Kununurra, under a secret proposal by police, who consider the region in unprecedented crisis.  West Australian Police Commissioner Chris Dawson, who oversaw an investigation into child abuse and domestic violence in remote Aboriginal communities as head of the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission, is on a collision course with the McGowan Labor government and the Australian Hotels Association (AHA) over how to protect children from alcohol-related harm in the Kimberley.

After consulting frontline workers and indigenous leaders, Mr Dawson asked the WA Director of Liquor Licensing for a radical crackdown on bottleshops in the region.  The director has been contemplating a police proposal to ban bottleshops in the region from selling anything but light beer.  Full and mid-strength beer, including wine and spirits, would be confined to restaurants, pubs and other licensed premises.  WA Premier Mark McGowan has said he prefers a banned-drinkers register over blanket restrictions, an approach favoured by the AHA.  Such a register has been in place in the Northern Territory since 2017 and is designed to block known problem drinkers at the point of sale.

“This application has been made out of concern for the harm excessive alcohol consumption is doing across the Kimberley,” Commissioner Dawson said.  “These harms impact upon law and order in the community and the health and welfare of community members, and can only be addressed through a whole-of-government and community effort.”  Senior Aboriginal Ian Trust, executive chairman of the Kununurra-based Wunan Foundation, said alcohol abuse was so rife in the east Kimberley that it was beginning to damage the economy.  “If the community is not safe, nobody wants to live there,” he said.  “We have had many business people come to us wanting to sell out.”

Mr Trust said the effect of alcohol abuse was devastating for children in Kununurra.  About 70 local children, most of them indigenous, were periodically in trouble with police for crimes they committed in small groups while roaming at night, he said.  Home was often not safe for these children, Mr Trust said.  One boy recently cried on his cell floor at the Juvenile Detention Centre in Perth when told he was going home to Kununurra; he wanted to stay in jail.  “He was saying nobody loves me,” Mr Trust said.  Mr Trust said he supported a region-wide ban on the sale of full and mid-strength takeaway alcohol.  “We have got to try anything,” he said.

Twelve years ago indigenous women of Fitzroy Crossing enlisted the support of then police commissioner Karl O’Callaghan to ban the sale of full-strength takeaway beer.  Emergency department attendance fell 36% in the first 12 months of the ban.  Two years later, the same ban was rolled out to nearby Halls Creek, once described as “the Gaza Strip of the Kimberley” because of alcohol fuelled violence.  A subsequent study found the world’s highest rate of foetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) among children born in and around Fitzroy Crossing before the alcohol restrictions.  The disorder causes lifelong brain damage to a developing foetus when a pregnant woman drinks.

WA Police were prompted to investigate the extent of alcohol-related crime and harm in the Kimberley after WA Coroner Ros Fogliani’s 2019 report into the suicides of 13 indigenous youth in the region between 2012 and 2016.  “Almost all of the young people grew up in homes marred by the effects of high levels of alcohol abuse, and this was also deeply unsettling for them,” she wrote.  “The level of alcohol abuse in the home compromised the ability of the parents to properly care for their children who had to be placed into the care of other family members for extended periods.  “A number of the young persons had abused alcohol or other drugs from a young age.

Some of the children had presented to hospital emergency departments for treatment of alcohol-related trauma during their teenage years.  “In seven of the cases, there was significant alcohol use in the lead-up to the deaths, and at least two of the young persons had very high blood alcohol levels when they died.  “Regrettably, they were able to buy large quantities of takeaway alcohol during the day and night of their deaths.”  Mr O’Callaghan doubted severe takeaway alcohol restrictions would harm tourism in the Kimberley if sensible exemptions were made for travellers.  The Kimberley’s indigenous population at the 2016 census, was 50.1 per cent of residents.

“The argument is about saving lives, not making sure retailers can continue to make big profits” Mr O’Callaghan said.  “The residents don’t want people affected by alcohol lying around in parks, causing problems in public or being violent.”  The AHA objected to a police request for alcohol restrictions across the Pilbara in 2017 and is expected to push back hard against the latest proposal for the Kimberley.  Retailers in the region have signed up for reduced hours of alcohol sale and even snap closures. WA Tourism Minister Paul Papalia plans to introduce a banned-drinkers register in towns south of the Kimberley, which could be expanded elsewhere if successful.

“The state government is proposing a trial of a register across the entire Pilbara,” Mr Papalia said.  ‘This trial will be the first of its kind to be assessed in a completely independent fashion by the University of Western Australia.”  Yawuru leader Peter Yu favours a banned-drinkers register over restrictions that would apply to all.  “People have to realise that alcohol is a major factor in the ill health, death, dysfunction, disorder and costs in this region,” he said.  “Everybody has to play a role whether it be the licensees, publicans, health workers or the families themselves.”

Source: Compiled by APN from media reports