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Slings and Arrows:
Park Lands dry zone plan brews discrimination

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The city council’s ever-expanding dry area restriction covering the CBD and park lands, approved by state cabinet multiple times since 2001, continues to carry a whiff of double standard in its latest frontier.

“Is this policy targeting Aboriginal people?” asked a council survey in late January 2020. [Town Hall then answered its own question:] “No. The implementation of a dry area in the Adelaide park lands will apply to everyone.”

Really? Actually, anyone is free to apply for a limited liquor licence for a recreational or entertainment event in the park lands, but it’s certain that travelling Aboriginal groups briefly visiting Adelaide who are not in possession of a council event licence for the park lands will get no indulgence from the Office of Liquor and Gambling, or its Liquor Licensing Commissioner. Absence of an event licence (or food business park lands licence) means that no grant of a limited liquor licence would follow to allow an all-day (or all-week) legal, alcohol-accompanied celebration among friends under the trees for a mob a long way from home.

A 19-year history

Adelaide city’s first dry area was declared in 2001. In 2008 an Adelaide City Council report noted that the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission observed that it constituted “indirect discrimination under the Racial Discrimination Act 1975, because it impacted disproportionately on Aboriginal people and led to marginalisation of vulnerable groups”.

There’s a tawdry history to this policy, a restriction that first depends on an Adelaide City Council trigger. Here are the rules. Council applies to the Liquor Commissioner for a dry area ruling. Commissioner agrees and informs a state minister. Minister takes it to state cabinet. Cabinet endorses. The government tweaks a regulation under the Liquor Licensing Act 1997, and the state governor signs off. Bingo, a Government Gazette announcement formalises it.

The archive trail

The first dry zone, for the CBD only, was controversial. Three years later, a 2003 news headline shouted: “Critics claim trial has only shifted problem”. That was accurate. Although the ban blocked white as well as black Australians from carrying open booze bottles around the CBD, behind the scenes the principal issue was the presence of groups of Aboriginal people, some publicly intoxicated, and the embarrassment it caused state tourism bureaucrats and their political masters. Argument over dry zone merits raged. Proponents insisted it was a ‘public safety’ issue. Opponents said ‘nonsense’ – it was blatant discrimination. Almost 20 years later, after multiple revisions and area expansion beyond the CBD, they’re saying it all over again.

To be fair, a disturbing issue arose about eight years ago. From about 2012 alcohol abuse issues began mostly in the south park lands, to which many groups had been driven as a result of the expanded area ban. Reports followed of public intoxication in years that followed there. Alleged alcohol-driven, violent threats by itinerant group members to local residents prompted very loud ratepayers’ complaints to city councillors and police. In 2014 it prompted a new zone trial of a drinking ban daily from 8pm to 11am in the south park lands (for anyone without a limited liquor licence, of course).

The most recent proposal is for a 24/7 alcohol ban across all of Adelaide’s park lands, at least until 22 September 2021. Public consultation closed 21 February 2020. Not mentioned in the council info packs was a recent loosening of state rules for clubs with limited liquor licences operating park lands recreational hubs (cricket, footy, soccer etc). From mid-November 2019, any club with a limited licence has been allowed to apply to supply booze to attendees outside of the club’s licensed area – in other words, into park lands sites adjacent to club facilities or ovals.

Promises abandoned

Behind the hullaballoo, there’s a long record of public agency and broken government promises that originally accompanied the reports into the pros and cons of the dry area policy and expansion of its reach. Pledges included creating a culturally appropriate detox centre; providing new services to address excessive drinking among groups of Aboriginal people such as better city housing, jobs and educational opportunities; and building an Aboriginal Transitional Accommodation Centre. Politicians also promised to boost the number of Aboriginal Community Constables. Some arrived, some departed, but years later this remains a challenge for police.

In 2014, faced with yet another prompt to broaden the ban area, a deputy Lord Mayor also recommended more transitional housing in or close to the city, mental health services in culturally sensitive surroundings, and a park lands’ site set aside for a ‘wet area’, with toilets and basic camp facilities. The unfulfilled pledges add weight to the claims of those who allege discrimination. The lack of resources that could help alleviate some of the social challenges facing itinerant visitors who like a drink in a public place puts the onus on SA police, with no choice but to apply the usual heavy hand when an obvious breach of the law is observed. (SAPOL dislikes the operational burden, but cannot escape the political buck-passing.)

The most recent of the pledges, contained in a city council Your Say survey package (noting the 21 February 2020 deadline) claimed that “an interagency working group hosted by the Liquor Licensing Commissioner and Drug and Alcohol Services SA is coordinating a range of responses to address the immediate need and concerns of both members of Aboriginal communities and local residents/businesses over the 2019–20 summer.” No delivery date was stated.

It’s now been almost 20 years since the first ban was applied, followed by the resource pledges. Since then – four state premiers, five Lord Mayors, and three MPs for the electorate of Adelaide. Is Adelaide a racist city? Don’t ask the ‘leaders’. Ask visitors to the Adelaide 500, Gluttony, WOMAD or park lands food and drink events, or cricket, footy and soccer clubs. Out-of-towners can drink as much alcohol as they like at those park lands’ liquor-licensed sites. Dry area? Travelling itinerants? Alcohol ban? Where? Let’s just call it Adelaide’s little secret.

Ash Whitefly

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Ash Whitefly is Executive Director of the Adelaide Whitefly Institute of Diplomatic Studies.

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