The Northern Territory director of liquor licensing, ignoring the advice of an independent liquor licensing panel and Indigenous health organisations, has given the green light for “fresh food” giant Woolworths to build a Dan Murphy’s, an alcohol megastore, in Darwin. The result will be devastating, fanning liquor fumes across several dry Indigenous communities.
For five years a tiny, dry Aboriginal community, the Bagot community, has fought against Woolworths – a company reporting revenue of $63.675bn. This is a David v Goliath battle. Or perhaps I can use a better analogy – this is like the Gurindji stock-workers standing against the power and privilege of Lord Vestey.
Leading the fight for the Bagot community is grandmother Helen Fejo-Frith. Helen has lived in the community for over 20 years and in that time she has seen it become a place the residents are proud of. Many of the improvements can be attributed to Helen, who I have seen in action on many occasions – for housing improvements, footpaths and leading battles to protect their small patch of land from hostile governments supporting land-hungry commercial interests. Helen and her fellow matriarchs of the community have done well, though overall, their battles are rarely won.
The Bagot community was once an Aboriginal reserve, established in 1937, covering 734 acres just outside colonial Darwin. Piece by piece, the expanding city has carved off sections for new suburbs, shopping centres and industrial developments. Today the community is merely 57 acres in the centre of wider Darwin. The encroachment forced not just long-term residents but also transient residents from remote communities or who are homeless seeking shelter during the wet-seasons, into the small patch of land that remains, and the proportionately few houses.
If you are thinking Bagot’s fate was unfortunate, correct yourself; all the tactics of divide and conquer were applied to the disempowerment of Aboriginal people in Darwin. Alcohol has been the poison of choice.
Woolworths understands why there is opposition to its plans. It knows the effects of alcohol. It is a very lucrative drug, though its effects can perpetuate misery for the most vulnerable in society – we see the worst here in the Northern Territory.
We know too well that binge drinking and sustained high and moderate levels of drinking increase the propensity for risk taking. Behaviours that include violence, crime, road trauma, unsafe sex, alcohol poisoning, drinking while pregnant and a wide raft of anti-social behaviours that plague Indigenous communities and anybody suffering from trauma or impoverishment. In the Northern Territory, the per capita social cost of alcohol is four times the comparable national level. Darwin has a drinking problem.
Northern Territory communities such as Bagot choose to be dry – they choose to oppose a Dan Murphy’s superstore – because they are aware of the trauma that their people carry from colonisation and ongoing racism, leading to the propensity to drink. While community leaders have worked hard to turn their people away from the temptation of alcohol, Woolworths is relentlessly pursuing a profit-making idea that will trap the community in the shadow of a gigantic neon light-enhanced Dan Murphy’s billboard. No amount of self-regulation can dim this light. How can Helen and her people ever rest?
Standing with Helen and the Bagot community are Aboriginal leaders from land councils, health and legal services. We stand on the frontline. And Woolworths’ chairman, Gordon Cairns, and the Woolworths board may as well be a million miles away. Though in Cairns’s case, his voice is much louder than it should be.
At the Woolworths AGM in November, held at the opposite end of the continent, Cairns was asked about an open letter from community, health and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations, calling on Woolworths to abandon its plans to build one of the biggest bottle shops in Australia in Darwin. Cairns indicated that Woolworths had met the Indigenous people.
“We’ve met with them and as I said earlier … there is no opposition from these Indigenous people to our new location … I’m saying this on behalf of the Indigenous communities that we’ve been in negotiation with. They object to other people speaking on their behalf.”
It gets worse:
“And if I am being a little forceful on this, it’s because I believe passionately that we’ve done the right thing … I’m calling on them now to support us and I’m also suggesting to the people who opposed us yesterday, actually you do not represent the views of the people who are affected by this site. You got me a little angry there.”
Ultimately, the decision will be with the CEO of Woolworths, Brad Banducci, Cairns and the board. The communities’ opposition caused Woolworths to announce on 16 November an independent panel review – it was as if they knew what the director’s decision would be. The panel will be headed by Danny Gilbert, a good friend of many of the Indigenous Darwin leaders who oppose the alcohol megastore, to “review the adequacy and nature … of stakeholder engagement …; the extent to which stakeholder concerns are – and have been – factored into decision making …; and best practice as it might apply to the supply and sale of alcohol as it impacts the lives and best interests of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, including – but not limited to – the potential process changes and technology solutions.”
I will call this move for what it is: the announced Woolworths review is a corporate giant effectively replacing an independent liquor licensing process with its own. The outcome will be predictable – I doubt it will fall in Bagot’s favour.
If Woolworths really cared about consultations, objectivity, and the safety of the Darwin community, it would revoke its plans for an alcohol megastore in Darwin. Instead it has chosen to forcefully press on. It may make Woolworths angry but as customers we hope you show them that you are angry too.
The petition to keep grog out of our communities is here.
• Thomas Mayor lives in Darwin, is a Torres Strait Islander, a wharfie and union official for the Maritime Union of Australia. He is the author of Finding the Heart of the Nation – the journey of the Uluru Statement towards Voice, Treaty and Truth, and a children’s version of the same book, published in June 2020 by Hardie Grant Publishers. Twitter: @tommayor11