The Northern Territory will become the first Australian jurisdiction to put a floor price on alcohol, the government has announced.
On Tuesday morning, the NT government unveiled its response to a wide-ranging alcohol review commissioned by former NT Supreme Court chief justice Trevor Riley, and said it would implement a minimum $1.30 floor price per standard drink for all alcoholic beverages.
The recommendation was for a $1.50 floor price, NT Attorney-General Natasha Fyles told Mix 104.9 in Darwin, and the government hopes to have it in place by July 1.
“$1.30 doesn’t affect the price of beer but it will get rid of that cheap wine, we see wine that costs less than a bottle of water … and that is just not acceptable,” Ms Fyles said.
“A bottle of wine has on average around seven alcohol units per bottle, so it’s $1.30 per unit of alcohol. That would put a bottle of wine around $9, $10, so you won’t see that $4 and $5 bottle of wine.”
Ms Fyles said the price of beer would not be affected because it already retailed at a higher cost; neither will the cost of spirits be changed.
“It’s getting rid of cheap wine, particularly, that has a higher alcohol content of beer, so it affects [people] quicker,” Ms Fyles said.
She said the NT Liquor Act was “ad hoc and not fit for purpose” and would be rewritten over the next year, and that a blood alcohol limit of 0.05 would be introduced for people operating boats; there is currently no drinking limit for skippers.
The government is also looking at expanding the Banned Drinkers Register from takeaway outlets to late-night venues.
The People’s Alcohol Action Coalition has long campaigned for many of the changes, and praised the government for its “world-leading” action.
“The cheapest you can get alcohol for now in Darwin is 30 cents a standard drink, so this is a dollar more a standard drink – that’s a big change,” John Boffa said.
“Of course, it’s not going to touch the price of beer; the cheapest a carton of beer sells for is about $1.48 a standard drink… at $1.30 cheap wine will still be the preferred drink of heavy drinkers.”
Country Liberals Party Opposition Leader Gary Higgins said he broadly supported the government’s move and felt an approach to alcohol policy should be depoliticised.
“Our view was we should fall in line with everything that’s in the Riley report,” he said.
“They said they’d adopt everything that was in there … While I would have liked to see the Riley $1.50, I can live with $1.30.”
Alongside parts of Canada and Scotland, the NT is one of the few jurisdictions in the world to move towards legislating a floor price for alcohol.
NT has highest alcohol consumption rate in Australia
In his review, Mr Riley said the NT had the highest per-capita rate of alcohol consumption in Australia, one of the highest in the world, and the highest rate of hospitalisations due to alcohol misuse.
Forty-four per cent of Territorians drink at a risky level at least once a month, compared to a quarter of people nationally.
In 2004-2005, the total social cost of alcohol in the NT was estimated to be $642 million, or $4,197 per adult, compared to a national estimate of $943 per adult.
Alcohol misuse leads to crime, drink-driving, anti-social behaviour, and wider economic consequences such as adverse impacts on tourism and commercial opportunities, as seen recently in Tennant Creek with tourists repeatedly fleeing during its spike in crime.
Ms Fyles denied the government had brought forward the legislation as a response to the spike.
Mr Riley made 220 recommendations, of which the NT government supported all but one, refusing to ban Sunday liquor trading.
Ms Fyles said 186 of the recommendations will be implemented in full, with in-principle support for a further 33 recommendations.
She said the NT Labor government was working through the recommendations and would be consulting the community and the alcohol industry.
“There’s many Territorians that do the right thing and they should be able to access the beverage of their choice, but when we know the harm it causes it’s important we put in place the recommendations of the Riley review,” she said.
“These are people’s businesses, their livelihoods, and in like any industry there’s a few bad eggs that cause harm and we need to make sure in implementing these reforms we’re working with the community to ensure lasting change.”
The increase in the cost of alcoholic beverages will benefit alcohol retailers, as it is not a tax.
However, Ms Fyles said the government would increase liquor licence fees for retailers.
The volumetric tax has been identified as the preferable measure but the federal government has refused to move on that so we are taking the step of putting in place a price measure that has shown to have an impact on the consumption of alcohol,” she said.
“Currently it’s $200 per liquor licence, which is cheaper than some nurses and teachers pay for their licences.”
Making voluntary liquor accords law
There are already alcohol restrictions in place in Alice Springs and Tennant Creek, but they are voluntary liquor accords that are unenforceable, which the government is seeking to formalise.
In Central Australia, the minimum price for a standard drink is already $1 under the accords.
Dr Boffa said the NT would also be a world leader in risk-based alcohol licensing, and supermarkets making more than 15 per cent of their turnover from alcohol sales would eventually be outlawed.
“It’s a package of measures which is going to be a watershed moment for addressing the scourge alcohol is causing in Tennant Creek,” Dr Boffa said.
Mr Higgins criticised the government’s delay in designating uniformed licensing inspectors to monitor bottle shops, and said it was was “copping out” on stationing police officers at bottle shops by saying police should determine how they resource and manage their staff.
“They should be instructing police to keep those police officers in front of bottle shops until they have liquor inspectors there… I would have seen them as a bigger priority than the establishment of a liquor commission,” he said.
He said they addressed crime and antisocial behaviour on the streets of Katherine, Tennant Creek and Alice Springs, but communities recently complained that police had stopped patrolling as often in Central Australia, leading to a rise in alcohol-fuelled crime.
Dr Boffa agreed. “It’s ideological opposition – ‘drinking’s an individual responsibility, this is not the police’s job’ – that’s the message we’re getting now,” he said.
“It’s not about the workforce. Given that we now know it’s not about workforce, there’s no excuse.
“The harm that’s being caused by what the police have done in walking away from outlets is preventable. People are dying as a result of that decision.”