ACT Police patrol Civic at night. Photo: Andrew Sheargold
I find it incomprehensible that the vast majority of the Canberra community and the government appear to accept the primarily preventable, appalling levels of alcohol-fuelled violence and related harm occurring in the Civic precinct late at night.
The Canberra Times has exposed how the ACT government and liquor industry spin doctors attempted to mask and dilute some of the highest levels of alcohol-fuelled violence in the country, in Civic, by aggregating the same into overall territory-wide assault statistics.
The police more recently attributed the rise in assaults to simply better reporting and an increase in police numbers.
What cannot be ignored or denied, regardless of the statistical manipulation, is the dreadful senseless harm, primarily to our younger people, arising from the dangerous oversupply, availability, service and promotion of alcohol in the ACT.
Hospital and ambulance staff are acutely aware that the reported reduction in overall assault statistics has not translated in an equivalent reduction in battered and bleeding younger victims of alcohol-related non-domestic violence in Civic or other alcohol-related motor vehicle/pedestrian accidents and unintended injuries.
I recently spoke to a NSW emergency medicine physician compelled to address a devastated family as to whether they wished to turn off the life support system because their son's head was ''full of blood'', and did they consent to donate his organs.
So who should the ACT public and political decision-makers trust and believe when it comes to a sustainable, cost-saving, evidence-based solution to prevent alcohol-related harm?
The ACT government is confronting this question now and the general prognosis is it is not looking good. It has commissioned a two-year review of its Liquor Act.
I am very concerned that the report and subsequent government response will only tinker at the edges, and be dominated by the unsubstantiated and ill-founded assertions from the liquor industry, including their failed attempts to discredit what was achieved in Newcastle - though we still have some way to go.
The ongoing extreme levels of alcohol-related harm in Civic after midnight on weekends demand immediate and decisive government action that effectively addresses issues such as:
■ The unlimited availability and promotion of cheap bottle shop alcohol to young binge drinkers.
■ Preloaders' unfettered capacity to enter Civic's late trading pubs and clubs.
■ Their ability to continue to be served liquor when intoxicated, all the way to 5am (AHA's ''crowd of drunken, frustrated patrons''.
■ Unsustainable business models predicated on maximising the volume and strength of alcohol supplied to willing younger drinkers despite existing laws on responsible service of alcohol.
The other critical factor the ACT government and public must confront is the disproportionate and unsustainable high public cost of combating alcohol-related violence and related harm unevenly distributed and located within the community. This cannot be adequately addressed alone by a reactive taxation system in the form of variable liquor license fees that offer no solace to parents, family and friends of the victims.
Industry-preferred more police, lighting, CCTV, transport and ID scanners represent costly and reactive Band-Aid measures. They have no established harm-prevention value.
An ounce of prevention in the form of modest reductions in the availability and supply of grog to binge drinkers and effective RSA enforcement is a much better investment than those ineffective blame (sole ''individual patron responsibility'') and cost-shifting measures so vociferously pushed by the industry onto complicit politicians at the public's considerable expense.
In an attempt to discredit the unprecedented alcohol harm prevention results in Newcastle, the ACT AHA was reported as saying the Newcastle ''intervention'' was
trialled in Victoria (The Canberra Times, December 9). This is simply incorrect. Geelong has run a series of the above Band-Aid-styled measures and not come close to Newcastle's achievement. While the Newcastle package of measures after five years has proven better for businesses overall, with more licensed premises operating in a much safer environment, Geelong, with no similar modest reduction in hours, experienced a reduction in the number of premises and increasing levels of harm (see the DANTE report). Victorian studies have also questioned the value of ID scanners and lockouts alone, finding in Ballarat that a lockout without a reduction in closing times actually increased the levels of harm.
In NSW, the liquor industry has convinced the state government that alcohol is an ordinary consumer commodity - just like breakfast cereal and toilet paper. Woolworths asserted to a Sydney council that promoting alcohol to young kids was good for them as it toughened them up against ''capitalism''.
Both the NSW government and powerful industry have orchestrated a campaign of dodgy statistical comparisons in an attempt to undermine Newcastle's independently established, compelling and convincing results that are readily applicable to the ACT.
Despite the amassed power and influence of the liquor industry across the country and its resort to questionable tactics derived primarily from self-interest, I remain confident the ACT's elected leaders have the bipartisan capacity and the commitment to seriously and independently question the veracity and motivation of the industry's claims potentially reflected in any commissioned external reports.
Above all, I remain confident that they will put the safety of their own kids and that of the public and emergency workers first by the adoption of proven evidence-based Newcastle-style precinct-wide conditions that effectively address the causes, not the deadly consequences of the rivers of grog still flowing uninterrupted through the streets of Civic into the very early hours of weekend mornings.
Tony Brown is a qualified solicitor, and the chairperson for the Newcastle Community Drug Action Team and community advocate for Alcohol Harm Prevention.