The Northern Territory government has introduced several new measures surrounding the sale and consumption of alcohol, including providing private security guards with oleoresin capsicum (OC) spray.

As well as providing security guards with OC spray, the Territory Government is expanding police powers concerning the Banned Drinkers Register (BDR) and has initiated a buy-back scheme of liquor licenses.

Chief Minister and Minister for Alcohol Policy, Natasha Fyles, is confident that the new laws will reduce alcohol-related harm.

“We are putting Territorians first with world-leading alcohol reforms to cut alcohol-related harm and reduce antisocial behaviour in our community. This includes measures like the Banned Drinkers Register, risk-based licensing and Police Auxiliary Liquor Inspectors (PALIs) – but we know there is still more work to do,” she said.

Reduced store hours

Beginning on 11 December, a six-to-eight-week trial will see Darwin bottle shops closed until midday on weekdays, a change that the Territory Government says will better allow police to focus on policing issues other than alcohol-related crime.

Trading hours in all other regions are location specific and will be unchanged as they currently operate at or after 12pm. There will be no change to weekend or public holiday trading hours.

Manfred Mletsin, owner of smallgoods and boutique wine store Porkin’, said that retailers were not consulted, or even alerted, about the changes.

“I found out through a media release by the Government. There was absolutely no consultation. It just blindsided everybody. On that day, I actually went to a store that was nearby to buy some cucumbers and I saw the owner there, and he actually heard about it from me,” he said.

Retail Drinks CEO Michael Waters is concerned about the implications for businesses and employees, as well as the lack of transparency around benchmarks for determining the trial’s effectiveness.

“Retail Drinks acknowledges the NT Government’s commitment to reducing alcohol-related harm, but we question the timing of this announcement, which was done without consultation or any clear evidence, and comes into effect just two weeks before Christmas. The lack of transparency and evidence-based policymaking is seriously concerning, especially when interventions extend beyond the scope of the Liquor Act.

“A reduction in trading hours is completely disconnected from the objective of strengthening the Banned Drinkers Register, which we support. Restricting trading hours will only serve to penalise the vast majority of Darwin residents and holidaymakers who consume alcohol responsibly, and negatively impact liquor retailers and their staff at the coal face who will now have to deal with this ill-conceived decision,” he said

Mletsin is worried that he will lose business from holidaymakers who are unaware of the changed store hours.

“If we have people from interstate visiting or anyone coming to the store, we will have to explain to them ‘I can’t sell you alcohol right now. We’ll have to do that from midday’. Our store is different as well, because it’s more boutique products. You have to ask are they going to actually come back in after those two hours, or are they even going to come back at all, because it might be off putting,” he said.

Waters also raised concerns about the increased likelihood of issues arising in crowded stores.

“We question whether the Government has considered the likely shift in consumer behaviour from a shorter trading window. Congesting trading hours will arguably lead to store safety, security, and staffing issues.

“Retail Drinks urges the Government to reconsider its approach, fostering meaningful engagement with all stakeholders to ensure well-informed policy decisions,” he said.

Mletsin has similar reservations about the safety of retailers.

“We already have issues when people are on the Banned Drinkers Register and you have to say no to them. What’s going to happen now when you say, ‘Hey, I can’t sell alcohol to you before midday’. Are they going to get aggressive or not? I don’t know yet.

“I understand the Government is trying to do to work on these issues, but this is not the issue. People getting alcohol before midday, that’s not the issue. The issue goes beyond that. I do acknowledge that there are there is a problem, but as a community, we have to come together,” he said.

Expanding the Banned Drinkers Register

The Alcohol Harm Reduction Amendment Bill 2023 will allow police to request the ID of any public drinkers exhibiting disorderly behaviour and issue an on-the-spot Banned Drinker Order (BDO), barring them from purchasing takeaway alcohol for seven days.

Chief Minister Fyles said: “People have the right to have a drink in safe and legal ways, but they don’t have the right to cause problems for other Territorians because of their problem drinking. We’re giving police more powers to deal with public drinking. Problem drinkers who are fighting and causing disruptions in public will be hit with bans on buying grog.”

Police will be required to issue a BDO in more situations, with provisions expanded to include drinking within a 2km radius of a licensed premise or any public place, or behaving in a disorderly manner in a high risk location such as Darwin CBD or Alice Springs CBD.

These are in addition to previously legislated situations where police are obliged to issue a BDO, which are three instances of the issue of an alcohol-related infringement notice, or three instances of being taken into alcohol-related protective custody. Previously, these three instances had to occur within a two-year period, but this two-year limit will be taken away.

The Minister for Police, Brent Potter, explained that these measures will help curb alcohol related violence.

“Police will now have to provide a BDO to those that are not following the rules. You will now have to show your ID to police so we can see who has the potential of being violent and causing harm. Police have told us these changes will make their jobs easier and that’s why we are introducing these changes on urgency,” he said.

Individuals that trigger a BDO for a second time will receive a three-month BDO, with more serious alcohol-related offences such as domestic violence orders resulting in an immediate three-month BDO.

Fyles continued: “Strengthening police powers to tackle problem drinking helps to break the cycle of alcohol misuse, crime and disadvantage, and provides better protection for domestic and family violence victims, particularly women and children.”

Arming private security guards

The Firearms and Weapons Control Legislation Amendment Bill 2023 will permit private security guards to be issued with OC spray, also known as pepper spray. The security companies must apply to use the spray, and will be required to undergo training, including providing care to the person who has been sprayed, and what to do in cases of self-exposure or third-party exposure.

The Minister for Police Potter explained the decision behind arming private security guards.

“We promised in March we would allow private security to be equipped with OC spray, and I am delivering on that promise. We have listened to and worked with the hospitality sector to introduce legislation with the right protections in place. These changes will make it safer for hospitality staff and customers.

“All Territorians deserve to feel safe and these measures will improve community safety. It’s just one additional action we are taking to help make the Territory safer for all,” he said.

Porkin’ owner Mletsin is unsure if these measures will reduce violent incidents, and is concerned about third-party exposure.

“Is it going to actually help if a person is going into a rage and you’re going to pepper spray them? They’re going to get even more enraged after that.

“I’m a little bit a little bit hesitant about the capsicum spray, especially in confined spaces,” he said.

Retail Drinks’ Waters is wary of the changes, instead preferring that the Government consider an increased to numbers of pre-existing PALIs.

“Retail Drinks, and its members, are strongly committed to enhancing the safety of store staff and their customers in the Northern Territory and all other jurisdictions. To this end, we have long supported the use of government-funded PALIs stationed outside bottle shops in the Northern Territory which is proven to have reduced anti-social behaviour outside stores.

“We do not support any possible replacement of PALIs with private security guards armed with capsicum spray to be funded at industry’s expense. The potential removal of PALIs in favour of privately funded security guards with capsicum spray would be another kick in the guts for industry who have already had to contend with reduced operating hours and restrictions on trade. We strongly support the expansion of PALIs and further investment by the NT Government in the use of PALIs which has had a beneficial effect,” he said.

Grocery Store Liquor License Buy-Backs

In March, the Territory Government announced a voluntary buy-back scheme of grocery store liquor licences across the Territory. There was a positive response to the initial expression of interest, with about 40 per cent of licensees registering to further discuss the buy-back scheme.

Currently, 18 grocery stores have participated in negotiations, with three grocery stores formally accepting the buy-back offer. Over the next few weeks, Wanguri Supermarket, Parap Road Store, and Anula Foodland will cease selling alcohol.

“Earlier this year we put this buy-back scheme to local businesses, and we have garnered a positive response. Grocery stores’ main business is to sell groceries. This buy-back scheme complements the work that we are undertaking in Parliament this week. Together we will see a decrease in alcohol related harm,” Fyles said.

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