Is the Darwin Dan Murphy’s Woolworths a Juukan Gorge moment?

As time has passed, opposition to Woolworths’ plans for a massive alcohol store near three dry Indigenous communities in Darwin has strengthened and become more vociferous. Even with the assistance of a pliant Northern Territory Government, approval of this shocking plan remains in doubt.

Despite the strident opposition of Indigenous people, health and medical organisations, and community groups over many years, Northern Territory’s (NT) Chief Minister Michael Gunner engineered the decision to build a Dan Murphy’s booze barn in Darwin. It is another indictment of public policy-making in Australia and especially alcohol and Indigenous affairs policy in the Territory.

Not that Gunner was around when the decision was made. He had taken a leaf out of the Prime Minister’s playbook and ducked off for a ‘well-earned’ break. No, the deed was left to the NT Director of Liquor Licensing Phil Timney after Gunner’s legislative pirouette had sidelined the NT’s independent Liquor Commission.

It is said to be a career-limiting step for senior public officials to decide against the wishes of their political masters and Mr Timney wasn’t about to do that. Objectively, Mr Timney should have rejected the application because this matter had been rigorously assessed by the Liquor Commission and found to be wanting. Other determinative bodies had also decided against Woolworths.

In fact, Woolworths had fallen short every step of the way in this long-drawn-out process. The company had not followed due process, repeatedly so in its consultations, and when the substantive evidence was tested its application was found to be deficient.

Not that it was ever discouraged, and the government has proven very accommodating.

The special legislation passed by the NT Parliament in November dealt the Liquor Commission out of the game and handed responsibility to the Director, bypassing the independent, evidence-based and transparent processes put in place following the 2017 review into alcohol in the NT by former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Trevor Riley. The legislative manoeuvre had all the hallmarks of a discredited government – and that is saying something in the NT. It also carries portents of similar manoeuvres. One bad act makes the next bad act easier – it’s a slippery slope.

Cabinet was clearly divided on this issue, with the minister responsible for alcohol choosing silence and saying she learned about the approval through the media. What’s she up to? She clearly wasn’t prepared to sponsor the offending legislation. The patsy was the Minister for Small Business and Gunner mate Paul Kirby, who repeatedly struggled to explain why he was acting for a big business against the interests of dozens of small businesses.

Woolworths plainly has the power to subvert good government and independent processes and has done this repeatedly around Australia. It has refused pleas to stop this development, shrugged off criticism, made false claims about consultations with local communities and aggressively asserted it was acting in the public interest. Its host of claims of economic and employment benefits were not assessed against the likely external (health, social and welfare) costs, which will inevitably be borne by taxpayers.

Woolworths didn’t adopt the usual bully-boy tactics of powerful business interests, but it did employ the tactic of those with deep pockets and sought to outlast its opponents. But it was met with staunch opposition, backed by the well-resourced Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education.

This Dan Murphy’s booze barn has long been opposed by public health, community and Indigenous groups. And for good reasons and without fully canvassing them here, it’s sufficient to say one doesn’t have to be Einstein to see the likely impact of an outlet this size placed near a number of ‘dry’ Aboriginal communities. The very public campaign of opposition by these groups has made this a national issue and Woolworths’ reputation is clearly on the line. Difficult questions at Woolworths’ AGM, excoriating opinion pieces in the quality press and a petition with more than 135,000 names does that.

Big companies value their reputations and invest heavily in protecting them, because bad acts and a loss of reputation can be costly to the bottom line. Witness the disaster for Rio Tinto that has followed the destruction of Aboriginal heritage sites at Juukan Gorge in the Pilbara. The chief executive has lost his job and a Commonwealth parliamentary inquiry has recommended multi-million dollar compensation payments.

The question is, will this Darwin Dan Murphy’s be Woolworths’ Juukan Gorge moment? There is every reason to believe so.

Woolworths has been playing the long game. It has taken every defeat in its stride and simply pressed on, seemingly knowing the government would ultimately shepherd this through for them. And ultimately Gunner delivered.

However, as community opposition has grown the retailer’s persistence has been seen as arrogant. Its 11th hour move, the announcement of an independent review into the failings of its consultation processes, was a typical big business ploy well versed in offering titbits to decision-makers.

At this point there seems to be no reason for Woolworths to fold. It has the approval it so desperately wanted, the ‘independent review’ will amount to not very much and opponents will no doubt be characterised as a bunch hand-wringing do-gooders! But at what cost?

When trust in government has been at an all-time low, it’s mystifying why the Gunner Government chose to undo its good work and reputation on stopping alcohol harm in the NT with this egregious act of bad governance. The economic arguments were predictable, but they were weak. It is more likely that Australia’s cultural embrace of alcohol explains why a good government would prostitute itself in this way and tragically at the expense of Australia’s most marginalised community – Indigenous people.

In the interest of the Gunner Government Mr Timney should have refused the Woolworths’ application and saved the government from itself. That would be a good thing for both the government and Woolworths.

It remains to be seen if the Woolworths board will show some heart and say no to Dan Murphy.

Michael Thorn

Michael Thorn is a public health advocate and the former Chief Executive of the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education. He made the initial objection to Woolworths’ Dan Murphy’s proposal to the NT Liquor Commission.

Author: 
Michael Thorn