A DAMNING Auditor-General report into the failure of successive governments to combat Victoria’s binge drinking has reopened calls for tougher policies and a less ”knee-jerk” response from authorities.
The report, released late last month by acting Victorian Auditor-General Peter Frost, revealed inept policies had compounded alcohol-related violence and health problems, which cost the state $4.3 billion each year.
The report found the Department of Justice spent $67 million on alcohol abuse strategies in the past four years alone, many of which were never evaluated and had minimal impact.
The Department of Justice conceded in the report that some strategies were knee-jerk responses that were not based on evidence.
”Heightened community and media concerns regarding alcohol-related harm influenced decision-making in terms of both the content and timing of initiatives,” the report says.
”The liquor licensing regime is not effectively minimising alcohol-related harm. This is due to a lack of transparency in decision-making, insufficient regulatory processes, administrative errors, poor quality data, and a lack of engagement from councils.”
Sam Biondo, executive officer of the Victorian Alcohol and Drug Association, said it was ”staggering” there had not been a cohesive and strategic response to the problem.
Policy failings over the past decade coincided with a 49 per cent rise in assaults, a threefold increase in ambulance callouts, and an 87 per cent jump in people being treated at hospital due to intoxication.
The incidence of domestic violence attributed to drinking had also doubled since 2001, despite several reviews by different government departments of Victoria’s alcohol policy.
The report uncovered a litany of mistakes by the Department of Justice, the Victorian Commission for Gambling and Liquor Regulation and Victoria Police, which included:
■Only 20 per cent of all liquor licence inspections in pubs and clubs were on weekends, when the vast majority of drunken violence occurred.
■A six-year delay by the former Labor government to implement its Victorian Alcohol Action Plan coincided with a 52 per cent increase in licensed venues and a 22 per cent rise in alcohol-related hospitalisations.
■The 2008 lockout policy that prevented patrons from entering bars after 2am resulted in an increase in assaults between midnight and 4am.
■A government advisory group to reduce alcohol abuse included several liquor industry members with a ”clear conflict of interest”.
■Liquor licence inspectors focused on minor administrative breaches rather than cracking down on alcohol sales to under-age or drunk customers.
■Failure to collect alcohol sales figures, making it impossible to target strategies to reduce consumption or assess their effectiveness.
The report also warned the dysfunctional regulatory regime will doom the Baillieu government’s new alcohol and drug strategy, expected later this year after long delays.
Mr Biondo said it was ”astounding” that the government did not collect alcohol sales data at the retailer or at the wholesale end.
”It’s like policy initiatives being driven with one eye closed and one arm behind your back,” he said.
While the Auditor-General criticised Victoria Police for failing to adopt a strategic approach to the problem, he said policing blitzes on trouble spots had been effective.
Department of Justice secretary Penny Armytage, who resigned from her position last week, defended the agency’s performance in a writ ten response to the Auditor-General.
”I am concerned that the findings of the audit are narrowly drawn, and therefore underplay this complexity when considering the nature, purpose and effectiveness of alcohol policy,” Ms Armytage said.
Victorian Commission for Gambling and Liquor Regulation chairman Mark Brennan also rejected some of the criticism and denied systemic problems with the liquor licensing process.
”The commission has some concerns about the veracity of suggestions in the proposed audit report that there was systematic problems with the liquor licensing process,” Mr Brennan said.
John Rogerson, chief executive of the Australian Drug Foundation, said cheap alcohol was more attractive to young people and those with drinking problems, and called for the state government to ban bottle shop deals offering discounts for bulk buys, and alcohol advertising on public transport.
”Clearly the previous government didn’t act on the things that the evidence shows have an impact,” Mr Rogerson said.
”We know what works – increasing price, restricting availability and restricting marketing. Those things aren’t popular, but this is really time for action if we’re ever going to shift this culture.”
A spokeswoman for Consumer Affairs Minister Michael O’Brien said that many of the problems had been inherited from the previous government, which failed to respond to the state’s dangerous binge drinking culture.
She said the Baillieu government had introduced several measures, including steep fines for public drunkenness, doubling the number of compliance officers and the introduction of a demerit system for rogue licensees.
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