Joan Maloney’s challenge to the Palm Island alcohol ban, dismissed today in the High Court, raises significant issues for the Racial Discrimination Act and the rights of communities targeted by alcohol management laws.
The High Court found, by majority, that the Palm Island alcohol ban was inconsistent with section 10 of the Racial Discrimination Act.
However, the Court was unanimous in its view that section 10 did not apply to the Palm Island alcohol ban because it constituted a "special measure" designed to protect the residents of Palm Island from the effects of alcohol abuse and associated violence.
The Australian Human Rights Commission said in its High Court submission on Maloney v The Queen that it does not dispute the seriousness of alcohol abuse in communities around Australia.
It said the issue is not whether there is a right to possess or use alcohol, it is about the legitimacy of a law that disproportionately exposes Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to a criminal penalty for possessing goods that are lawful in other parts of Queensland.
“The Commission did not support either party in Maloney v The Queen,” said Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda.
“Instead, we focused on the principle of equality before the law under section 10 of the Racial Discrimination Act, and the circumstances in which laws can constitute special measures under section 8 of that Act.
“The Commission fully supports legitimate responses to the problem of alcohol abuse and its impacts on vulnerable members of the community.
“We have learnt from communities such as those in Fitzroy Valley that the best response to alcohol abuse comes from communities who take responsibility for alcohol management themselves,” Mr Gooda said.
“We face an immense task in rebuilding the social fabric of communities across Australia.
“We need continuing and bi-partisan investment into drug and alcohol programs, and mental health and rehabilitation services.
“And we need continuing and bi-partisan support for the culture of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
“This requires good governance, collaboration and cooperation, as well as respect for the principles of equality and self-determination.”