The Director of Liquor Licensing in the Northern Territory should be removed from his position, following Woolworths’ decision to abandon its five-year effort to establish an alcohol superstore in Darwin.
In a highly critical review by Sydney-based lawyer Danny Gilbert of Woolworth’s unrelenting efforts to secure approval from the Northern Territory government for the development, Woolworths chair Gordon Cairns announced in April that the Dan Murphy’s bottle shop would not proceed even though it had been given the go ahead by the territory’s Director of Liquor Licensing, Phil Timney.
The report of the Danny Gilbert-led Independent Panel Review into the proposed Dan Murphy’s development in Darwin was released to the public in June 2021. It is highly critical of Woolworths officials, Michael Gunner’s Labor government and the actions of Timney in approving the development in the face of the opposition from health experts and the wishes of Darwin’s Indigenous community.
In accepting the panel’s recommendation, Woolworths’ board agreed that it had failed to adequately address the concerns of Indigenous groups and that commercial considerations took precedence over public interest issues and perceptions about harm arising from the store. Woolworths has since surrendered the licence.
The fight over the Dan Murphy’s store had raged for nearly five years and took a surprising turn after the newly established and independent Liquor Commission rejected Woolworths’ development proposal in September 2019. At the time, the territory’s chief minister, Michael Gunner, described the commission’s decision as a “a kick in the guts for responsible drinkers, who want more choice in the Darwin market”.
Northern Territorians are Australia’s biggest drinkers and average per capita consumption of alcohol is among the highest in the world. Rates of alcohol harm are shocking, including presentations to hospital emergency departments, traumatic head injury, hospitalisations for acute alcohol disease, alcohol-related domestic violence and child abuse. Police time is consumed responding to alcohol-fuelled violence and anti-social behaviour.
Alcohol’s impact bears disproportionately on Indigenous territorians.
When elected in 2016, the government made it clear it was serious about the territory’s alcohol problems. It acted quickly to reinstate the Banned Drinkers Register and legislated to prevent the establishment of superstores like Dan Murphy’s by banning any bottle shop with floor space of more than 400 square metres. Former Chief Justice Trevor Riley was appointed to conduct a root and branch review of the territory’s alcohol policies and legislation, and when Riley reported in October 2017, the government accepted all but one of the 220 recommendations, including establishing an independent liquor commission.
However, this began to change once the reforms had come into effect. The 400 square metre ban was repealed, the government’s opposition to Woolworths’ proposal evaporated and it seemed to become less enamoured of the commission’s ‘independence’.
According to Gilbert’s report, once the Liquor Commission had rejected the development application and the appeal to the Northern Territory Civil and Administrative Tribunal (NTCAT) had been dismissed, Woolworths and the government worked together to find a way around the barriers to the development’s approval. They ultimately decided to legislate their way out of the difficulties.
Special legislation was rushed through the Legislative Assembly to bypass the independent Liquor Commission and give the Director of Liquor Licensing the power to fast-track an approval.
Instead of doing its own dirty work, the government had engineered a process that made the Director of Liquor Licensing responsible for determining the application.
It is a brave public servant who decides to defy their political master, especially one who is under intense pressure from a powerful vested interest like Woolworths. Timney acted as you would expect – he approved the application.
Gilbert’s exploration of the territory government’s facilitation of the licence approval and the role of the Director of Liquor Licensing reads like a court judgement. It is an understated but devastating critique of this entire affair. The discussion of the director’s decision-making is described variously as ‘problematic’, ‘deficient’, ‘unsatisfactory’ and “leads the panel to question whether or not the director asked himself the right questions in determining the application”.
The panel “considers that components of the director’s decision are problematic from a public policy perspective”. The approach he took “was unsatisfactory and leads the panel to question whether or not the director asked himself the right questions in determining the application.”
The panel concluded that it “has material concerns about the 2020 legislative amendments to the liquor licensing laws. In particular, the way in which it undermined or dispensed with important recommendations from the Riley Review. The panel is also concerned about the quality of the director’s decision in December 2020.” On the basis of these findings, it is fair to assert that the director failed to properly discharge his responsibility.
Even though this whole affair had been tainted by politics, once the Woolworths’ board decided to abandon the development, Timney’s position became untenable. He had a duty to objectively assess Woolworths’ revised development proposal. According to Gilbert’s report, he didn’t. He should be removed as Director of Liquor Licensing.