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Call to Reconciliation Australia to cut ties with Woolworths over Darwin bottle shop proposal

Introduction by Croakey: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non-Indigenous community and health leaders have called on Reconciliation Australia to revoke its endorsement of Woolworths’ Reconciliation Action Plan, as it did with Rio Tinto’s in the wake of the mining giant’s destruction of Juukan Gorge.

The signatories includes many leading Indigenous health experts, including National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO) CEO Pat Turner, Indigenous Allied Health Australia (IAHA) CEO Donna Murray, Lowitja Institute chair Pat Anderson, Aboriginal Medical Service Alliance of the NT (AMSANT) CEO John Paterson, Danila Dilba CEO Olga Havnen, and former 60 Minutes journalist Jeff McMullen.

They say Woolworths should, like Rio Tinto, be held accountable for its relentless fight to build what will be one of Australia’s largest alcohol stores near three dry Aboriginal communities in Darwin, despite strong opposition from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community and health organisations, “and in the full knowledge that this store will increase alcohol harm”.

After having previously lost bids to build the store, Woolworths was late last year granted approval. In response to outcries from community and health groups, it said it would not begin to build the store until it received the findings of a review it commissioned about its community engagement, expected in April.

The letter and the full list of signatories is published in the feature image above and also below. Reconciliation Australia has told media that it will not be responding to the letter’s call to action immediately.


Letter to Reconcilation Australia

We write as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, community and health leaders from across Australia to ask that you revoke your endorsement of Woolworths’ Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP).

We believe that Woolworths’ behaviour is inconsistent with the commitments outlined in their RAP, including their vision for reconciliation and the role that they articulate for contributing to reconciliation.

Over the past five years, Woolworths has relentlessly fought to build what will be one of Australia’s largest alcohol stores near three dry Aboriginal communities in Darwin.

Woolworths has pursued the Dan Murphy’s despite strong opposition from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community and health organisations, and in the full knowledge that this store will increase alcohol harm.

In the Woolworths RAP, Chief Executive Officer Brad Banducci said that the RAP “reinforces our commitment to create positive outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples” and that Woolworths has “a deep respect for our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander team members, customers and all of those who live in the communities we serve. We firmly believe they should have a voice in decisions that affect them.”

These words sound hollow in the context of Woolworths’ behaviour in the Northern Territory (NT).

Woolworths knows that the NT already has the highest levels of alcohol harm in the country. In the Territory there are high rates of trauma and people who experience trauma are more likely to engage in self-destructive behaviours including excessive use of alcohol. If misuse and abuse of alcohol was victimless, that is one thing, but the reality is there are other people, including children, involved.

The sad reality is that domestic-violence-related assault is up by nearly 20 per cent (4,615 offences against people) in one year and alcohol-related assault has increased by more than 22 per cent (3,829 offences against people).

The developmental trauma that results from children witnessing repeated family violence is significant, including the inability to regulate their emotions and behaviours which they take with them into adulthood. Consequently, many of the young people you see today involved in the juvenile justice system are victims of being exposed to repeated trauma.

Woolworths did not engage

Despite this, Woolworths did not engage with the service providers, representative groups, medical peaks and health and social service organisations to determine how such a store would affect the local community, or how they could contribute toward breaking the cycle of excessive alcohol use and addressing the underlying issues.

If they had engaged with leaders from the Bagot community, the largest community near the store, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community and health organisations, they would know that there is strong objection to the store and strong evidence of the harm that will occur if it goes ahead.

More than 30 community leaders and organisations from the NT recently signed an open letter indicating “At no point has Woolworths engaged meaningfully with our community about building this Dan Murphy’s store. If you had, you would know the depth of our concern and opposition”.

In 2019, the independent NT Liquor Commission found Woolworths’ application for the outlet was unacceptable on multiple grounds and rejected the application. In making its decision, the Commission stated that “approving the application would lead to a significant increase in the level of alcohol-related harms which already exist in this community.” Despite this, Woolworths has persisted with progressing the store through every possible avenue.

Woolworths’ RAP states their “vision for reconciliation is a better tomorrow where all Australians have an equitable voice and access to opportunities for prosperity.”

Woolworths indicates that they will contribute to this in a number of way including by:

  • “Listening to and learning from the knowledge and experience of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples past and present especially in matters affecting Country.”
  • “Building strong and lasting relationships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, based on principles of equal partnership, social justice and respect for past history in order to make a positive impact where it is needed most.”
  • “Building recognition and respect for the value of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, histories and achievements.”

We believe that Woolworths has demonstrated that they have not acted in the ways outlined above. Woolworths has not listened to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and organisations in relation to this store; they have not grown strong and lasting relationships based on the principles of equal partnership, social justice and respect; and they have not shown respect for the value of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures.

Just as Rio Tinto was held accountable for the destruction of Juukan Gorge and their RAP was revoked by Reconciliation Australia, Woolworths should also be held accountable for their actions.

While the Juukan Gorge caves have already been destroyed, action can still be taken to prevent the wilful and deliberate destruction of the health and lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples through the building of this store.

There is deep concern by community members who will be affected by this store and by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations that support people who are negatively impacted by alcohol harm. Our concerns have not been heard by Woolworths. We have no confidence that Woolworths will change their behaviour.

We ask that you revoke Woolworths’ Innovate Reconciliation Action Plan and suspend Woolworths from the RAP program.

Together we must take a stand against large corporations ignoring the voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and organisations.

Yours sincerely

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