Kowanyama’s take-out liquor license has upsides and downsides for Cape York’s remote community

To legally buy booze in this Queensland pub, you have to blow the bag – and you have to blow zero.

Kowanyama, a remote town in western Cape York, was one of seven Indigenous communities in Queensland where Prohibition was introduced in 2008.

In 2014, the local canteen reopened serving restricted amounts of alcohol.

This year, the community gained more alcohol freedom, successfully obtaining a take-out license.

But this freedom is restricted.

Each person is limited to purchasing 12 medium-strength drinks per night, and only Wednesday through Saturday between 5 p.m. and 11 p.m.

To enter the canteen, customers must register, take a breathalyzer test, and return a zero blood alcohol level, even to buy takeout.

Some residents of Kowanyama register their homes as “dry places”, with penalties for anyone who brings alcohol.(ABC Far North: Mark Rigby )

They can then, for example, have four drinks at the bar and take eight home.

Producing a member or visitor card at the bar allows staff to keep tabs on the number of drinks consumed, while customers are kept informed of their limit by a flashing digital display on the cash register.

A similar canteen opened this month on the other side of Cape York, in Lockhart River – another of the seven communities where Prohibition was introduced in 2008.

Sites on Mornington Island and Pormpuraaw, west of Cape York, are also in the process of applying for extensions to their existing liquor licenses.

“Hardly anyone here”

Many Kowanyama residents gathered this month for the annual rodeo ball, held at the canteen.

Thomas Hudson, president of the Kowanyama Sport and Recreation Association which runs the canteen, said the purpose of the ball was to bring the community together.

An Aboriginal man in jeans and a plaid shirt stands under a string of balloons that read
Kowanyama Sport and Recreation Association President Thomas Hudson leads the annual rodeo ball.(ABC Far North: Mark Rigby)

“To make people dress up and be proud of themselves because we don’t do that every day here in our community,” Hudson said.

Attendance at this year’s event, the first since its inception where take-out alcohol is available, was down from previous years.

The steady stream of people buying from the canteen’s take-out counter before it closed at 8 p.m. confirmed what prom attendee Clive ‘Smokey’ Gilbert suspected – that many were choosing to drink at home.

“There’s hardly anyone in the canteen here,” Smokey said.

“When there was no takeaway in this pub it was busy but you don’t see it now, they always come home now.”

Two Indigenous men stand side by side under fluorescent lights in a bar.
Clive ‘Smokey’ Gilbert (L) and Kowanyama Mayor Robbie Sands (R) attended this year’s rodeo ball.(ABC Far North: Mark Rigby)

Kowanyama resident Gwendolyn Dick said that despite the below-average attendance, the ball managed to bring the community together for a long period of sad affairs.

“We’ve had four deaths recently, and another last week,” Ms Dick said.

“It’s good to see all the families in the community come together as one because we often can’t during sad affairs and funerals.”

Return of rights and responsibilities

Most in Kowanyama welcome the return of the canteen and take-out liquor sales, including the community women’s support group.

Security providers and canteen customers said the increase in takeaway sales had led to a reduction in fighting and anti-social behavior in the pub.

“It’s good for the community,” Smokey said.

“It keeps them out of trouble and people are enjoying their beers at home watching the football.”

Figures bathed in fluorescent light in an outdoor bar.
Rodeo Ball attendance has declined in 2022, with take-out sales meaning more people choose to drink at home instead.(ABC Far North: Mark Rigby)

For Michael Yam, former mayor of the Kowanyama Aboriginal Shire Council, the resumption of take-out alcohol sales at the community canteen is a return to the rights and responsibilities of city dwellers.

“It’s time they gave us something back,” he said.

“It will probably minimize sneaky grogging because, as we know, in our community there are always opportunists who are going to do that.”

And he said there were benefits for people who chose to drink at home rather than in the canteen.

“Some families take their drinks home so they can be home with their kids instead of drinking at the club all the time away from their little ones.”

Lockhart River Aboriginal Shire Mayor Wayne Butcher said the community’s newly opened canteen had taken “14 years in the making”.

“It created 10 new jobs in the community overnight, so it’s great to see a lot of young people working as crowd controllers, security or people serving alcohol behind the bar and preparing food” , did he declare.

“That’s the other side of the coin that we can’t look at or focus too much on.”

About Michael Brafford

Check Also

Alcohol-free wines: why all the buzz around alcohol-free alternatives?

“Most people who walk into a supermarket to buy a bottle of wine aren’t experts; …