By Byron Kaye
SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australian Indigenous leaders on Wednesday slammed grocer Woolworths Group Ltd over plans to build a huge liquor store near alcohol-free communities, in the latest flashpoint over Aboriginal rights and culture.
Australia’s largest supermarket has been trying for years to build a Dan Murphy’s liquor barn in the northern city of Darwin, despite opposition from local leaders who say it would worsen alcohol-related violence and health problems already at the highest rates in the country.
Indigenous leaders compared a revised plan to build the giant store to miner Rio Tinto Ltd’s destruction of sacred sites earlier this year that cost its CEO his job.
“Australians were outraged by the wilful and deliberate destruction of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural sites elsewhere in the county by big corporations,” a group of 45 Indigenous leaders said in a full-page public letter published in local newspapers.
“Your pursuit of this store equates to the same wilful and deliberate destruction of the health of our community and will be judged accordingly.”
Rio Tinto’s CEO resigned in September following shareholder pressure over its legal detonation of 46,000-year-old rock shelters against the traditional owner wishes.
A spokesperson for Woolworths liquor unit Endeavour said the new store plan was based on consultation with “a range of stakeholders” including Indigenous groups, police and the territory government.
The company was “committed to having meaningful conversations with local communities in Darwin to understand their views, listen to their concerns and to do what we can to address them”, the spokesperson added.
The Northern Territory Director of Liquor Licensing must give a final decision by Dec. 20. The NT DLL did not respond to a request for comment, nor did territory chief minister Michael Gunner.
A “Keep grog out of our communities” petition has gathered 135,000 signatures and hashtags including #boycottwoolworths and #shamewoolworths were trending on Twitter this week.
“Why on earth would we think that more liquor outlets are not likely to cause an increased level of harm?” said Olga Havnen, CEO of Indigenous-focused Danila Dilba Health Service, said. “What bit of consultation does any of this constitute? They’re not hearing us.”
(Reporting by Byron Kaye; Editing by Lincoln Feast.)