In 2015, Woolworths Group began scouting for sites in Gulumoerrgin (Darwin) to develop a Dan Murphy’s liquor store.
The following five years saw Woolworths Group stand before the Liquor Commission, the NT Civil and Administrative Tribunal, and the Supreme Court, determined to get their application approved.
Nonetheless, Woolworths Group’s persistence was met with resistance from the Bagot community; one of three dry Aboriginal communities located on the doorstep of the proposed Dan Murphy’s site. Elders and residents of Bagot were opposed to having the alcohol superstore in their community due to risks including alcohol-fueled violence, pedestrian safety and the erosion of culture.
In May 2020, my mum showed me an article about Aunty Helen Fejo-Frith’s five-year battle against Woolworths Group. I was appalled. How had this gone so unnoticed by wider society for five years?!
Furious, I wanted everyone to know about this and to support the fight of Aunty Helen. I felt that if more people were aware that Woolworths Group were ignoring Aboriginal voices and posing a threat to community safety, they too would be alarmed and together we might be able to influence Woolworths Group’s decision.
I shared the article my mum showed me on the platform I founded, Blak Business. I was inundated with messages from followers sharing that they too were horrified by Woolworths Group’s lack of ethics.
Despite not living in Gulumoerrgin, I wanted to do more. So, I created the Keep Grog Out petition on Change.org as an act of solidarity with Aunty Helen and the Bagot community.
The heart of the petition has always been Aunty Helen and the Bagot community. My role has just been to amplify Aunty Helen’s voice by leveraging the following of Blak Business to encourage listening, support and action.
In December, Aunty Helen and the CEO of Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance NTJohn Paterson, ‘gifted’ the petition with 137,000 signatures to the Chief Minister of the Northern Territory, Michael Gunner.
Petition signers also had the opportunity to share their reasons for signing. Some responses included:
“These communities have the right to chose [sic] what is best for them. Their health and well-being should be more important than profit!”
“This is simply wrong. Surely Woolworths are not that desperate for profits that they need to thoughtlessly go ahead with this plan. These communities have strived to remain dry for the wellbeing of their people and must be supported.”
The success of the petition can not be attributed to any one person; this is a fact I really encouraged Blak Business followers to realise. Each person holds great power to influence knowledge and awareness.
Individual people speaking about what was happening and encouraging others to sign the petition is what led it to grow and spread. Anyone who has access to technology has access to influencing change.
I was really grateful that Nic, the Campaigns Director at Change.org also reached out to me and offered to support my petition. The support and knowledge of Nic was invaluable as he maintained enthusiasm and optimism during the times I felt ‘down and out.’
In addition to establishing the petition, I did reach out to Woolworths Group and encouraged others to do the same. I received responses from both the CEO of Woolworths, Gordon Cairns and a working group member of Woolworths Group’s Reconciliation Action Plan, James Scott-Mackenzie.
In his letter to me, Gordon Cairns claimed that “The Woolworths Board is very concerned to ensure the operations of Dan Murphy’s are conducted responsibly, and in accordance with our deep respect for local communities”.
The repeated ignoring of Aboriginal voices by Woolworths Group over the following months demonstrated the opposite to be true.
From the founding of the petition in May 2020 through to Woolworths Groups accepting the recommendation to not open the store near Bagot, thousands of people have taken action including writing letters, phoning Michael Gunner, signing the petition, boycotting Woolworths Group, and sharing content on social media.
I was so overwhelmed when I heard the news. I thought of Aunty Helen and how she must be feeling. I wanted to cry and run and jump and tell everyone. Victory! I hoped that the community of Bagot slept soundly that night.
However, at a shareholder meeting on the morning of the announcement, Woolworths Group chief executive Brad Banducci did not rule out the possibility of a Dan Murphy’s store opening elsewhere in Gulumoerrgin.
It must be remembered that Woolworths Group did not issue an apology for failing to meaningfully consult with the Aboriginal community or for inflicting stress on the people of Bagot for half a decade. Also, this is not the first time (nor the last, I expect) Woolworths Group have targeted vulnerable communities (see: Lake Haven; Maylands; Cranbourne East; Palmerston).
For now, though, we have victory — power to the people.
Mandaang guwu (thank you) to all those who supported the Keep Grog Out campaign. I was honoured to be part of the journey and am moving forward inspired by the passion and stoicism of Aunty Helen.