UPDATED: Liquor giant Dan Murphy’s parent company Woolworths has confirmed it will not proceed with building a store in Darwin, following the release of a report into its handling of community concerns.
The $40 million project was finally approved last December, following four years of NT Government interference, but Woolworths said at the time that they would not start work on the project until the results of a review into its community engagement process was finalised.
The results of that review by prominent Sydney-based lawyer Danny Gilbert were released this morning.
“The Gilbert review has made it clear that we did not do enough in this community to live up to the best practice engagement to which we hold ourselves accountable,” Woolworth’s Group chairman Gordon Cairns said.
“In particular, we did not do enough stakeholder engagement with a range of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and organisations.”
Sources with knowledge of the matter had earlier told the NT Independent that the company would not proceed with the Darwin Dan Murphy’s project following strong opposition from Indigenous groups across Darwin and the country and a long, drawn-out process that has seen the project languish for more than four years.
“They’re going to pull the plug,” one source said. “It’s gone on too long and the sunk costs are mounting.
“It’s a massive failure by the government to attract private investment that was ready to go by screwing around for all these years.”
The decision by Woolworth’s to not proceed will mean a massive project on NT Airports property will be scrapped as well. The liquor store was to be the anchor tenant of a major multi-million dollar commercial centre.
Gunner Government interfered with project since late 2016
Last November, the Gunner Labor Government rammed urgent legislation through Parliament that essentially overturned the independent liquor commission’s 2019 ruling to ban the store, placing the decision solely on its director of liquor licencing, who was not required to review community impact issues before issuing his decision to approve the outlet late last year.
That kicked off a firestorm of protests from Indigenous community groups in Darwin and across the country, including health agency Danila Dilba, who threatened legal action against the government for its decision to permit the Dan Murphy’s to proceed.
That was just the latest bizarre turn of events with the proposed liquor store that began in December 2016, when the Gunner Government controversially slipped through legislation to ban booze shops larger than 400 sq/m, – based on no evidence that the size of liquor store contributed to alcohol harm – just as the liquor giant was ready to publicly announce its $40 million plans to build a store opposite the Bunnings on NT Airport property.
Chief Minister Michael Gunner said at the time that the liquor store conflicted with his government’s commitment to tackle alcohol-related crime.
He later back-flipped on those comments and repealed the 400 sq/m ban, supporting the establishment of Dan Murphy’s after years of costly legal battles for the company.
An independent alcohol review conducted by former chief justice Trevor Riley found the price of grog, and not the size of the shop that sold it, contributed more to alcohol-related harm.
Then there were numerous legislation changes, including one to prevent Dan Murphy’s from suing the government, and hearings at the NTCAT which dragged the project out for years.
Woolworth’s had agreed last year to move the proposed store to appease the nearby Bagot community’s concerns from Bagot Road to near the Flip Out building off McMillans Road, and also argued the Darwin Dan’s would have “the most stringent set of alcohol control policies anywhere in the country”.
Woolworth’s chief executive Brad Banducci did not rule out a Dan Murphy’s possibly opening in a different location at a later date, stating that would be up to Woolworth’s subsidiary Endeavour Group, but gave no time frame for a possible decision.
‘Killing off investment’: Opposition
Opposition leader Lia Finocchiaro said Woolworth’s decision to scrap the proposed store was another example of Mr Gunner “killing off investment in the Territory” and also exposed the government’s failed alcohol policies.
“Labor’s initial reaction and subsequent counter-reactions has killed this development,” Ms Finocchiaro said. “The Gunner Government is hell-bent on wiping out business confidence in the Territory – and today’s announcement shows it’s succeeding.”
Independent MLA Robyn Lambley said the whole debacle was caused by “absolute incompetence” on the government’s part.
“Dealing with layers and layers of incompetent, short-sighted Ministers and officials and being blocked by ‘boundless’ red tape, is enough to put off any investor,” she said.
“Why would Woolworths and Dan Murphy’s waste any more time and money trying to negotiate with these Muppets?”
Mr Gunner said in a statement that he “respects” Woolworth’s decision not to proceed.
“Despite Woolworths’ decision people remain able to enjoy a drink responsibly in the Darwin and Palmerston area and enjoy choice,” he said.
“There are several hundred licensed liquor outlets across the region.”