Woolworths Group prioritised commercial interests over that of the public in relation to potential harm arising from a proposed Dan Murphy’s store near three ‘dry’ Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in Darwin, according to an Independent Panel Review released today. The panel found that while Woolworths was informed about the demand for a more self-sustaining economy and better infrastructure in Darwin, it did not engage with the challenges faced by Aboriginal and Torr
orres Strait Islander communities in the Northern Territory and the risks of alcohol-related harm. “The time has long since passed when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples may have had no choice but to accept that degradation and disadvantage are a normative condition of their lived experiences and status in Australia. Given its more than 50 years of operation in the Northern Territory, its national footprint and its significance to broader society, Woolworths Group should have factored these issues into every aspect of its thinking in relation to the Darwin Dan Murphy’s proposal,” the report reads. The retail group did not consult with its Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) Working Group and its External Indigenous Advisory Panel as part of its decision-making process and the panel found that there was insufficient engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to build trust which reinforced experiences of “the dominant culture invariably getting its way”. “[This] was represented by Endeavour’s seemingly single-minded determination, after the Liquor Commission rejected Woolworths Group’s application, to gain approval for the Dan Murphy’s development regardless of the opposition of many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and the organisations that support them,” the report reads. Woolworths Group acknowledged that it failed to listen effectively and said that it will work to address the issues raised in the report. “Woolworths had not built the relationships, legitimacy and trust required to engage effectively, and did not listen sufficiently to legitimate voices of concern. Some of those voices were loud and clear – others less so. Even so, all should have been heard,” the Group said in a statement. Woolworths’ key areas of focus going forward will include deepening its relationships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, investing significantly in its risk management capability across all operations and introducing more diverse thoughts and opinions into the business. Clouded judgement The panel believes that Woolworths was guided by its own brand self-belief that its alcohol business Endeavour Group embodies best practice in the business of alcohol retailing in Australia and globally. “While there was a sincere belief that a Dan Murphy’s would raise the overall standard of service in the market, this belief may have obscured the social, historical and demographic complexity of the community and distracted from the significant risks inherent in opening a big box retail liquor store in Darwin,” the report reads. The report addressed the “elevated expectations” on corporations such as Woolworths Group particularly in the age of social media. And given that Woolworths was listed by Australians as their second most trusted brand in a Roy Morgan survey, it has set a “higher bar” for itself, in its aspiration to be a values-driven corporate. “Identifying, understanding, weighing up and determining their legitimate interests and influence is difficult. Of course, not all of these diverse interests can or should be satisfied … Nonetheless, chief executives and boards cannot, today, absolve themselves of the serious challenge of trying to deliver meaningful and authentic engagement with the interests and expectations of all relevant stakeholders,” the report states. Woolworths Group acknowledged its wrongdoing and apologised for its failures to live up to its values. “We acknowledge and fully accept that, in proposing the Darwin Dan Murphy’s in the way that Woolworths did, ‘Woolworths has not met all of the aspirations and standards’ in its purpose and values. Woolworths Group sincerely apologises for not having done so,” the Group said. Greater risks In April, based on the panel’s findings and after much public criticism, Woolworths announced that it would not be proceeding with the development. A Change.org petition started in May 2020 by Blak Business garnered over 150,000 signatures against the development. Woolworths has since surrendered its relevant licence to the Northern Territory Government. It’s the second Darwin location that has been opposed by the local community over fears of an increase in alcohol-related harm. The Northern Territory has the highest consumption of alcohol per capita of any state or territory in Australia. And while there is a greater percentage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people abstaining from alcohol (43.9 per cent) compared to the rest of the population, those who do consume alcohol do so at riskier levels. “Only 15.9 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Territorians did not exceed lifetime risky drinking guidelines, compared to 34.1 per cent of Territorians overall,” the report stated.