Woolworth’s consultation process for a new booze barn in Darwin prioritised commercial objectives over good relations with the community and was insensitive towards local Indigenous people, a panel has found.
Through its subsidiary Endeavour Group, the retail giant planned to build the Northern Territory’s first Dan Murphy’s store, a proposal that was blocked by the independent Liquor Commission in 2019 due to concerns it would increase the risk of alcohol-related problems in nearby Aboriginal communities.
Woolworths Group appealed and controversial legislation then allowed a government bureaucrat, the Director of Liquor Licencing, to fast-track approval for the plan in December.
But Woolworths put its final investment decision on hold while the proposal was assessed by an independent panel, chaired by Danny Gilbert of law firm Gilbert + Tobin.
In late April, after hearing the panel’s findings, Woolworths Group announced to the ASX it had abandoned the plan to build a Dan Murphy’s “at Darwin Airport” – but didn’t rule out another location – and publicly released its 144-page report on Wednesday.
In the report, the panel lashed Woolworths’ initial consultation process but applauded it for commissioning the independent review.
“Many stakeholders consulted by the panel expressed the view that Endeavour’s consultation process was narrow in its identification of stakeholders, often formulaic in nature, and culturally unaware and insensitive towards local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities,” the report read.
“These stakeholders considered that the consultation process focused on furthering commercial objectives at the expense of establishing and maintaining good relations with the local community.
“The combination of these factors created a deep feeling of bad faith.”
The panel found engagement had been initiated through “a generic letter to a community health organisation that had no formal role in representing these communities”, leaving many Indigenous locals feeling they had been viewed “as a target for consultation for a predetermined outcome”.
“Difficult though it would have been, Endeavour should have engaged more widely among the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population of Darwin, including the long grass population,” the panel said.
“It should have engaged local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander consultation experts in Darwin who had a deep understanding of the concerns of the population.
“And it should have engaged more thoroughly with the concerns of community health organisations and other experts around the potential for alcohol-related harms.”
While there was likely majority support for the planned megastore, the views of Indigenous people and supporting groups should have been given more weight in deliberations, the panel said.
In a letter to Mr Gilbert on Wednesday, Woolworths Group chairman Gordon Cairns, chief executive Brad Banducci and sustainability committee chair Holly Kramer said the retailer failed to meet its own expectations for the quality of its Indigenous engagement.
“We deeply regret our insensitivity to critical stakeholders in Darwin and beyond, and our own external Indigenous Advisory Panel, whose advice we did not seek,” they wrote.
“For that, we unreservedly apologise.”
In a separate letter, Endeavour Group chairman-elect Peter Hearl and chief executive-elect Steve Donohue said: “We now appreciate the Darwin Dan Murphy’s development warranted a different approach, as … many stakeholders did not feel as though their concerns were considered or addressed, in our processes”.
“We have learned from this experience and welcome the Independent Panel Review’s analysis and insights on how we can better listen to, and fully understand, the unique concerns of each community in order to reach the best possible outcome when considering all stakeholders involved,” they wrote.
The executives said Endeavour Group had a role “working constructively and collaboratively with parties across the spectrum to help minimise the harms caused by alcohol misuse”.
Endeavour Group, which operates 1630 liquor stores including BWS outlets and 332 licensed venues around Australia, plans to demerge from Woolworths Group this month and list on the ASX.
Shareholders will vote on the proposed split on June 18.