Alice Springs is a town unlike any other and to an outsider its racial tensions are noticeable. Walking through the shopping centre one sees security guards tell Aboriginal people to move on when they are window shopping.
Poverty and homelessness are visible — and visibly black.
It has always been a town that has struggled with dealing with this visible poverty — and the less visible disadvantage of the communities in the town camps.
It has been back in the spotlight with a rise in social problems caused by an influx of Aboriginal people from other places.
Tony Abbott has weighed in on the issues acknowledging that a large number of problems have occurred because of the movement of Aboriginal people from remote towns into larger towns like Alice Springs who have shifted because they wanted to access grog.
To say this movement is caused by the need to access alcohol oversimplifies both the reasons for the population movement and the reasons why difficult social problems are occurring.
Alcohol is a factor, but it’s not the only one. Lack of housing and investment in services has caused people to move from their communities as well.
Lack of adequate housing and the failure of other services to meet the demands of new arrivals has exacerbated the situation in Alice Springs.
Excessive alcohol consumption is making the issues associated with endemic poverty much worse.
While it oversimplifies to lay blame for social problems simply with alcohol, its consumption is one of the key issues that need to be addressed.
But the clear message for policy makers and politicians in the movement to Alice Springs is that alcohol bans did not stop drinking; they only moved the problem.
That this was the likely outcome of imposed bans (compared with bans initiated by Indigenous communities themselves, of which there are many) was the advice and warnings of medical experts on the ground working with Aboriginal people when the intervention was announced.
The inevitable shifting of the problem of excessive drinking from one place to another is not an “I told you so” that should make anyone feel smug. But it should be a consequence that causes policy makers to examine whether the current policy approach needs a rethink.
The problem for these types of issues is that there is no robust policy analysis of whether these strategies are working.
The Labor Party in opposition unquestionably supported the intervention mechanisms, including income management and compulsory leasing, and the bipartisan approach has meant that neither party has played a true opposition role of looking thoroughly at where policy failure is occurring, nor of offering alternative policy approaches.
Instead, the debate between the major parties becomes a staring match about who can be the toughest.
This is unfortunate because if anywhere needed fresh thinking and robust analysis it is the area of Aboriginal affairs, where problems remain intractable.
The claims of success from the policy approaches in the intervention are empty — and unhelpful — rhetoric. There is no evidence of improved outcomes in the government figures.
Anaemia rates and malnutrition have increased, so too have suicide rates.
The Indigenous Doctors Association has raised concerns about the psychological impact some of the policies are having on the Aboriginal people subjected to them.
There have been increases in violence and school attendance rates are slightly less than what they were when the intervention was put in place.
The intervention was designed in Canberra over 48 hours and then rushed into vulnerable communities with no consultation with Indigenous people or the health, education and other experts working with them.
Some of these mechanisms — like compulsory income management for anyone on a welfare payment whether their children went to school or not, whether they had children or not — were some of the harshest policies being trialled in the country.
Robust analysis of the impact and consequences would seem like common sense.
Such an honest review was especially important because the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act meant complaints could not be made to the Australian Human Rights Commission; suspension of anti-discrimination legislation meant complaints could not be made under that legislation; and suspension of the right to appeal to the Social Security Appeals Tribunal meant they could not review an individual’s situation either.
Any of the usual mechanisms of review of the impact of a government policy on an individual to ensure it is not unfair or illegal or discriminatory were taken away.
An honest policy review and analysis in such circumstances then becomes a moral obligation for a government — or former opposition party — that has supported the removal of the usual checks and balances on its policies.
The shift of the problems around excessive drinking to Alice Springs gives rise to two lessons. And neither of them are new.
First, there is a need to not just consider alcohol bans — which can be assumed from past experience to simply move the problem somewhere else — but to address the underlying causes of dysfunction that lead to alcohol abuse.
Sounds like common sense, but Abbott’s call for grog bans was accompanied by a call for more police with no mention of the need for services to deal with addictions.
Similarly, he continues to call for tougher welfare measures on the parents of children not attending school. Apart from the fact that the current implementation of the policy has not led to increased attendance rates, he is overlooking the research that shows that parental attitudes are only one reason, and not the main one, why Aboriginal children don’t attend school.
Factors that contribute more to Aboriginal children not going to school include the culture of the school and the standard of teaching.
But there is no call for increased teacher numbers or investment in teacher training by Abbott (nor any commitment by the government).
The second lesson is also common sense, and backed up by research. Abbott has even alluded to it this time: the need to talk to the Aboriginal leadership within Alice Springs to ensure more effective action.
Engaging the Indigenous leadership in the Northern Territory, especially in the places subject to the intervention, was not done when it was rolled out in 2007. And it was always going to create tensions and barriers.
Research continues to show that to improve their socio-economic circumstances, Indigenous people need to be centrally involved in the policy making and design of services going into their communities.
There needs to be partnership with government, and trust.
Past government behaviour will be a barrier to building that trust. The message to Aboriginal people with the top-down approach was to paint them as part of the problem, not as a key part of the solution.
It’s an extraordinary paternalistic stance, especially with all the rhetoric around “taking more responsibility” but neither the Howard nor Rudd/Gillard governments have sought to give Aboriginal people a stronger, leading role in the solutions.
As recently as the first day of parliament this year, the prime minister gave a speech saying that Aboriginal people have to “put down the bottle” and start “sending their kids to school”.
Discussions with people taking the lead in their communities would quickly reveal that they have a better understanding of the causes of the problems and much more effective solutions.
Simple but effective ideas such as dry-out shelters and breakfast or homework programs were not thought up in Canberra and imposed. They were the thoughtful initiatives of Aboriginal people facing problems in their communities that they wanted solved.
They made inroads into these seemingly intractable problems with no expectation of government assistance, and no trace of a welfare mentality.
Start rebuilding a relationship with the people in communities like Alice Springs who may be able to assert some moral authority and leadership among their community, and more effective and innovative solutions may start to occur.
Continue to intervene on the assumption that everyone is part of the problem and the big old mess will continue.
[Professor Larissa Behrendt holds the Chair of Indigenous Research at the University of Technology Sydney. The article is republished from the April edition of Tracker magazine.]