New law targets Indigenous community

November 11, 2009

Police harassment of Melbourne's Indigenous community will likely increase as a result of a new law banning public drinking in the City of Yarra. The City of Yarra includes the suburbs of Fitzroy, Richmond and Collingwood.

Similar to Redfern in Sydney, Fitzroy and Collingwood have been Indigenous community meeting places for decades. Part of Smith Street in Collingwood is an outdoor meeting place.

On October 20, Yarra City Council passed Local Law 8, which bans drinking in public places.

Many local residents attended the meeting to voice their opinion for and against the ban.
The Greens initially proposed a compromise law banning public drinking between 7pm and 10am. This was defeated by three ALP and two independent councillors.

ALP councillors moved the motion calling for a 24-hour/seven days a week ban. Greens councillor Sam Gaylard broke ranks and voted for it, provoking uproar from community members present. People shouted "Shame on the Greens!" and "how can the ALP and Greens and Liberals unite against Aboriginal people?"

The other two Greens councillors and Socialist Party councillor Steve Jolly voted against the ban.

The main backers of the law are local traders, particularly from Smith Street. They're no doubt happy the ban on public drinking does not apply to licensed outdoor cafes and restaurants, or to people stepping outside a pub to have a smoke with a drink still in hand.

The council knows the law will have a discriminatory impact on the Indigenous community. A council media release says the police will have to "develop a protocol for the sensitive implementation of the law, particularly in regards to [I] ndigenous people, young people, homeless people and people with a mental illness".

Councillors supporting the law claim it won't criminalise Indigenous people because the police will only be able to issue $100 fines to people with an open container of alcohol — they won't be able to arrest people.

However, a Fitzroy Legal Service submission to the council said inevitable arguments between police and offenders meant it was likely drinkers would end up being arrested.
Jolly has opposed any bans on public drinking, instead campaigning for funding for a community centre and safe outdoor community space where people can gather, and have a drink if they want.

He told Green Left Weekly that now the ban had been passed, there was pressure on the council to fund the Melbourne Aboriginal Youth Sports and Recreation (MAYSAR) Centre and a safe outdoor space for people to gather.

He said there were no activity programs for people who gather in Smith Street, apart from two half-day programs to take people on fishing trips and other activities. Jolly said that this needed to be expanded.

Jolly said the council was under pressure from Richmond Labor MP and state Aboriginal affairs minister Richard Wynne to pass the ban. Wynne had threatened to block repairs to MAYSAR unless the council passed the ban.

[Anna Maidstone was present at the October 20 council meeting.]

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