Behind the ‘crisis’ in Alice Springs

February 7, 2023
A largely young crowd at the Sydney Invasion Day protest. Photo: Zebedee Parkes

First Nations people in the Northern Territory are once again being blamed for problems arising from long-term dispossession and lack of control over their lives.

This is the context of misjudged calls for military and federal police intervention to address a youth crime “crisis” in Alice Springs. According to Rolf Gerritsen and Tanya McDonald, writing in The Conversation, assaults, domestic violence, minor property damage and theft in the town rose by more than 50% over the past year.

Right-wing politicians and the corporate media jumped on the opportunity to stoke racism against the First Nations community, which makes up 21% of the town’s population.

The rise in petty crime is being linked to the lift of alcohol restrictions last July, following the end of Intervention-era alcohol bans in the NT.

Alcohol abuse is undoubtedly a serious health issue: recent data shows a 50% spike in alcohol-related presentations in Alice Springs Hospital’s emergency department since restrictions were lifted.

But, as Alice Springs emergency department director Dr Stephen Gourley said on social media: “Every [emergency department] in Australia struggles with alcohol-fuelled violence and it is an issue I think we as a nation need to deal with … It’s not unique to Alice. What we do have though, is 200 years of failed policy for Aboriginal people.”

To blame the rise in crime on the lifting of alcohol restrictions ignores the broader issues, including: the dismantling of community control over many decades; the high rate of poverty among First Nations communities; and the lack of services.

Moreover, alcohol abuse problems are made worse by the lack of funding for the support sector: some treatment services are unable to function.

For decades, alcohol and Aboriginal people’s right (or not) to buy and drink it has been treated as a political, rather than health, issue.

Senior Arrernte and Anmatjere woman Perrurle Patricia Ansell Dodds told the ABC on January 26 that the situation in Alice Springs is a direct result of the legacy of the NT Intervention.

Alcohol bans were part of the NT’s National Emergency Response Act 2007 (the Intervention) and its successor, the Stronger Futures Act 2012. The Intervention was launched by the John Howard government in response to claims of endemic crime, particularly against women and children of First Nations communities.

Alcohol restrictions were only one part of the Intervention, which required the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act. The laws discriminated against and disempowered First Nations people and communities and have contributed to more adverse outcomes for First Nations peoples.

New alcohol bans

The Labor government reintroduced restrictions on the sale of alcohol in Alice Springs, along with extra funding for police. Further, it announced on February 6 it was reinstating the alcohol bans in Central Australia, preventing the sale of alcohol to people living in Aboriginal Town Camps and remote communities. This was its response to a snap report, commissioned for the NT government, which made the same recommendation.

Anthony Albanese’s government has been criticised for ignoring advocates’ calls for services, such as needs-based domestic violence funding.

There is little in the federal commitment to: address the region’s growing poverty rates; reinvest in community solutions and community services; take any significant steps to listen to First Nations communities’ demands; and support self-determination.

But some conservative leaders want a vigilante response. Alice Springs Mayor Matt Paterson said crime had reached “crisis levels”, saying the army and the Australian Federal Police should be sent in.

Coalition leader Peter Dutton demanded the government urgently intervene, without saying what needed to be done.

Thousands of Alice Springs residents at a Town Hall meeting on January 30 demanded federal compensation for property crime. They also called for more police.

Organiser Gareth Williams told the crowd to call police if they see a group of kids “hanging around”. This prompted outrage from sections of the audience. One person told the ABC that the meeting was a “disgusting show of white supremacy”.

Elaine Peckham, an Eastern Arrernte elder told The Guardian that such calls have “scared many in the community who had lived with the continuing legacy of the Intervention from 2007 onwards”.

First Nations speak out

First Nations people and organisations have continued to propose solutions and call for genuine consultation between affected communities at all levels of government.

Arrernte Traditional Owners argue that the roots of this crisis are the direct result of decades of chronic and systemic neglect of remote communities and the impacts of the NT Intervention. They have also repeatedly asked the government to listen to their concerns. Arrernte elder William Tilmouth argued in Crikey that the government is “using the same short-sighted political strategies of the past that offer little hope for real change”.

Indigenous groups have repeatedly stressed that the type of alcohol restrictions Albanese is proposing will not address the root causes of the crisis.

Ampe-Kenhe Ahelhe (Children’s Ground), a First Nations-led organisation, called on all politicians to discuss real and lasting solutions.

Cassandra Neil, an Arrernte educator, said: “We need funding for our communities. We want proper facilities. We will keep supporting our children. We know this is the answer. We need government to come and support us and listen.”

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