Shortcuts / 09 February 2023

What’s happening in Alice Springs – Part 2

Last week’s Squiz Shortcuts episode got across what’s been happening in Alice Springs lately and some historical context. In this week’s follow-up episode, we take a look at the discussion around alcohol and step you through a bit more on Alice Springs itself, what the latest report into the problems there has recommended, and what our governments are doing now.

Set the scene for me…
According to the latest Census data from 2021, the population of Alice Springs is 25,909. That includes 5,434 Indigenous residents, who account for just over a 5th of the population. Of those residents, 1,097 reside in town camps.

What’s a town camp?
There are 43 of them throughout the Northern Territory, including 18 around Alice Springs. They’re basically areas set aside around a main town or city that sprung up in the 60s and 70s. They were designed to be transit accommodations for people from remote areas who came into town for services but over time they’ve become more permanent – although the vacancy rate varies depending on the time of year.

Not to be daft, but are people actually camping in the camps?
While they are called camps, residents mostly live in houses. But the infrastructure really varies – some have paved roads while others don’t have streetlights, reliable electricity or internet.

Who lives in them?
The camps tend to b organised tend around cultural groups – so for instance people in some of the town camps on the northern fringes of Alice tend to come from the same homelands and share languages.

Remind me why we’re talking about town camps?
Because until July last year, alcohol had been banned in those communities for the past 15 years. Then the bans expired and a lot of leaders in Alice reckon that’s what’s fuelled a crime wave over the past 6 months, where things like assaults, break-ins and domestic violence were all up by more than 50%.

Isn’t the whole issue about more than just alcohol?
It is, but if there’s a single thing a lot of Indigenous women, police and health organisations agree on, it’s that lifting the alcohol ban has made things a lot worse in all of Alice.

Why’s that?
Because it’s fairly easy to get takeaway grog from Alice and bring it back to the camps without those bans being in place.

And that’s increasing alcohol-fuelled crime?
Yep – police and Indigenous leaders say it makes violence worse both in the camps and the broader town. It also means younger people might be escaping violence in the camps and that’s why they’re on the streets of the Alice CBD at night.

So what’s been done?
Back on 24 January, PM Anthony Albanese visited Alice Springs and with NT Chief Minister Natasha Fyles, placed some restrictions on the sale of alcohol. He also appointed top NT public servant Dorelle Anderson as the Regional Controller for Alice and gave her a week to report back on what needed to happen. That report was made public this week.

What did she say?
Anderson says it is clear alcohol has become an issue in Alice that requires urgent action. And as a simple way of showing that – she said Darwin has more than 5 times the population of Alice, but in recent times over the past year you’re more likely to be the victim of an alcohol-related assault in Alice than Darwin. And over the past year, one in 27 Alice residents have experienced an alcohol-related assault.

That’s a worry…
It is, and Anderson says anecdotal evidence suggests COVID was a big factor in things getting worse. So because people were getting extra support payments like Jobkeeper and could get access to their super, she said a large number of people from remote communities were travelling to urban centres to consume and purchase alcohol.

So are things worse now than they were before the pandemic?
Yep – even accounting for a COVID spike, Fyles says things are much worse now in Alice. Compared to November 2019, alcohol-related assaults are up 80% and domestic violence involving alcohol is up 96% in the same time period.

So it’s a lot to do with grog?
Well, Anderson is at pains to say that “history shows that only addressing alcohol is a temporary solution… The immediate measures put in place will not alone see long-term generational change”.

But will the alcohol restrictions help in the short term?
They’re meant to act as a circuit breaker for the spiralling situation, which is why one of Anderson’s 2 urgent recommendations is for the NT government to ban alcohol in town camps and remote communities.

So will the bans be in place forever?
No, but Anderson says if dry communities choose to reintroduce alcohol, they must only do so after serious community consultation including the voices of women and children. And they must come up with an alcohol management plan that needs to be approved by at least 60% of residents.

What do those affected say about the move?
Of course not everyone’s happy, but there are also some concerns. Some Indigenous women have warned that the ballot process would need to be policed or it would place them at risk of being pressured into voting in favour of booze.

And what’s the report’s 2nd recommendation?
That governments should work together to deliver funding and services to those communities “so that the cycle of intergenerational trauma and disadvantage can truly begin to be broken”. So Anderson’s talking about housing, health services, childcare, education and training. She wants to ensure all those services are not entirely based in Alice but are also in remote communities and town camps.

That doesn’t sound like a quick fix though…
That’s the thing. Because so many attempts have been made before, Anderson acknowledges that “no one entity can resolve these issues quickly” – she says it’s going to require governments, traditional owners, elders and community groups to fix this together.

What’s the PM had to say?
PM Albanese and the NT Chief Minister Fyles have completely adopted her recommendations on the alcohol bans – so we should see that legislation in the NT Legislative Assembly as early as next week.

That’s a big deal…
It is, and it’s a big turnaround for the NT Government in particular because it was previously resisting calls for an alcohol ban, saying communities should make their own decisions.

But it’s now on board?
Yep – Fyles acknowledges even the temporary restrictions imposed a couple of weeks ago have provided “respite” in Alice – but she also won’t lock in indefinite blanket bans – she wants communities to have a path out of it if that’s what they choose.

What else are political leaders doing?
On the funding side of things – the federal government’s stumping up $250 million for the region. Nearly $50 million of that will go towards community safety in Alice, which PM Albanese committed a couple of weeks ago.

What sort of stuff does that include?
So that included money for extra police and security guards in public places, CCTV and lighting – and there was extra funding for places for young people to go at night if they didn’t feel safe as well as a boost for domestic violence services.

Ok so that’s $50 million – what about the extra dosh?
We don’t really know the finer detail of where it’s going yet. The press release with the NT Government points to 6 priority areas without any detail on specific programs or initiatives.

So what are those priority areas?
The first is “improved community safety and cohesion”, which could include youth engagement and diversion programs. And the 2nd thing it talks about is job creation, particularly in the communities that surround Alice Springs where unemployment is a major issue.

Anything else to note?
The NT Government has flagged spending on improving health services around Alice Springs including preventing and addressing issues caused by Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, as well as better support for elders and parents and country learning.

It seems like there’s a way to go…
As you said, it would be a quick fix. The PM told Parliament that “the truth is that all governments could have done better – all governments – Labor, Liberal, Northern Territory, here in Canberra”.

Squiz recommends:

Dorelle Anderson’s report

‘When will they listen to us?’ Town camps on the fringe of Alice, but at the heart of Indigenous debateGuardian Australia

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