Shortcuts / 02 February 2023

What’s happening in Alice Springs – Part 1

Alice Springs has been in the national spotlight for all the wrong reasons over the past couple of weeks after a shocking escalation of crime in the town forced the PM to take action. So in this episode of Squiz Shortcuts, we take a look at what it’s been like living in Alice lately, how things got so bad, and the complicated history behind all the previous attempts to help.

Geez Alice has been having a rough time of it lately…
Yep, there have been some pretty shocking images of the Central Australian town in the news, like kids driving stolen cars, widespread break-ins, vandalism and fights breaking out in the street. Police have warned locals that the town isn’t safe after dark.

And things have been getting worse?
The situation really started to escalate back in November when police issued 2 warnings within as many weeks for residents to stay out of the CBD at night, and on one night they arrested 5 kids aged between 11-13yo.

What’s happened since then?
Forty extra NT Police officers were temporarily sent to Alice but there was scepticism in the town about whether that was going to fix much.

Why’s that?
Alice Springs Mayor Matt Patterson has been calling for help from the Federal POlice or even the Army for months. He said “we need more boots on the ground… this is no different to a flood or fire”.

So the problem is bigger than kids causing a bit of trouble in town?
It’s much bigger. According to NT Police data to November 2022, incidents of domestic violence were up by more than 50% on the previous year, as well as property damage, break-ins and alcohol-related assault.

That’s pretty grim…
Yep – even born-and-bred Alice locals have been saying they’ve considered leaving. One local woman who’s long done night patrols of Alice to give kids lifts home said she no longer felt safe in the town.

I imagine it’s also been tough for local business owners?
Yeah, one bloke who runs a motorbike store in town said his business had been broken into 9 times just last year.

And that’s just the crime we can see…
Exactly – but it’s also what’s happening behind closed doors. There has been an increase in domestic violence and reports say many kids are at increased risk of abuse. That has the whole Alice community saying we have to do something.

Which is why the PM flew up there this week?
That was after Coalition Leader Peter Dutton went to Alice in January and really blasted it to the top of the national media. Dutton kept saying the PM Anthony Albanese had to go to Alice himself to see what was happening. In fairness, the PM was set to do that in December but got COVID. 

What happened during that visit?
Albanese and the NT’s Chief Minister Natasha Fyles announced new restrictions on purchasing alcohol – banning takeaway sales on Mondays and Tuesdays and only allowing purchases between 3-7pm on other days.

Why the focus on alcohol?
Because federal laws banning alcohol in many Aboriginal communities expired in July last year. So for the past 6 months or so it’s been legal to buy grog in those areas for the first time in 15 years.

So alcohol has been fuelling a lot of this rising violence?
That’s what so many community leaders have said, and many were sounding alarm bells before the ban over fears there would be a spike in violence and crime. Labor’s Marion Scrymgour and the Coalition’s Jacinta Price – both federal parliamentarians from the NT – were predicting there would be terrible harm.

So why did the NT Government let the ban lapse despite all these warnings?
It’s a question many are asking, but it’s impossible to grasp how tricky this whole issue.

Where do we start unpicking it? 
Probably with what happened in 2007 when these alcohol bans were first brought in.

Take me through it…
So in the final months of the Howard Government, a devastating report was released called Little Children are Sacred. It detailed the most appalling systemic abuse of kids in Indigenous communities in the NT.

What was the response?
Then-PM John Howard declared it a “national emergency” and he announced a sweeping range of measures including alcohol bans, compulsory health checks for children and the quarantining of welfare payments in more than 70 townships in the NT.

Wasn’t the Army sent in as well?
Yep, along with federal police and bureaucrats. It was known as the ‘Intervention’ and Howard and his Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough were unapologetic. They said Australians were appalled by the “cumulative neglect” of these communities and were sick of governments not acting.

What was the response to the Intervention?
Indigenous communities were divided on the approach, and now, many Indigenous leaders think it was a heavy-handed response that took away the autonomy of local people and left them feeling powerless.

What about those that supported it?
Well, there was support and then-Labor Leader Kevin Rudd gave it his in-principle backing. That’s why – even though Howard lost the election just months after it started – many of the measures like the alcohol bans stayed in place.

Until last July?
That’s it. But the Intervention was never designed to be permanent and the legislation had an expiry date of 2022.

So there was a vacuum after that?
Not exactly. The NT Government actually made a new law saying if communities wanted to stay dry they had to ‘opt-in’ to keep a ban.

And did many do that?
Not really, and a lot of community groups said the most vulnerable people – women and children – often didn’t get a say in those local decisions. So despite a lot of objections and concerns raised by Indigenous elders, the bans ended up lapsing in most communities and are now facing this deteriorating situation.

So many feel that despite all the good intentions nothing’s really changed?
That’s right – and you can just feel the collective despair of Indigenous leaders over this – that once again their communities are in the national spotlight and many of them believe it’s just a failure of all governments to listen and respond to them.

And that includes the Intervention?
Yes, according to some Indigenous leaders in the Territory who blame the Intervention for the current situation in Alice. They believe it took away their self-determination, forced people to leave townships to come into Alice to get welfare payments, took away a lot of local jobs by bringing in outsiders, and entrenched hopelessness among Indigenous youths.

Does everyone think that?
Far from all Territorians agree with that view – and it’s worth noting many also think there was little choice at the time given how unsafe many women and children were in their own homes.

So what are leaders doing about it?
A few decisions were made during Albanese’s visit, including imposing 3 months of restrictions on alcohol sales. Senior Indigenous bureaucrat Dorelle Anderson was also tasked with undertaking a snap review into whether an alcohol ban should be temporarily reinstated in Central Australian communities, and the report was handed over this week.

What did it say?
The entire report hasn’t been made public yet, but some of its key recommendations include reinstating alcohol bans until communities have time to develop their own alcohol management plans, as well as the provision of needs-based funding for the Territory to properly resource the justice system and services in remote communities.

What happens now?
Albanese says he wants to act on the report “as soon as possible”, and he met with Fyles yesterday afternoon to figure out a way forward.

Right. So what does the Voice to Parliament have to do with all of this?
Glad you asked… So on one hand, you’ve got critics saying it’s not the time to be talking about it when there’s a crisis in Alice. But the new Senior Australian of the Year – prominent Indigenous academic Tom Calma – says what’s happening in Alice reinforces why Indigenous Australians’ advice to our pollies must be front and centre of our Parliament.

It ain’t an easy fix…
That’s for sure, and it’s something that we’ll be sure to hear more about as the debate for a Voice to Parliament ramps up.

Squiz recommends:

‘Why an Indigenous Voice to parliament would have helped in Alice Springs’ – Lingiari MP Marion Scrymgour in The Sydney Morning Herald

NT reporter Matt Cunningham’s emotional reaction during live cross about Alice Springs violence – Sky News

A dangerous game – ABC News

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