‘We have to come together’: alcohol bans alone won’t fix Alice Springs’ problems

Restrictions have had success but an Aboriginal health group warns the ‘underlying drivers of destructive drinking’ must be dealt with

It’s been another tense and challenging week for the central Australian town of Alice Springs.

Local frustrations boiled over at an angry town meeting, where residents threatened to sue the Northern Territory government for more than a billion dollars. And a highly-anticipated report on how to tackle the rise in social unrest and violence in the town was delivered to the prime minister and the Northern Territory chief minister, who say they are considering its contents carefully.

But central Australia’s leading Aboriginal health organisation and Territory police say there is a glimmer of hope that emergency restrictions on alcohol introduced on 24 January are beginning to work.

“We’ve seen an immediate improvement in town, to the extent that incidents requiring police attention fell by almost half, from around 200 to 120 a day,” the CEO of the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress, Donna Ah Chee, says.

“Domestic violence incidences fell from 25 to 10 a day. Break-ins went down significantly, and there was also a reduction in the number of alcohol related presentations to the emergency department at the Alice Springs hospital.”

On a fly-in-fly-out trip to Alice Springs last Tuesday, Anthony Albanese and local leaders announced that Monday and Tuesday would be takeaway alcohol-free days in the town. On other days, takeaway alcohol could only be sold between 3pm and 7pm, with a limit of one transaction per person per day.

While there have been positive signs of improvement, the congress warns that alcohol bans, although vital, should not let governments off the hook from dealing with the underlying drivers of the unrest: intergenerational trauma, poverty, poor provision of education and housing, and racial discrimination.

Donna Ah Chee, the CEO of the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress
‘We support self-determination. We want communities to be able to have a say about whether they have alcohol in their communities’ … Donna Ah Chee. Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian

“We need a ‘both-and’ approach to alcohol,” Ah Chee says. “We need both alcohol restrictions, to address the wave of alcohol-fuelled violence, and we also need investment funding to [address] the underlying drivers of destructive drinking.

“And in saying that, we need a structure that has the commonwealth, the Northern Territory government and the Aboriginal community-controlled leadership sitting at the table and negotiating where that much-needed investment in the underlying drivers of alcohol dependence should go.”

Ah Chee’s comments follow another heated week.

On Monday night, at a meeting of about 3,000 people that some described as “hostile”, several attendees called for a class action against the NT government, saying thousands of ratepayers and businesses in town should be compensated $100,000 each – totalling $1.5bn.

Then on Wednesday, the regional controller for central Australia, Dorrelle Anderson, delivered her highly anticipated first report on the way forward. The report has not yet been made public, but details began to emerge after it was delivered to the NT and federal governments.

On Thursday afternoon and again on Friday Albanese met with the NT chief minister, Natasha Fyles, to discuss the report and a way forward.

Albanese said both governments would consider the report in their respective cabinet meetings next week, and the NT government would release it after cabinet consideration.

Albanese has already acknowledged “there aren’t easy off-the-shelf solutions” to the crisis. Fyles said she wanted “sustainable” changes not “Band-Aid solutions” because alcohol was “not the sole single issue”.

Foreshadowing a potential battle over resourcing between federal and territory, Fyles said the NT needed more funding to manage the challenges ahead.

“The commonwealth need to step up and we need to see needs-based funding,” she said. “I have said this time and time again – the NT, based on GST formulas and the cost we have of delivering services, it’s simply not fair.”

The earliest any urgent legislation could be considered by the NT government is the week of 13 February, when the territory parliament has its first sittings for the year.

Alice Springs police’s Sr Sgt Andrew Heath says takeaway alcohol bans on Mondays and Tuesdays have already had a noticeable effect, including a reduction in antisocial behaviour and domestic violence incidents since temporary restrictions came into force.

Heath told ABC radio that the 24 hours to Wednesday morning had been “fairly uneventful” for police, with reduced callouts on family violence matters, and “no drunk person jobs and no rock throwing”.

He said this meant police had been able to do more “proactive patrols” including monitoring compliance in licensed premises.

Intervention-era bans on alcohol in remote Aboriginal communities came to an end in July, when liquor became legal in some communities for the first time in 15 years. Other communities were able to buy takeaway alcohol without restrictions.

Ah Chee says the Congress’s view is those measures could be reintroduced for another two years to allow for extensive consultations with Aboriginal communities about how they want to manage alcohol in their communities.

“We support self-determination. We want communities to be able to have a say about whether they have alcohol in their communities. It’s important that everybody has a say and not just a select few,” she said.

Ah Chee says the unrest is the worst she has seen in the 36 years she has lived in Alice Springs. Her own home was burgled twice in the past two weeks. But she issued a call to her fellow locals to come together as a community.

“We all need to work together to actually remedy this current crisis. And I say crisis, because I think we can fix this. And we can fix it by addressing the issue of alcohol availability as well as investing in the social determinants of health, fixing education, fixing employment, fixing housing.

“I can’t emphasise that more. It’s not an either-or, it’s a both-and approach, in partnership with Aboriginal leadership of the Northern Territory, and as a local community. We actually have to come together.”


Lorena Allam

The GuardianTramp

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