Indigenous elders welcome Alice Springs alcohol curbs but plead for more help

by Sarah Collard
Measures announced by Anthony Albanese seen as a good first step but politicians urged to follow up with aid for ‘neglected’ remote communities

Indigenous elders have given a cautious welcome to tighter restrictions of alcohol in Alice Springs as the town grapples with a surge in crime and anti-social behaviour.

Leading a delegation of high-profile politicians to Alice on Tuesday, Anthony Albanese, flanked by his minister for Indigenous Australians, Linda Burney, and senators Patrick Dodson, Marlarndirri McCarthy, announced tougher alcohol restrictions and a suite of support measures to provide “immediate relief”.

The prime minister was also joined by Northern Territory’s chief minister, Natasha Fyles, and territory attorney general, Chansey Paech, for the announcement, and there were also meetings with the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress and the Ngaanyatjarra, Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara Women’s Council to discuss how to respond to a surge in assaults, domestic violence, break-ins and property offences over the past 12 months.

Two protesters outside the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress on Tuesday.
Two protesters outside the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress on Tuesday. Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian

Immediate restrictions included takeaway alcohol-free days on Monday and Tuesday, and alcohol-reduced hours on other days. Takeaways would be limited to between 3pm and 7pm, along with a limit of one transaction per person each day with a progress report due in February.

Elaine Peckam, eastern Arrente elder and grandmother, said that she believed the tougher rules around the sales of alcohol would have a benefit but said the issues impacting the town were complex and political leaders needed to listen to community leaders and Indigenous peoples.

“What’s going to come out of it with them all here now? It’s not going to be an overnight thing where everything’s gonna be back to normal because they make a few changes in this one day? They have to listen.

“It’s good in one sense, putting those restrictions in. I think it’ll help so people can’t just be buying alcohol all the time,” Peckam said.

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 and others were able to buy takeaway alcohol without restrictions.

The Central Australian Aboriginal Congress in Alice Springs was on the agenda for meeting with visiting politicians on Tuesday.
The Central Australian Aboriginal Congress in Alice Springs was on the agenda for meeting with visiting politicians on Tuesday. Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian

Since then, NT police statistics show that reported property offences have jumped by almost 60% over the past 12 months, while assaults increased by 38% and domestic violence assaults were up 48%.

She said calls to bring in the Australian Defence Force and federal police were met with alarm by many in the community, who had lived with the continuing legacy of the Intervention from 2007 onwards.

“It happened before, bringing in the army and now they think that’s another solution,” Peckam said.

Alice Springs mayor, Matt Patterson, was one who called for a “heavy handed” approach but acknowledged the issue was complex with people traveling far and wide to the town accessing services as well as visiting friends and family.

“It’s a very challenging and it’s difficult and we’re seeing lots of little events all adding up and it’s making it a very challenging time,” Patterson said.

“We’ve got a huge rate of homeless people in the country and because of this of lack of investment in remote communities for such a long time people don’t want to live in remote communities anymore.”

He welcomed the visits by federal politicians but said action was needed.

“It’s vitally important that they hear from real people, but also this can’t just be a news cycle. They’ve got to continue to come back and assess what they’re doing.”

Lhere Artepe, the organisation representing the traditional owners of Alice Springs, said they welcomed increased attention on a situation that had been “truly out of control”.

“If [Albanese] looks properly he will see that the current crisis in Alice Springs arises from the chronic and systemic neglect of our remote communities over many decades. He will see things that should shame our nation, the parliament and its elected representatives,” their statement read.

“The Arrernte people are pained that we do not have the capacity to help our brothers and sisters, many of whom are related to us by kin and ceremony.

“We are hurt by the negative images and stereotyping of all Aboriginal people.

“We are harmed by the violence and alcohol abuse in our midst. These problems cannot be talked away. They are real and require a massive undertaking from all stakeholders,” their statement read.