Dry Town


The Todd River flooded briefly and spectacularly in January this year. Television news services leapt on the footage and screened it at the end of their bulletins in the space usually reserved for recording the birth of cuddly critters at metropolitan zoos.

But not a single spit of rain fell on Alice Springs during the month of February. Average annual rainfall here is 275 millimetres, which is not surprising given that the town which owes it existence to the Adelaide-Darwin overland telegraph line is marooned in the middle of the desert.

So it’s no small irony that the Alice Springs Town Council has initiated a move to have Alice declared a ‘dry town.’ Mayor Fran Kilgariff is spearheading the push to have the Licensing Commission declare all public areas within the municipality of Alice Springs with the exception of the Telegraph Station picnic grounds ‘public restricted areas’ where the consumption of alcohol will be prohibited. The area concerned is much larger than the central business district, extending more than ten kilometres from the post office in many directions.

Territorians drink more grog, more often, than any other Australians. The stuff is consumed here in huge quantities by people of all skin tones and ethnic origins. The Territory’s frontier culture is studded with tales of prodigious drinking as station workers come into town to ‘knock down the cheque.’ Excessive drinking simply does not attract the same disapproval here as it would in the cities of the south.

Dollars Made from Broken Spirits is the title of a report prepared in July 2000 by a team of Brisbane-based consultants who investigated the problems of alcohol management in Alice Springs. The document is thick enough to choke a brown dog and presents a damning, if sometimes confusing, blizzard of statistics.

Alcohol consumption in Alice Springs is two and a half times the national average. Sales of light beer are in decline, while sales of full-strength beer are trending upwards. In 1998-99, 3000 people were arrested for alcohol-related offences. In the same year, Alice Springs hospital recorded 1341 alcohol-related admissions. This, in a town with a population of 28,000.

The forward to the Broken Spirits report was written by one Meredith Campbell, of the Alice Alcohol Representative Committee. Running to just over a page, it contains not a single statistic:

It is time for this community to come out of denial and accept the truth. Alice Springs is awash with alcohol. Alcohol recovery services exist in the daily and nightly context of a war zone. Their workers, including the police, operate within the adrenalin of battle. Young people obtain alcohol freely; young women are especially endangered when they are drunk. Alcohol is in the workplace, is used to raise money for new school facilities and to get fathers along to fund-raising events. Kids don’t get to school because of ongoing chaos at home.

Tellingly, the Broken Spirits report identifies a ‘whole of community’ drinking problem which could not be attributed solely to Aboriginal people and tourists. Similarly, the 1990 report, by Pamela Lyon, What Everybody Knows About Alice noted that: ‘European alcohol abuse and its effects remain mostly hidden, but the effects of dysfunctional Aboriginal drinking are plain for all to see.’

Statistics indicate that there is a higher percentage of teetotallers in the Indigenous community than the non-Indigenous community. However, the literature also says that many Aboriginal consumers of alcohol tend to be ‘opportunistic drinkers.’ That is, they drink when alcohol is available and they drink until it is all gone.

Most whitefellas do their drinking in clubs and bars, whereas Indigenous Australians tend to consume alcohol in a more public manner a combination of choice and necessity. According to What Everybody Knows, membership requirements and dress regulations effectively bar many Aboriginal people from gaining access to a significant proportion of the town’s licensed venues. The ‘dry town’ proposal is clearly targeted at reducing the visibility and incidence of public drinking by groups of Aboriginal people.

Under the Northern Territory’s existing ‘two kilometre law,’ police are empowered to tip-out or confiscate alcohol being consumed within two kilometres of licensed premises but not to arrest transgressors or issue infringement notices. Under the dry town proposals, police will be able to impose fines and offenders may also be compelled to attend rehabilitation facilities.

The overuse of alcohol, and the antisocial behaviour which is its inevitable companion, is widely agreed to be a problem in this town. But does it necessarily follow that the ‘dry town’ proposal will improve the situation?

‘Yes,’ says Alice Springs Mayor Fran Kilgariff. She and her council are increasingly concerned about the deterioration of public amenities and the implicit threat to the crucial tourist economy of the Centre. ‘It’s not just tourists,’ she told me earlier this month. ‘Locals are expressing fear and a feeling of insecurity as they walk down the Todd Mall.’

The Council’s view is that similar ‘dry area’ measures in Port Augusta in South Australia have been successful, though this trial has not yet been formally evaluated.

But William Tilmouth, CEO of Tangentyere Council, an Indigenous-controlled group that supports the residents of the Alice Springs town camps, dismisses the proposal as a ‘political stunt.’ He says, ‘Tangentyere fully supports effective measures to reduce drunkenness and anti-social behaviour on the part of anyone in the community,’ but argues there is no evidence to demonstrate that the enforcement of ‘dry area’ restrictions is an effective way to reduce alcohol abuse.

The 21 Aboriginal town camps dotted through the municipality are the locations of Alice Springs’ worst alcohol-fuelled violence. Kilgariff has described them as ‘ghettos’ which are ‘violent and dangerously overcrowded.’ Tilmouth’s concern is that the ‘dry town’ proposals may have the effect of driving drinkers back into the camps, further endangering the safety of the women and children who live there.

Commander Mark Coffey, of the Alice Springs Police, told a ‘dry town’ public hearing in early March that the Police neither supported nor opposed the proposal. However, he pointed out that police resources are limited and that the management of public drunkenness could not be afforded the highest priority. In short, the ‘dry town’ policy was not a silver bullet for serenity.

There is an old political chestnut which has it that good behaviour can’t be legislated. As long as there are people in this community so alienated that they have no hesitation about transgressing, it seems likely that fines and other sanctions will be only of minimal deterrent value. Until these people have a genuine stake in society, there is little incentive for them to play by the rules.

Public hearings into the ‘dry town’ proposal have now concluded. The Licensing Commission has retired to gather further evidence and consider its decision, which is expected to be announced within two months.

Despite the salacious coverage it receives in the mainstream media, Alice Springs is not Baghdad. There are some serious problems here, but there are also many good people Indigenous and non-Indigenous working hard to find solutions.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.