"What can you see here — for it is a theatre of a kind, where the tragicomedy of Aboriginal Central Australia is played out each night before the helpless eyes of the authorities?"
Nicolas Rothwell has gone on safari in Alice Springs, drawing a very bleak and graphic portrait of the town for The Australian. While few dispute the seriousness of the social problems facing the town, many residents — including Mayor Damien Ryan — are upset about what they see as a gross misrepresentation of their efforts to solve those problems.
For starters, allegations of a lack of action on crime have annoyed police, who have been specifically targeting what they call "one of the highest spikes" in property crime.
The spike has been happening since last October and January saw a 250 per cent jump in break-ins, according to Commander Anne-Marie Murphy. She told Council that police had begun a dedicated operation to target that spike in offences which would last at least until 25 February and is likely to continue indefinitely.
The briefing she gave to Council came after pressure from the Member for Greatorex, Matt Conlan, who has been asking for extra police in Parliament in Darwin.
Murphy said Conlan was insulting the force if he thought extra cops from Darwin would solve the problem, calling it "an insult to the hard-working, professional serving police officers here in Alice Springs". She claimed that the existing police were "sufficient" back in January. She also refuted suggestions that bringing in dogs would help the situation.
The Mayor of Alice Springs, who Rothwell calls "hapless", told New Matilda he was disappointed by the coverage in The Australian: "I acknowledge we have challenges with anti social behaviour in our town, but I’m disappointed to see the town’s reputation used as a political football to score points. Rothwell didn’t contact me for any comment, possibly because it wouldn’t serve any purpose for this piece," he said.
Although Rothwell claims the Council is "charged with responsibility for Alice Springs," Ryan points out that "law and order is a Territory government responsibility". He says Council has been "actively pursuing the Chief Minister to ensure that police resources are deployed within our town."
In a letter to The Australian published today, John Altman from the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research at ANU calls Rothwell’s account "a sad half story, inadequately explained."
The dramatic tone is familiar for many residents who are aware of the news cycle in the mainstream press: panic, a brief policy engagement, a swag of hasty "solutions", a short wait for programs to fail, and repeat. We’re now seeing the other end of the Intervention cycle, the cycle of shock doctrine hurried along by such tabloid reporting as Rothwell’s.
Rothwell’s selective interviewing and ability to generalise from the specific acts he has witnessed might be a literary skill, but it can easily be read as exaggeration. His partner Alison Anderson has been placing editorials in the local paper, the Alice Springs Advocate, every week since late January and been telling the exact same stories of despair, failure and anger in the NT Parliament. Rothwell does not mention his personal relationship with the Independent Member for MacDonnell — although most of his observations from four nights at the KFC corner are identical to those made by Anderson.
He is too busy painting a gloomy picture: "Alice Springs is a township fast spiralling out of control. All the elements for turmoil are present: deep, cold fury among the mainstream population, a reckless gloom among the young bush people loitering here" — here is a presumption of feelings, not a reporting of evidence.
No-one is denying that there are serious problems in Alice Springs with alcohol and violence, and that there has been a recent spike in property crime. Even Rothwell admits this has been largely brought about by Intervention restrictions which have put pressure on people to come into town.
But there is little balance in this story. Rothwell repeatedly invokes "old hands" and "experts," but only quotes members of a group of businesspeople who recently formed the lobby group Action for Alice. This group are paying for advertising campaigns on the NT TV channel Imparja addressed to the NT Government asking it to toughen sentencing and bail conditions.
Do we have any evidence that more prison time would stop drinking and violence? No. But it would push it all out of the visible way. These problems go deeper and touch the gross inequality exacerbated by the Intervention and a severe housing shortage. Property crimes and an attitude of disdain for white society are in part a result of increasing social inequality — the Intervention’s insult to Aboriginal independence is delivering the consequences that many predicted.
Action for Alice has some of the same members as Alice Action, a smaller organisation formed around the time of the Intervention. Three years ago I went to a meeting where that organisation tried to organise street patrols. Such vigilantism was largely defused by successful efforts from the police, but the sense of a divided town goes on.
The zeal of Rothwell for the "tragicomic theatre" of Aboriginal society is only going to exacerbate those divisions. Residents don’t find it funny and argue that they do not need another Kwementyaye Ryder.
Rothwell bemoans "bad, reactive politics, a lack of new ideas, a need for drastic measures and a refusal even to debate the reforms that might have a chance." Busy with his story of the NT Government’s failure, he makes no suggestions of what those reforms might be. Where is the solution which is not being considered?
Last week in Parliament the discussion covered housing shortages, town camps, Opal fuel, extra police, more prisons, sobering up options and rehabilitation, further alcohol restrictions, hospital and violent crime, and bail and sentencing.
There is little evidence that tougher sentencing decreases crime. The new juvenile facility to be built at the Alice Springs jail will at least give people who breach their bail somewhere grog-free to stay longer than the dry out shelter. But effective services already exist and are working hard to treat the problems.
The sobering up shelter, which sees 200 people a week, has been expanding into after-shelter care and new facilities are being built with the help of more federal funding.
Petrol sniffing has been targeted by successful programs like the introduction of Opal fuel, and projects like Mt Theo which gets young people into bush programs.
Buyback of liquor licences is an ongoing problem between the NT Licensing Commission and local businesses. Native title holder Lhere Artepe says it is using the bottle shops attached to the three IGA supermarkets it purchased last year to encourage safe drinking education and responsible service of alcohol. "Closing the bottle shops would only see people shop elsewhere and a missed opportunity to bring about changes to the drinking habits of Alice Springs residents," says their website. In recent weeks the IGA on Northside has doubled security, restricted sales on certain problematic kinds of alcohol, and closed early when there is cause for concern in the area.
It is worth noting that some of the same businesses behind Action for Alice who are up in arms about antisocial behaviour are also profiting from alcohol sales.
The story of failure and despair is frustrating for many who have been working to better the community for years. One community worker I spoke to suggested Rothwell is directing his accusations of failure not to local organisations, but outside the NT to a national audience in order to put pressure on the NT Government to take up his (and presumably Anderson’s) agenda.
But the NT Government might not take the bait. Chief Minister Paul Henderson pointed out in Parliament that not all the statistics from Alice are horrible: "A trauma surgeon at Alice Springs Hospital says that there has been a significant drop in the number of women being treated for stab wounds. Dr Jacob Ollapallil says his statistics say that, ‘… on average we used to get …’, and this is a horrendous bloody statistic, sorry, ‘… on average we used to get 250 female victims every year. Last year, the number has been significantly been reduced to 146. Various things have contributed to this, but I think alcohol restrictions is a major factor’. That is somebody who patches up people at Alice Springs Hospital making those comments." He spoke of a need for calm level-headed and practical solutions.
Calmer reactions have also come from from local bloggers "Desert girl" and Alderman Jane Clark who see the Rothwell piece as adding fuel to the fire. Clark writes:
"The horrible media currently highlighting the crime rate in Alice Springs is full of targeting, head shaking and angry voices … I still don’t understand how screaming louder and louder, by holding up a knife on TV, by saying it’s time for action … will actually be more effective than the range of policies currently being put into place?
"The leadership through this period needs to be positive, constructive, mature and steady. The measures that are in place need to be reiterated. Nobody can turn this around in a week. No new harsh law will do that."
The new $11 million short-stay residential space Apmere Mwerre Visitor Park (which Rothwell claims will fail because it doesn’t allow dogs) — was opened a few weeks ago in an effort to address overcrowding. The Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program is funding new homes in town camps, though perhaps they are inadequate. Anderson quit the ALP in 2009 over the SIHIP program when she claimed it was failing to build houses.
The idea of a curfew has been discussed and rejected on the grounds that it would waste a lot of police time and resources to drive around picking up young people who are not committing any other crime. There is also the issue of criminalising people according to race, which some argue has already happened.
In addition, community meetings are being planned among those concerned by social sustainability issues in the town, and Minister for Central Australia Karl Hampton has organised a forum of Indigenous leaders this Friday. So Alice Springs is not just breathing; it is talking, meeting, and trying to find a way out of this mess.
Stirring up panic in The Australian won’t bring lasting solutions — we learned that in 2007.
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