Yesterday, an ABC investigation revealed that a major hotel chain in Alice Springs was segregating guests, providing Aboriginal people from ‘out bush’ with dirty, inferior rooms, while giving everyone else standard, clean rooms. The story barely rated in Australia, although it made big news overseas, with media giants BBC and CNN both weighing in, along with New Zealand radio and a major news service in Asia. New Matilda editor Chris Graham, a regular visitor to Alice Springs, weighs in as well.
I’ve been coming and going from Alice Springs, a major city in the heart of Australia, for two decades. I’ve long had a love-hate relationship with the place.
I love the landscape, it’s stunning and unique. I hate the culture. Well, I hate the white culture. It’s toxic and entrenched.
In three decades of journalism, in all my travels, I’ve never encountered a more racist city than Alice Springs. Some go close – Townsville gives it a red-hot shake – but no-one does racism quite like Alice Springs.
If you haven’t seen the news this week, ABC broke a story yesterday revealing that a hotel in Alice Springs – the Ibis Styles Oasis – was caught racially screening guests by putting Aboriginal people in run-down rooms which were poorly serviced and went uncleaned, but which cost the same as better rooms reserved for non-Aboriginal guests.
The ABC obtained an email instructing staff to put people coming from “the communities” into special rooms. ‘The communities’ is a reference to Aboriginal people from the outlying towns and outstations, who travel to Alice for business, sometimes pleasure, but mostly health and family reasons.
The ABC decided to put the email to the test – it reserved two rooms, identical bookings, but vastly different clients. You can guess the outcome, although you probably wouldn’t have guessed that despite the leaked email and the overwhelming evidence, the Ibis and its parent company, Accor, denied it ever occurred. (UPDATE: By Saturday, Accor was conceding it had occurred… read the original ABC yarn for the updated response.)
Ham-fisted lies aside, the practice of treating Aboriginal people as second-class citizens is standard operating procedure not just in Alice, but across the Northern Territory (and in countless other parts of Australia as well). It’s just that Alice does its racism on a much grander scale.
In 2009 and 2010, I spent several months there, researching a story. I’ll come back to the yarn shortly, but first, here’s what I found in town.
Both main shopping plazas have pay toilets – you have to hand over 50 cents to an attendant if you want to use the loo. Locals are adamant it’s to ensure the toilets stay clean. In fact, it was introduced to dissuade poorer Aboriginal people from coming into the centre.
If that didn’t work – and it often didn’t – then Aboriginal people were simply removed. I watched (and filmed) countless Aboriginal people shooed away – and sometimes physically moved on – from the various shopping centres in town, in particular from the food courts.
I watched (and filmed) one elderly Aboriginal woman purchase a bottle of water, sit down at the tables, and then be physically ‘helped up’ by a security guard, and escorted from the shopping centre.
I watched (and filmed) police stake out bottle shops, then swoop in and seize alcohol from Aboriginal people they believed may drink it somewhere in town, where drinking is banned. No offence had been committed, but that didn’t stop police pre-emptively seizing the grog. This was before the existence of the Northern Territory’s ‘banned drinkers’ register’, a policy brought in to crackdown even harder on people with a serious social and mental health problem.
I watched those same police put the grog in their car and drive off, rather than tip it out as they’re supposed to. I was assured by Alice Springs police that the alcohol was ‘later destroyed’, and didn’t show up at a private club set up for the local cops.
At the time, there were only two pubs in town where Aboriginal people could drink, unmolested by security staff. One of those, on the edge of the Todd Mall, was sectioned off. Whites in the main part of the pub, blacks in a small section off to the side known locally as ‘The Animal Bar’. I was in Alice Springs last year, and it was still doing a roaring trade.
I watched (and filmed) police on horseback ‘randomly’ search people sitting in parks. All of them were black. I watched (and filmed) Aboriginal people moved on from shade shelters adjoining the shopping centres when it was pouring rain. I asked a security guard why. He told me, “They’re not allowed to be here. It’s the law made in Parliament.”
The guard was Sudanese, another feature of the creativity of Alice Springs racism. Get ‘the better blacks’ (because there are ‘no good ones’) to move on ‘the bad blacks’. He was new to the country, and genuinely believed what he was telling me.
I filmed in town camps – a series of just over a dozen satellite ‘suburbs’ spread mostly on the fringes of Alice Springs, where Aboriginal people were forced to live decades ago, to keep them out of the main town. During a later trip in 2014, one town camp house I visited had more than 60 people living in it.
Another camp I visited – Namatijira, in the Alice Springs industrial area, named after the iconic Australian Aboriginal artist who died in poverty – had no constructed homes. It was just a series of humpies and tin sheds, and there was no running water. I met an old man who slept there every night on the ground, under a pile of blankets. In summer, the days routinely climb over 40 degrees. In winter, the nights drop well below zero.
I watched tourists come and go in the Todd Mall, shopping for Aboriginal art in one of the half dozen or so galleries, all but one of them white-owned. Some of the actual artists, having been carpetbagged by the galleries (the practice of buying a painting for a pittance, and selling it for a huge profit), would try and compete by spreading their work out on the ground, and haggling with tourists for a fairer price.
The white-owned galleries complained, so the Council starting fining the artists for breaching an obscure by-law. After an outcry, it introduced a permit system – $200 per day to sell art in the street. It fixed the ‘problem’.
Council also removed water taps from the mall, to discourage Aboriginal people from congregating. The local Uniting church in the centre of the mall did as well.
That’s a small sample of what I saw, but to cut a long story short, so racist is the Alice Springs council that it only agreed to fly the Aboriginal flag on Anzac Hill, which overlooks the town, for the first time last year, and only then during NAIDOC Week. That was after a 30-year fight for the privilege by locals, and almost two decades after native title was official recognised over the entire city.
A vicious murder
The story I was researching in 2009 and 2010 was Alice Spring’s response to the death of Kwementyaye Ryder, a 33-year-old Aboriginal man who had been beaten to death by a group of white youths, next to the dry bed of the Todd River.
On any given night, dozens of Aboriginal people slept in the riverbed, supplied with blankets by the Tangentyere Council, a local Aboriginal organisation. Tangentyere is not responsible for the fluctuating but sizeable homeless population – it exists to service the grinding poverty of the town camps, while the Alice Springs Town Council looks after the whites. But no-one else was helping the Aboriginal visitors to town, so Tangentyere stepped in.
Mr Ryder, a local resident, had been visiting some of the campers early one Saturday morning in 2009. A group of five white youths – Anton Kloeden, Timothy Hird, Joshua Spears, Glen Swain and Scott Doody, aged in their late teens and early 20s – had been drinking all night at Lassiter’s Casino. They decided to round off the fun by harassing the local homeless population.
The youths charged up and down the Todd River in a 4WD yelling abuse, before driving over the swag of an elderly man. Then they went home, grabbed a replica pistol and returned, firing it in the direction of a group of terrified campers.
When they drove their car at Mr Ryder, he threw a bottle at them. They stopped, jumped out and kicked him to death.
The judge, in sentencing, described the youths as ‘otherwise good boys’, and acknowledged that their time in prison would be much harder because of the nature of their crime, and because, at the time, the Aboriginal prison population was almost 90 per cent black, despite Aboriginal people making up around 30 per cent of the Territory population.
He sentenced them to between 12 months and three and a half years. Later that night, the families of the convicted youths held a party in Spearwood Road to celebrate the light sentences, and to welcome home one of the men. He was released immediately after the sentencing, having already served his year while on remand.
On the Monday after the killing, the Alice Springs Council passed by-laws criminalising begging, attracting a fine of $110. They also gave Council Rangers the authority to treat the Tangentyere blankets – hidden during the day in bushes by the campers – as ‘rubbish’, so that they could legally dispose of them.
Buoyed by the Council response to the killing, a local white man began selling ‘White Power Alice Springs’ t-shirts from his car. It was parked across the road from the Council chambers, with a sign in the window. Police and the Council – which had no problem shutting down Aboriginal artists – initially refused to take any action, until the story made international news headlines.
Alice Springs today
It’s always been about the money in Alice Springs, and about the impact on innocent white folk just trying to make a living, albeit in large part from some of the world’s most disadvantaged people.
While the ABC was exposing the conduct of the Ibis, news.com.au was reporting on the latest crime wave to sweep the town. The local KFC had announced it would shorten its trading hours, due to ongoing social disorder at night.
KFC told news.com.au, “To ensure the safety of our people and customers we’ve decided to close our dining area at 10pm but our customers can continue to be served via the drive thru which will still trade until 12am Monday to Friday, and until 1am on weekends.”
That statement was somewhat undermined by this one, on KFC’s Facebook page: “We have had people taking refuge from others in our restaurant that has resulted in almost $8,000 worth of damage. We will resume our normal trading hours as soon as the streets are a bit safer again.”
Million-dollar homes in a town with a population of less than 25,000 are plentiful in Alice Springs, particularly if you buy over in the white estate, wrapped around a lush green golf course and adjoining the Alice Springs casino and convention centre.
A long par five away, tucked on the edge of town behind the estate, is the Aboriginal town camp of Hidden Valley, which got a major upgrade a few years ago, but which remains home to some of the nation’s poorest citizens.
Alice residents routinely cry poor – public debate is a constant series of demands for better services, more money, despite the fact the town has a stadium that occasionally hosts AFL games, state-of-the-art sporting facilities including a synthetic hockey field, and a town pool that would be at home at a Las Vegas resort.
The Alice Springs Aquatic & Leisure Centre – owned by the local council – enjoyed a $20 million upgrade a few years ago. $4 million of that was taken by former Indigenous affairs minister Mal Brough – the architect of the Northern Territory intervention – from the Aboriginal Benefits Account, a mining royalties trust fund set up to build Aboriginal wealth.
The facility now features a 50-metre pool, a toddler pool, a learn to swim pool, an indoor eight-lane 25-metre heated swimming pool, an indoor 20-metre pool with beach entry, an indoor spa, a ‘lazy river’ and a 4-lane learn-to-swim section. There are two ‘water fun slides’.
Whitegate, an Aboriginal town camp a few kilometres away as the crow flies, has no water, power or sewerage, despite being home to some of the region’s recognised Native Title holders.
The median weekly income in Alice Springs is almost double the Australian average – $1,002 versus $662. The weekly median household income is even more impressive – just shy of $2,000, $500 more than the Australian average.
Alice Springs residents have long been happy to take Aboriginal money, and on that front, it’s not surprising when you understand how much there is pouring into Central Australia. Professor Rolf Gerritsen authored a paper in 2010 which estimated, conservatively, that almost half the Alice Springs economy was a result of the large Aboriginal population.
“What would happen if all the Aboriginal people in Central Australia and Alice Springs suddenly disappeared?” Professor Gerritsen asks in the paper. “Obviously the result would be economic catastrophe: the Alice Springs economy would shrink by about 40 percent almost immediately…. ”The Economic Core_ The Aboriginal Contribution to the Alice Sprin
Clayton’s Apartheid – where to from here
Alice Springs’ racism is very well thought out. It’s a slippery racism, which can sometimes be hard to define, and even harder to prove. In effect, it’s a kind of ‘Clayton’s Apartheid’ – the Apartheid you have when you don’t want outsiders to be able to prove you have Apartheid.
The Ibis Hotel story is a classic example of Alice Springs Apartheid. It’s not overt, but it’s also not secret. Everyone in town knows it goes on – just like they know about the Animal Bar, and the pay toilets, and the town camp poverty, and the never-ending harassment of Aboriginal people sitting in parks and streets. But the overwhelming majority, turn a blind eye because, well, there’s good money to be made and reasonable people can understand the impost Aboriginal ‘countrymen’ from out bush put on small businesses. And large international hotel chains.
There are of course, good people doing good things in Alice Springs. Most of them are black, but many of them are white. But there’s also no denying the scale of the social problems in the town. Alice Springs has a high crime rate, which ebbs and flows, literally, with the seasons. When more poor Aboriginal people from outstations come into town, the crime and social problems increase.
This is undeniable, and inevitable – crime is a direct function of poverty and, in Australia’s case, ongoing discrimination and dispossession. The question is, what is a humane response to those problems?
If you ask Alice Springs residents that question, they dodge and weave. ‘You come from the east coast, so you don’t get it’, is their most common response, as though you need to be born in Alice Springs to understand racism, let alone the depth of Aboriginal depravity and how white people suffer from it.
The fact is, I don’t know how you fix the problems in Alice Springs either, beyond investing heavily in Aboriginal organisations and leadership, which our governments mostly do not do. Self-determination – a dirty word in Australia – is the only thing that has worked overseas in colonised nations with similar problems.
But in Alice Springs, the racism is so entrenched, the denial is so deep, that as Professor Jon Altman, a renowned economist and anthropologist, remarked in 2013 in John Pilger’s film Utopia*, maybe we need outside intervention – international intervention – so acerbic and corrupted is the Aboriginal affairs ‘debate’ in Australia.
That explains the BBC and CNN and New Zealand and Asia’s interest in the ABC’s Ibis story – we are known internationally as a deeply racist nation. But the likelihood of the United Nations – which has repeatedly condemned Australia’s policies toward Aboriginal people – of doing anything more than talking is more remote than the communities which suffer from the policies.
So my personal ‘solution’ to the Alice Springs problem is one of boycott – that’s how the international community helped bring an end to South Africa’s Apartheid regime. I still occasionally go there for work, but I’m careful where I spend my money. There are relatively few Aboriginal-owned businesses in town, but there are also clearly businesses and organisations set up to skim Aboriginal money, or target Aboriginal people with discrimination.
Obviously, I won’t be staying at the Alice Springs Ibis any time soon. And while, I as I travel the country on the ‘New Matilda Fantastical Political Historical Outback Tour – Aboriginal edition’ I mostly sleep on a swag by a river somewhere, here’s a list of other Accor properties I also won’t be staying at: Ibis, Formula 1, Novotel, Mercure, Pullman, Swissotel, The Sebel, Mantra, and Sofitel.
* Chris Graham worked as an Associate Producer on Utopia. He Facebooks here, tweets here, and is available by email here. You can support his work and help keep New Matilda alive by subscribing here – it starts at just $6 a month.
Donate To New Matilda
New Matilda is a small, independent media outlet. We survive through reader contributions, and never losing a lawsuit. If you got something from this article, giving something back helps us to continue speaking truth to power. Every little bit counts.