Australia

A crime wave has sparked emergency measures in Alice Springs. Here’s what’s going on

The removal of alcohol bans in the Northern Territory has been blamed for a sharp increase in crime in Alice Springs.
Since the 2012 Stronger Futures laws lapsed on 17 July, 2022, there has been marked rise in crime and increasing calls from frightened Alice Springs residents for help.
The laws were introduced to replace the NT intervention laws introduced by the Howard Government in 2007 which, among other measures, banned alcohol consumption and pornographic materials in certain areas.
The intervention laws were criticised in 2010 by the then United Nations special rapporteur on human rights, James Anaya, who wrote they were not compatible with Australia’s human rights obligations, were racially discriminatory and included measures that undermined Indigenous self-determination.

The alcohol bans were in place for around 15 years with dozens of communities in the NT expected to be transitioned to locally developed alcohol management plans (AMPs) before the the scheduled end of the laws last year – but this largely did not happen.

What’s happening in Alice Springs?

Crime has skyrocketed in Alice Springs, something Northern Territory Chief Minister Natasha Fyles blamed on the end of the Stronger Futures laws in July last year.
The laws made it an offence to sell, consume, or bring liquor into certain alcohol-protected areas (APAs), or to be in possession or control of liquor in these areas.
Between 1 December 2021 and 30 November 2022, property damage crime in Alice Springs increased by 60 per cent and domestic violence-related assault by 54 per cent, compared to the year before, according to NT Police crime statistics.
Alice Springs Mayor Matt Paterson said the Stronger Futures laws had applied to 17 town camps within Alice Springs and since they had lapsed there had been antisocial behaviour night and day in the area.
“The situation is pretty scary in Alice Springs at the moment,” he told SBS News.

“The new flavour of the month for the people committing crimes is edged weapons.”

Crime rates in Alice Springs have increased. Source: AAP / Aaron Bunch

Mayor Paterson said shoppers in a supermarket had to be locked inside recently because a 13-year-old was wielding a machete.

“This just continues to go on and on, and we need help.”
While the problems have garnered media attention in recent days, many have been warning about the issues for months.
Central Australian Aboriginal Congress chief executive Donna Ah Chee was among the Aboriginal leaders who called for an “opt-out” transition period before the bans expired.
She said she had been threatened recently by intruders wielding a heavy-duty spanner when they tried to break into her home demanding alcohol. They left after smashing her car windows.

“I have never felt this unsafe and frightened in the 36 years I’ve lived in Alice Springs,” she told ABC Radio Alice Springs on Tuesday.

A woman addresses the media

Northern Territory Chief Minister Natasha Fyles has suggested a potential vote on alcohol restrictions. Source: AAP / PIN RADA

Why did Anthony Albanese travel there?

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese travelled to Alice Springs on Tuesday after days of media coverage about the crime crisis.
It followed a visit from Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus and Indigenous Australians Minister Linda Burney last week, who met with Mayor Paterson. The mayor called for the army and the Federal Police to intervene – something the government has so far not backed.
Mr Albanese noted the Stronger Futures laws expired before the new parliament had met in September, and he had also planned to travel to Alice Springs in December but had got COVID-19.
Both the Morrison government, and Albanese government who won power at last year’s May federal election, declined to extend the alcohol bans before they lapsed, leaving the response to the NT Government.
The territory government offered communities an “opt-in” model to continue alcohol bans but not many have taken this up. It is now looking at an “opt-out” model.
Ms Fyles suggested a formal vote could be held by the Australian Electoral Commission on whether communities want to opt-in or out of alcohol bans.

“Then the matter can be settled confidently knowing that all views have been heard,” she said on Wednesday.

A man in a blue short-sleeved shirt speaks to the media

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese at a press conference in Alice Springs on Tuesday. Source: AAP / Pin Rada

What is the government doing?

Mr Albanese said the federal government was working in partnership with the NT Government and local communities on a response.
When asked whether a total alcohol ban could again be introduced, Mr Albanese told Sky News on Wednesday “that’s an option”.
“Clearly when you look at the evidence on the group, there is a need for a response,” he said.
But Mr Albanese noted the issues were not limited to alcohol, and the government must also tackle unemployment and housing issues.
On Tuesday, he announced the NT Government would introduce immediate temporary restrictions on alcohol sales as a “circuit-breaker” to improve safety.

Takeway alcohol will not be available on Mondays and Tuesdays, and will otherwise be restricted to between 3pm and 7pm on other days in and around Alice Springs.

A new Central Australian Regional Controller, Dorrelle Anderson, has also been appointed to coordinate federal and state programs.
She will report back to Mr Albanese and Ms Fyles about the implementation of potential changes to alcohol restrictions, including moving to an opt-out scheme.
Mr Albanese also announced funding of $14.2 million for high visibility police operations, as well as funding for the Tangentyere women’s council, CCTV safety lighting and emergency accommodation.
Mayor Paterson said while he would welcome a larger police presence, he didn’t think the new alcohol restrictions were the best circuit-breaker. He believes other measures should also be put back in place, noting the Stronger Futures laws had worked for more than 10 years.

“The Stronger Futures legislation has lapsed and we’ve seen absolute chaos in the community since that time,” he said.

Mayor Paterson said there had been a lack of investment from both sides of government over many years in remote communities that had created urban drift into Alice Springs and a homeless problem. He said the town of 27,000 catered to a wider population of around 60,000 people.
“We need to start talking about suitable investment in remote communities,” he said.

“Some people live in remote communities have 12 to 15 people sleeping in the lounge room – like this is real. Lack of housing, lack of facilities, why would anyone want to stay there? There’s not a whole lot to do.”

The Stronger Futures legislation has lapsed and we’ve seen absolute chaos in the community since that time

Alice Springs Mayor Matt Paterson

Opposition leader Peter Dutton has been talking about the Alice Springs crime crisis for days, backing calls for army intervention, and saying it’s one of the reasons the Albanese Government should put forward legislation for an Indigenous Voice to Parliament when parliament resumes next week, rather than waiting until after a referendum on the question.
“He [the Prime Minister] could introduce his model of the Voice and demonstrate how it could work to help those children, to bring an end to that violence,” Mr Dutton told Sky News on Sunday.
Mr Dutton has not yet said whether the Liberal Party will support the Voice to Parliament and has .
A man in a blue suit walks

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton has called for action on increasing crime rates in Alice Springs. Source: AAP / Glenn Campbell

Would a Voice to Parliament help?

Indigenous Australians Minister Linda Burney said the problems facing Alice Springs were very complex.
“It is wrong to think that the issue out here is just alcohol,” she told ABC Radio’s RN Breakfast on Wednesday. “There has been neglect for ten years of small communities surrounding Alice Springs.”

In a separate interview with ABC radio, she said: “If the Voice to Parliament had been established previously, I don’t think we would be where we are … because we would have been getting practical advice from people representative of the community in relation to these social issues.”

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