A town like Alice deserves a chance at peace
04 February 2023
TUMBY BAY - The Central Australian town of Alice Springs is currently in turmoil - racked with alcohol fuelled crime largely involving the Aboriginal community.
Aboriginal children roam the town centre at night vandalising shops and Aboriginal men and women are fighting in the streets and parks.
Domestic violence is rampant and sexual assaults, often involving children, is commonplace.
Among both black and white residents, there is a feeling that the situation is reaching breaking point and desperate solutions are required.
Unfortunately, both the Northern Territory and Federal governments seem helpless and don’t know what to do.
Meanwhile the bottle shops, some of which are owned by Australia’s two large supermarket chains, are making huge profits.
In 1974, I was working at Amata in what is now the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yangkunyjatjara Lands.
One afternoon, a carload of drunken Pitjantjatjara youths from Alice Springs arrived and began hooning up and down the main street.
They didn’t get very far before a group of elders wielding heavy branches and steel star pickets stopped them in their tracks.
They hauled the youths out of the car, beat the living daylights out of them and chased them out of the settlement.
The incident had occurred at the beginning of what became known as the ‘homelands movement’ in Central Australia.
The homelands movement began in the early 1970s as a response to the dysfunction and instability occurring in many of the major mission and government run settlements where communities had congregated.
These people had become reliant on being given rations, and then on the welfare money to buy goods at the settlement stores.
Among the problems in these places were drunkenness, petrol sniffing, marijuana use, youth suicide, teenage pregnancies and, importantly, disrespect for elders.
It was this disrespect that drove the elders to take on the drunken hoons from Alice Springs.
The elders could rely on traditional law as a means of reinforcing control over what they saw as rebellious youth.
The program in which I was involved was part of an effort that offered elders a means of getting back out on to the traditional lands to teach the young men about their traditions.
In essence this was part of a power struggle between the old ways and the new.
As people, particularly young men, gained easy access to Alice Springs and its attractions, and enjoyed a free and easy life, they abandoned the old ways and revolted against the authority of the elders.
Re-establishing this authority and getting people back out on the lands in small decentralised settlements was seen by the elders as a last chance to preserve their society and its way of life.
The homelands movement was a desperate attempt to curb the rebellious youths and bring back order to Central Australian Aboriginal society.
Unfortunately, government support for the movement was patchy and miserly.
It only really succeeded on the outstations, where alcohol was banned and the young people had left for the bright lights of Alice Springs.
In Alice Springs it failed miserably and led to the sad situation that prevails today.
What now needs to happen is a reinforcement of what the elders were saying in the 1970s.
It’s time to start all over again. And do a proper job of it this time.
In essence this would mean returning power to the elders in a form not dissimilar to what they enjoyed traditionally.
In practice this would mean setting up a council of Aboriginal elders in Alice Springs and vesting them with a range of powers over their communities.
A solely Aboriginal police force, separate from the Northern Territory police, should be established with powers defined by the council of elders.
A solely Aboriginal court system, with Aboriginal magistrates, should be established.
Incarceration in the prison system should be used only as a measure of extreme last resort.
These measures should be designed specifically to reinforce the power of the council of elders.
While such measures may seem like the old paternalistic systems of the past, the important defining characteristic is that they would be totally controlled by the Aboriginal community.
Concurrently, a concerted effort with adequate funding should be made to revitalise Aboriginal culture in the town and surrounding areas to the point where it becomes a viable economic and social option for Aboriginal people, particularly the young, to pursue.
The revitalisation should include a range of options ranging through art, literature and high tech endeavours like film and television production.
The aim should be to establish Alice Springs as the indigenous cultural capital of Australia.
Only then, with the pride that will come from such innovations, will peace reign in Alice Springs.
Mass incarceration unmasks our inhumanity. It reveals not our justice but our injustice:
Posted by: Bernard Corden | 06 February 2023 at 11:16 AM
Proposals for yet more laws and powers only throws a spotlight on the ineptitude of those whose current responsibility seem unable to provide a fix to what is a traditional community problem.
Logical and achievable proposals should be called for, encouraged and then be properly funded. Community Leaders need to be recognised and given responsibility for community problems.
Where are the alternatives to give opportunities and leadership to these young people? Incarceration is clearly a short term and not a long term solution.
Posted by: Paul Oates | 05 February 2023 at 10:00 PM
When I was thinking about the situation in Alice Springs, I had it in the back of my mind that similar situations occur in Papua New Guinea.
Chris sums up the dilemma succintly when he says: "Many youngsters are thus stranded between an ancient world into which they do not wish to retreat and a modern world within which they seem to have no place."
And sometimes dire problems require dire solutions.
I think the situation in Alice Springs is beyond political correctness.
Posted by: Philip Fitzpatrick | 05 February 2023 at 03:58 PM
I agree with Phil that the current problems in Alice Springs stem from the collapse of traditional systems amongst Aboriginal people and, for many at least, the failure to secure a meaningful role and place within modern Australia's economic and social life.
Many youngsters are thus stranded between an ancient world into which they do not wish to retreat and a modern world within which they seem to have no place.
As well, they are trying to cope with the terrible dysfunction that afflicts many of their communities as a result of the impact of, amongst other things, drugs and alcohol.
All attempts to deal adequately with this situation have failed. If the mostly good intentions and shed loads of money thrown at the problems could make a difference they would have done so long ago.
I freely admit that I have no idea how to solve the problems afflicting the Aboriginal people in Alice Springs.
It seems to me that Phil has made a sensible suggestion, but it comes laden with political and social risks, mostly because it can be presented as a sort of apartheid by those who cannot or will not see that conventional policies have failed and will continue to fail.
Desperate times demand desperate measures, and it certainly appears that the situation is truly desperate in the Alice.
I hope that the Federal and Northern Territory governments will bite the bullet and be prepared to accept radical solutions such as that proposed by Phil. I do not see that there is much to lose at this stage.
Posted by: Chris Overland | 05 February 2023 at 10:37 AM
Reminiscent of Toxteth back in 1981 at the height of Thatcherism:
Posted by: Bernard Corden | 05 February 2023 at 09:25 AM