hhigh temperature Australia’s scorching outback town of Alice Springs needs more defense than that. A crime wave has forced residents to turn their properties into forts. Enterprises are surrounded by steel bars and pulled up with barbed wire. “It’s been anarchy,” said Robert Phillips, who owns a café that was broken into four times before he dropped the defense. Alice Springs recorded a record high rate of “property crime” last year.
Although police do not release race-based figures, members of the 60,000 Aboriginal community are said to be largely responsible for the surge in crime in Alice Springs and across the Australian Autonomous Northern Territory. More than a quarter of the region’s population (including Alice Springs) is Aboriginal (compared to just over 3% of the national population). They are much poorer than other Australians and are more likely to suffer from crime-related problems, including alcoholism. According to John Boffa, a doctor who works with the community group People’s Alcohol Action Coalition, in 2020 the “alcohol-related hospitalization rate” among Alice Springs Aboriginal residents was 20 times the national average. One reason for the crime wave is that alcohol, which has been restricted in the Northern Territory for years, has become more readily available locally.
Most of its remote Aboriginal settlements are subject to federal restrictions on the sale and consumption of alcohol. These are part of a series of special measures that also include a ban on pornography and mandatory health checks for Aboriginal children introduced in 2007, the so-called Northern Territory intervention. However, the alcohol ban expired in July last year, and alcohol has since begun to flow through the area.
Many, including Aboriginal groups, have warned against easing the ban. However, local politicians are finding it difficult to defend themselves. Natasha Fyles, who leads the Labor government in the Northern Territory, mocked it as “a race-based policy that disempowers Aboriginal people”. The crime wave is now causing a rethink. Earlier this month, an official review led by an Aboriginal bureaucrat found evidence that ending the ban had caused an “unacceptable level of harm” and recommended its reinstatement. Ms Fyles has passed legislation to do this. It would allow remote communities to opt out of the ban if they can demonstrate a plan to manage alcohol consumption and have the support of a majority of residents.
Many Aboriginal people believe the ban is necessary. Northern Territory Aboriginal Health Services Alliance (Aboriginal) chief executive John Paterson said it shouldn’t be seen as discrimination, but rather as “the protection of women and children in these communities” . Even so, bans will not address the underlying problems of poverty and marginalization that drive Aboriginal drinking.
Contrary to a long-standing myth, their genetic predisposition does not make them more prone to alcoholism; a condition many people live with. On the dry riverbed of Alice Springs, unemployed groups from the Australian desert outback sleep rough. According to the survey, the average household income of Aboriginal people is about half of the Australian average. Almost half of young Aboriginal adults are not working full-time or in education.
The federal Labor government led by Anthony Albanese has pledged to spend A$250 million ($173 million) on Aboriginal social services, including health care, to tackle the problem. These measures are necessary. Like Prohibition, they had previously had only limited success under the previous government, with William Tilmouth, an elder of the Arendre Aboriginal Nation, noting: “Everything they did was Mutants from the past.” It’s a painful indictment considering he was taken from his family as a child and sent on missions in the name of assimilation. But it’s hard to disagree. After decades of intervention, the lives of Indigenous people in Australia have not improved, and in some ways have worsened. ■