The town of Alice Springs in Australia’s Northern Territory has faced unprecedented levels of crime in recent years. Alcohol-related crimes have increased by 55 percent in the town since 2020, and as a result, alcohol restrictions have now been introduced in Alice Springs. Concerns have arisen, however, due to the stereotyping of the large indigenous population in Alice Springs, the highest percentage in any Australian state, 30 percent, in comparison to the next highest state, Tasmania, at six percent.
In April 2007, the Northern Territory government handed down its Ampe Akelyernemane Meke Mekarle (Little Children Are Sacred) report. Its focus was on the sexual abuse of Indigenous children in the Northern Territory. The report found that the “excessive consumption of alcohol” resulted in excessive violence in the Northern Territory, a much higher percentage of the population engaging in high-risk drinking than the Australian average, and that 71 percent of those in prison in the Territory were incarcerated for alcohol-related issues. The report also stated that alcohol issues needed to be addressed urgently before any of the other recommendations made in the report could be effectively implemented. It was recommended that there be an urgent focus on reducing alcohol consumption and access to alcohol. This recommendation was implemented by the Northern Territory National Emergency Response Act 2007, which strictly monitored and limited the amount of alcohol an individual could buy. The act also gave the Commonwealth government the ability to acquire land for a period of 5 years, resulting in the compulsory acquisition of 65 Aboriginal communities. These measures have been in effect, despite changes to the name of the legislation, until they expired in July 2022. Since then, there has been a significant spike in crime in the Northern Territory, particularly in Alice Springs.
Human rights concerns
The current crime rates have grave implications for the human rights of Alice Springs residents. In an interview with ABC News (Australia), Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney said that 14 out of 16 Intensive Care Unit beds at Alice Springs Hospital were filled by Aboriginal women who were victims of violence.
While unrest in the region poses grave concerns for victims’ human rights, the unrest is also seemingly fuelled by the poor state of human rights in Alice Springs. In a statement, the Lhere Artepe Aboriginal Corporation, the representative body of the traditional owners of Alice Springs, has criticised the government for “chronic and systemic neglect” of the region. The corporation condemned under-investment, which it says has led to people from surrounding communities with poor living conditions moving to the streets of Alice Springs “as life is better there than in the crowded, broken and impoverished places that pretend to be Australian towns and communities.” The Central Australia Aboriginal Congress CEO, Donna Ah Chee, echoed this concern for the human rights of Alice Springs residents and reiterated the need to address poor living conditions in order to improve the situation. In particular, Ah Chee has noted that intergenerational trauma, poverty and racism are significant factors in creating unrest in the region. The Lhere Artepe Aboriginal Corporation likewise cited negative stereotyping of Aboriginal people as a key concern.
The maintenance of human rights must be a key focus of government action in the region. However, the new restrictions have been characterised by NT Chief Minister Natasha Fyles as potentially conflicting with racial discrimination laws. As similar laws in the past have resulted in a suspension of anti-discrimination laws, there are concerns that the current restrictions on alcohol will be accompanied by legislative exemptions to race-discrimination laws. Reflecting on the July 2022 end of the previous laws governing alcohol, the Human Rights Law Centre stated “[d]uring these 15 years we have seen the demonising of Aboriginal people and culture and the erosion of self determination.” Although the current bans apply to Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities alike, the government is reportedly considering bans that will apply exclusively to Aboriginal communities.
Are the emergency measures a return to intervention-era controls?
The intervention consisted of a $587 million package of legislation designed to address disproportionate levels of violence in Northern Territory Indigenous communities, set out by former Prime Minister John Howard’s policies in 2007. It was a response to the Little Children are Sacred Report, which outlined widespread child abuse and family violence in indigenous communities in the Northern Territory, and included restrictions on alcohol, changes to welfare payments, acquisition of parcels of land, education, employment and health initiatives, restrictions on pornography and other measures. The most notable legislation introduced was the Northern Territory National Emergency Response Act 2007, and several existing laws were affected or partially suspended, including Racial Discrimination Act 1975.
The 15-year-old intervention-era alcohol restriction laws have recently lapsed, prompting the Australian Human Rights Commission to state the abrupt ending occurred “with no forward planning or preparation.”
Commissioner June Oscar AO has given her support to the reported recommendations of the Federal Government’s Northern Territory Regional Controller Dorelle Anderson to introduce temporary alcohol restrictions, stating Alice Springs needs a community-led response:
Local Alice Springs communities have consistently asked for a commitment from government to listen with empathy and respect, and to work together to provide sensible short-term actions as well as long-term solutions which target the systemic causes of trauma, harm and social unrest.
Minister for Indigenous Affairs Linda Burney avoided labeling the restrictions a ‘mini intervention’ when asked on ABC Radio on January 25:
This is a very important step, a first step in what is a very complex problem, or set of problems, really. We will be staying the course. And The Prime Minister’s visit yesterday to Alice Springs was very good. He met with the NPY Women’s Council, he met with police, he also met with the local Mayor and he also met with people from Congress. And some of the stories that we heard yesterday, were nothing short of gruelling.
Has alcohol restriction effectively provided solutions to the high rates of crime in Alice Springs?
With Alice Springs communities voting in favour of bringing in the restrictions, new data will reveal their effectiveness in reducing criminal activity. Chief Minister of the Northern Territory Natasha Fyles said that she will work alongside regulatory bodies to create alcohol management plants that “have community views whilst keeping the communities safe.” However, community leaders have raised concerns that these restrictions are not a sustainable solution to the problems Alice Springs is facing.
Dr John Boffa, the Chief Medical Officer Public Health of the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress Aboriginal Corporation tweeted that:
After the first two take-away alcohol free days achieved dramatic drops in [Domestic Violence], unlawful entry and youth on the streets everything partly increased again as the take-away tap turned back on by weeks end. The former [Stronger Futures] measures achieved more as the take-away tap stayed off.
There is a call to address the root cause of these issues rather than providing alleged “band-aid solutions.’ There have also been suggestions to provide long-term support, such as providing youth engagement programs to keep young people safe, entertained and away from dangerous situations. Further, support has been requested to address the years-long high levels of domestic violence in remote communities which have not been adequately resourced.
In anticipation of the Indigenous Voice to Parliament this year, the call for self-regulated adoptions by communities may be a solution for individual indigenous groups. However, the issue of alcohol-related crime is not an exclusively-indigenous issue. The issue must be addressed with respect to the entire town, not just minority groups, in order to have the most effective long-term impact in reducing crime and the factors that cause criminal activity.
Australia’s Commonwealth and territorial governments will document unfolding events and release reports to assess the impact of these restrictions. In time, it will become evident to what extent the restrictions reduce crime or if the solutions need to be further developed to address the root cause of these issues.
Brooke Forbes, Gwen Devoy, Sophia Richards are students at Newcastle Law School, in Newcastle, Australia. Meg Abbott is a student at Notre Dame School of Law in Sydney.
Suggested citation: Brooke Forbes, Gwen Devoy, Sophia Richards, Meg Abbott, Alice Springs’ Alcohol Problem: Will Restrictions Reduce Crime in an Australian Town With a Large Indigenous Population?, JURIST – Student Commentary, February 6, 2023, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2023/02/alice-springs-alcohol-problem-will-restrictions-reduce-crime-in-an-australian-town-with-a-large-indigenous-population/.