Feb 19, 2011
Alcohol-induced madness has strong similarities to Papua New Guinea, where homebrew and marijuna are prolific
Alice Springs is in deeper trouble than is widely understood. For many locals, driven to despair by the township's drug and alcohol-fuelled violence, the only way is out
|A drinking session at one of Alice Springs' town camps; despite restrictions, alcohol is easy to obtain and central to the town's social problems. Picture: Chris Crerar Source: The Australian|
IT'S 10pm, the witching hour in the heart of Alice Springs, the time when trouble really starts. KFC has closed its doors, the lights from the 24-hour shop over the crossroads gleam, the cars cruise by with menace, the crowds of bush Aboriginal boys and girls, teenagers and younger, grow thick.
There they are, in the deep shadows of back alleys, parks and vacant blocks, mobiles shining in their hands as they plan their moves, and dodge and weave between the security patrols, the little ineffectual posses of youth workers from different agencies and the police vans drifting up and down the streets.
Here's the action, at the streetlights where Stott and Todd meet: the pick-up point for grog, ganja, adventure, sex and any combination of all these.
You can see boys and girls as young as 10 years old marauding about at midnight, with their slightly older brothers and sisters, who are walking at speed, drinking from their hidden alcohol containers: you see cars laden with illegal grog stopping to pick up teenage girls and whisk them off; here's the madam, with her girls for sale, and that's one of the African gang cars, driving by and checking out the talent, and choosing the girls they like.
At the KFC carpark, as if in the front-row stalls, old bush men from the desert communities pull up: "Just looking," they say, and grin, and mingle. Things are tense: a security car pulls into a building site. Seventy teenagers, some with their knife-blades open, converge on the lone guard: he flees.
Police drive slow: "Go home," they call out, "Don't you have a home to go to?", but the crowds just laugh, and melt away and reform in the shadows down the block.
A white minivan screeched to a halt at this corner last week: four white youths jumped out, pummelled a group of bush blacks with punches, and hurtled off into the night.
The desert boys wait at the traffic lights: if an incautious couple of backpackers are dumb enough to walk that way, it's harassment, menace, taunts and chase.
A few steps across the council lawns the sandy riverbed stretches, and the drinking camps of the western desert communities: Papunya people, and Kintore families, the dependents of the great desert artists, fighting and shouting abuse at each other all through the night.
Head further in that direction, and you reach the dark suburban street where cars pull up all through the small hours for this is one of the bootleg alcohol outlets that keep the drink flowing long after the plethora of take-away bottle-shops have been obliged to close their doors at 9pm.
Ten bucks for a bottle of cheap white.
At least four such operations run these days in Alice Springs, under the eyes of unknowing police, operated by local Aboriginal purveyors who onsell to fringe camp-dwellers at high markup.
Drift towards the range-line and the Gap, and you find a tree-mantled verge outside the Royal Flying Doctor Service Cafe: its grass is littered with silvered wine-cask linings.
Why? This is the sniffers' secret paradise, the tranquil hide-out where some 30 solvent abusers gather most nights. They spray the contents of underarm deodorants into the cask-skins, and inhale their way into another world, then Alice Springs Town Council workers come in the morning to clean up the evidence.
This in a town, and region, where publicly funded anti-sniffing program managers love to boast of their success. But degradation, desolation and suffering are always a step ahead.
Alice Springs is a township fast spiralling out of control. All the elements for turmoil are present: deep, cold fury among the mainstream population, a reckless gloom among the young bush people loitering here, vast demand for marijuana and a limitless supply, bad, reactive politics, a lack of new ideas, a need for drastic measures and a refusal even to debate the reforms that might have a chance.
An Aboriginal ghetto has been long in the making in Alice Springs, if a ghetto of a strange, dispersed, archipelagic kind, centred on the awful town camps and the string of semi-permanent drinking places all round town.
No maps show these hide-outs, few taxi drivers venture out that way, but they are there: the lost people live there. The interesting question today is not whether the authorities charged with the town's stewardship can manage or suppress the tensions so sharply in the air. It is rather this: will Alice Springs survive in its present form for another 10 years.
In many journalistic reports on the modern frontier, and the nation's persisting remote area crisis, there's a tendency to paint things dark: to reach for shock effects, the better to highlight the need for action. In this case, exaggeration's not even an option.
The town is on the brink -- of who knows what? Even Inquirer's four watching nights spent on the streets of the Centre's little capital give only a faint sense of the seething troubles.
They mirror the town's weird anatomy. Alice Springs today, swelled by intervention bureaucrats, remote housing workers accommodated in luxury hotels and child welfare workers imported from overseas, holds 30,000 people.
There's the mainstream, both new arrivals and old-timers, and the long-established town Aboriginal population. Then there are the 18 notionally "dry" town camps scattered all through town and its margins on special purpose leases, with a total of 180 houses and perhaps 2000 residents.
There's overcrowding in most. Take Abbott's camp by the river: it should have a population of 80, but has about 220. Well-placed sources estimate that 90 per cent of the town campers are heavy users of alcohol: ganja is a constant feature of the camps' landscape.
Few media people penetrate the boundaries of these reserved areas, with their big signs proclaiming them alcohol-free, but those who do see the drifts of green cans in the front yards, despite the stringent policing in force.
There's also another, quite separate black archipelago, without any name or funding or legal status. This is the network of semi-permanent drinking camps, tolerated though they are intolerable.
In the Todd River's sand-bed, in full view of the town, from opposite the old Imparja studios down as far as the car-wash, desert people subsist: on one recent count, 170 of them, from Jigalong, Balgo, Kiwirrkurra and the nearer western communities.
In the saltbush camp nearby, it's the Karpa and Leura families from Papunya and its surrounds. In the hills just outside town, all round, in folds and valleys, camps of different sizes can be found, populated by people from the far west, from the east, from the APY (Anangu, Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara) lands to the south.
Some are quiet, some have only one occupant, drinking quietly. Some are large, and rather dangerous. For the first time since the early 70s, men and women are living in tin shacks as semi-permanent squatters.
Walk through this landscape in the early morning: there are prone bodies strewn about, passed out. Perhaps a thousand people are now based round the dry creeks and in these back blocks, well-concealed, and each day a fair proportion of those men, women and children walk their long way into town for grog. It is a hidden population.
From these different sources and their needs and travails and derangements comes, of course, crime. Experts like to speak knowingly of a "spike" in troubles in Alice Springs during the summer months.
In recent years, though, it has felt different. There may actually be less full-tilt violence, so bad has the intoxication grown.
But there is more property crime, and more black-on-black violence, much of it untracked. There is rape; there is self-harm. It's not just a law and order crisis. The criminal scene is increasingly surreal.
Notes from the past month's police blotter: at the Northside shopping centre a man stabs his own mother with a steak knife. A man severs an artery in his wife's arm with a pocket-blade.
A little Nissan Bluebird is stolen as a crime car, twice in one night. Thieves break into the Memo Club, steal and smash: police investigate, and even as they do so the thieves come back for a second shot. One business was broken into every night in January.
At the Town and Country Club, a $2000 plate glass window was smashed for the sake of a six-pack. One thief was nabbed last week with nothing more than 18 packs of Tally-Ho rolling papers.
This, alongside terrifying home invasions and sex crimes, often hushed up. A bizarre picture: thrill-seeking, despair, resentful rebellion, wild intoxication, or a combination of the four?
Locals, unsurprisingly, have had enough. Some leave, some harden their hearts. Alice Springs used to be a subtle, fairly harmonious multiracial community. No longer. Race relations are worsening and fear is rising on both sides.
"Give them as much grog as they want and let them kill themselves," the politicians door-knocking hear, and worse, much worse. "People are feeling persecuted, they are feeling desperate, they are bereft of any energy," reports Northern Territory politician Matt Conlan, a former radio host who knows the town's pulse pretty well. He is a Country Liberal Party opposition member of the NT Legislative Assembly.
Memo Club manager Andrea Sullivan is plain: "The justice system has to be a lot harder on these people, especially these repeat offenders. I tell you the town's people are getting very tired and sick of it."
Businesses have just launched an urgent advertising campaign. Dave Douglas from this new Action for Alice group says: "We're going to maintain the rage until we see some action on the streets."
The alarm is palpable: "Unless we see changes, we'll lose the town, it won't recover," warns another key figure in the action group, Geoff Booth: "Hard decisions need to be made. People are leaving Alice Springs in droves."
Of course alcohol and its supply are a central problem, both symptom of social chaos and its cause. But despite many vaporous pronouncements and pledges, and even a "dry town" proclamation, and various restrictions, there is simply no effective control of alcohol or drinking in public in Alice Springs, and no coherent policy suggestion to achieve control.
"We must find ways to divert people back into licensed venues where drinkers and their families can benefit from some of the checks and balances that don't exist down the creek," argues small business operator Mike Gillam.
Yet the launch of systematic alcohol management plans for the whole community, of the kind tried elsewhere in the NT, is not even on the horizon. Drink divides people in Alice Springs, and defines them, rather than uniting them. Naturally, the many alcohol sales outlets are extremely profitable to the economy: so much so that three of them were purchased recently by the local native title-holding organisation. The grotesque daily scenes of public drunkenness only surprise and shock visitors to the town.
No point in turning to those charged with responsibility for Alice Springs for ideas. The hapless mayor, photo-shop owner Damien Ryan, believes in seeing no evil and "talking up" the town even as it dissolves around him.
The NT's Labor government dislikes conservative-voting Alice Springs, and starves it of support. Its latest new policy for dealing with the meltdown is an old one: set up a youth detention centre in the local jail, thereby increasing the already astronomical levels of incarceration of young indigenous men and women.
Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin has spent a fair amount of energy over the past three years trying to solve the centre's problems. The commonwealth government's lavish Alice Springs transformation plan showered $25 million on social service organisations: family violence services, family support services, community connection and the like.
It will eventually provide 85 new town camp houses under the fraught Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program program: but that program's budget is already blown. As a result the new houses rising in the Trucking Yards town camp are minuscule, and will not address overcrowding. On paper they are three bedrooms, in truth two, while the home renovations are substandard.
Federal money has also built a newly opened $11m "visitor centre" south of town, "mostly tents plus units". This white elephant in the making has 18 staff, and offers 150 beds for rent, for between $5 and $20 a night, behind a 3m fence: it is to be an alcohol-free zone, and also dog-free, and have a two-week stay limit, and is thus unlikely to be used on a voluntary basis by those who live long-term with large dog-packs in the town's environs, spending their precious welfare dollars on drinking, and happy to sleep rough.
No point turning to the police for grand solutions, either. Alice Springs is heavily policed, but not effectively, for it is unclear how a limited police contingent could deal with large, amorphous underage crowds swarming all night through the streets engaging in covert illegal activities.
The NT has a new, media-courting police commissioner: he has just replaced the two top cops in the Centre who have close Aboriginal community links.
The new Alice Springs commander last month took the extraordinary step of challenging local member Conlan over his "insulting" comments when he called for a police taskforce to be deployed from Darwin to deal with the "crime wave" sweeping through the town.
Crisis management through image burnishing and press release, the modern way. Conlan resumed his campaign in the Darwin Parliament this week, calling for an extra 20 police to be deployed at once, and tabling the grim figures for recorded "crimes against the person", up a quarter on the year, to 1700 cases, though this is surely a strong undercount.
Other voices counsel more concerted steps.
Another Alice Springs NT parliamentarian, the cerebral young Aboriginal member for the seat of Braitling, Adam Giles, wants to see a large prison farm set up outside town where drinkers could be rehabilitated through craft-learning, trade schools and manual work.
The doyenne of the town's retail business community, Pam Hooper, who has seen decades of changing approaches in the Centre, views the present crisis as one of the heart and spirit, as much as the short-term policy settings.
"It's such a dramatic problem we need dramatic solutions and the people in charge aren't game to do that. But it has to be done. Not blanket solutions like the intervention, but person by person, family by family. The young Aboriginal people you see walking the town by night: they're going to have to be shown how to live with pride.
"They have nothing at all, they don't know right from wrong, they have no boundaries."
This plea for a fresh perspective, free from the present obsessions with short-term control measures, is shared by Mike Gillam, a long-time resident with close indigenous community links: "Today's lack of social planning and commitment by politicians, policy makers and public servants will only increase the difficulties that must be confronted by their successors.
"Alice Springs lacks egalitarian spaces where people can interact as equals: we don't cater effectively to indigenous people who, almost by default, adopt the role of bystanders looking in."
To cure a crisis, you need to diagnose. The roots of the present dilemma are multiple. Progressive observers in the thickly populated realm of Aboriginal policy analysis love to blame the intervention for luring bush people into town as refugees from its constraints.
There is an element of truth to the charge, but more in the blunt fact that it is now easier to drink in town than in the communities, where the illegal supply is fitful and marijuana has come to dominate.
Just as significant is the role of the town camps as magnets. Since these racially defined zones serve as bases for out of town visitors, and they are apartheid zones, with entry restrictions, they encourage a double standard in service provision and social responsibilities for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal.
Plans to convert them into normal suburbs of Alice Springs remain far from fruition.
But the deeper underlying problem is much simpler: urban drift. Young people on remote communities in the Centre, as elsewhere, prefer the bright lights of town.
Many of the teenagers walking the streets at night are not going to school in Alice Springs by day: they are hundreds of kilometres from home, sleeping on swags in the houses of distant cousins, or on the edges of camps.
They come from the Ngaanyatjarra desert communities, from the Eastern Plenty, from Santa Teresa and the Warlpiri triangle. They are members of what old hands refer to as "the forgotten generation", the children of men and women now in their mid-30s who themselves hardly went to school, and make up the bulk of the drinking camps today.
Both young and mid-life bush people are drawn inexorably in to town, and it is fair to think of them as "service refugees", who cannot find any pathway or satisfying life-system in remote communities or the surrounding outstations.
You find such floating, displaced groups in Kalgoorlie, Mount Isa, Tennant Creek and Katherine: town, facilities, excitement and modernity are what they crave.
To cope with this influx, the authorities have long since opted for increased surveillance: not just CCTV, which the young people on the streets know how to avoid, but social control on a heroic scale.
Welfare agencies are out on the streets among the crowds: there are night patrol vans cruising about, and wellbeing teams and even youth workers from NT Family and Community Services offering lifts "home" and sauntering up and down: by some counts more than a dozen half-coordinated agencies are on the case.
Almost none of these welfare professionals speak the first languages of those they try to help, and so they can't understand what the street wanderers say among themselves. They would be dismayed.
For the young men and women, all the illicit drinking, the pairing up and the brushes with violence and danger are more than a game: they despise the helpers and the surveillance teams, they lead them here and there. It's a kind of high-octane rebellion against the system, against its regulating intent, against the constant contact with minders and helpers they are expected to endure, day in, day out.
The crowds, then, are not just the little Central Australian equivalent of weekend crowds on Southbank or Darling Harbour, looking for action. They carry a hard, mixed message: scorn and rejection rolled up in one.
The other side of this line is defined by the unspoken, well-veiled core position of the men and women who decide indigenous policy in Central Australia: a group of senior public servants, from the NT and federal bureaucracies, and the political advisers and experts from Aboriginal organisations and "centres of knowledge" drafted in to give strategic advice and set direction in a hundred meetings and funding rounds. Their world-view, as conveyed in private talks, is managerial. They do not anticipate or even aim for success in any "transformation" of either Alice Springs or the remote Aboriginal domain.
Rather, they feel the task is hopeless, the mid-term trend towards assimilation is inevitable and the shock tactics of the 2007 NT intervention have already reached their limits. Hence the tameness of the policy landscape. No talk of mandatory blanket curfew or of emergency administration, no move to ban all take-away sales of alcohol, for everyone, even though the Aboriginal drinkers twist in their downward spiral in plain view. You could call it a conspiracy of lack of belief.
Meanwhile, Alice Springs lives by the minute, hardly daring to breathe.
The operators in the town's $400m tourism and hotel industry are trembling. They know very well that they're one bad incident away from the curtain.
They can feel it close at hand. It very nearly came this week, when a group of four tourists were set upon by a large gang of Aboriginal assailants.
All four were pummelled with stones: the chief victim, a 23-year-old German woman, was stabbed in the armpit with a 10cm knife. A little lower, and it would have been pan-European headlines.
On the streets each night, once KFC closes, and the state-funded soup kitchen vans have vacated the scene, the shadow confrontation between the authorities and the teenaged crowds resumes.
Knives are sheathed, but at the ready. A sharp riot or a clash between police and marauders is just one badly managed incident away.
The landscape around the town may still be beautiful but the prospects these days are bleak.