Australian Labor government responds to social crisis in Alice Springs with law-and-order measures

Australian Labor government responds to social crisis in Alice Springs with law-and-order measures

Last Tuesday, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese visited the town of Alice Springs in the Northern Territory (NT), where he promised greater resources for the police and other measures of a reactionary law and order character.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese (centre) in Alice Springs. [Photo: Twitter @AlboMP]

The hastily scheduled visit, and the measures announced, were a direct response to a hysterical campaign by the media and the most right-wing sections of the political establishment.

In the weeks before Albanese’s arrival, the Murdoch press published a stream of ominous and sensationalist articles alleging, with very little concrete evidence, a major crime wave in the town, which like the rest of the NT has high poverty rates and ‘ a large Aboriginal population.

Liberal National Coalition leader Peter Dutton has called for the return of the 2007 NT intervention, including the deployment of Australian Federal Police and Army personnel to the NT.

Albanians haven’t gone that far yet. However, he reinstated the intervention-era alcohol ban introduced by the previous federal Labor government in 2012, which expired automatically after a decade last year.

Albanese has announced an immediate ban in Alice Springs on takeaway alcohol sales on Mondays and Tuesdays, on top of existing restrictions on Sundays. On other days, take away alcohol can only be sold between 15:00 and 19:00, limited to one purchase per person each day.

A federal government press release, coinciding with Albanese’s visit, claimed the Labor administration would “invest $48.8 million over two years.” In line with the wider law and order campaign, the main priorities will be “tackling crime, keeping women and children safe and providing support to young people in communities.”

The money includes $14.2 million to boost police numbers in Alice Springs and $2 million for CCTV cameras and lighting. The additional funding for social services in the town is scant. Just $2 million will be allocated to domestic violence services, barely the equivalent of the value of two small houses in a capital city. About $25 million for “community and safety services” is simply a continuation of existing funding arrangements that were set to expire at the end of next year.

Police assistant liquor inspectors in Alice Springs supermarket in November 2019. [Photo: WSWS]

More broadly, across the NT, the government has pledged $19 million for Indigenous health services and $100 million for housing and essential services, of which only $25 million has been concretely allocated.

To describe it as a drop in an ocean of crying need would risk overstating matters. In the midst of a catastrophic social crisis in the NT, which deepens every year, the government provides a little bit. The police, the only well-equipped entity in the area, are given a further boon to enforce these appalling social conditions, and to scapegoat and brutalize the victims, primarily Aboriginal youth.

To provide this right-wing agenda with a progressive veneer, the Albanian government further entrenches the position of a privileged layer of Aboriginal bureaucrats. The police build-up and miserable expenditure on social services is ludicrously billed as “community led”.

The main reason for this claim is the appointment of Dorrelle Anderson, the Indigenous director of a domestic violence charity, as Central Australian Regional Controller. She is to “consult” with remote communities on whether they want discriminatory alcohol bans to be imposed on their community, and to provide the government with non-binding recommendations at the start of February.

As well as furthering the repressive powers of the state, the whole thrust of the Labor government’s response is to demonize the residents of Alice Springs and the wider NT as responsible for the social crisis they face.

This fully aligns with the statements of the police themselves and the media campaign led by the Murdoch media. Police claimed an increase in crime rates in Alice Springs, including property damage (allegedly up 59.64 per cent), commercial burglaries (55.76 per cent) and alcohol-related assault (54.6) between 1 December 2021 and 30 November 2022.

The right-wing commentary suggested this as practically the result of the alcohol ban that expired last year. In reality, these are mainly petty crimes of poverty and desperation.

Figures before the pandemic showed that almost 45 per cent of the approximately 61,000 Aboriginal people living in the NT were below the poverty line. Indigenous youth in particular have virtually no prospect of a future. They are plagued by a lack of access to education, housing and medical services, and have little chance of decent work. Moreover, they grew up under the repressive NT intervention, which at times had the character of a hostile military occupation.

As an indication of the official indifference to the social crisis, recent figures are scant. But it is clear that the social situation is worsening, not improving. In explaining the crime rates in Alice Springs, NT residents pointed out that residents of remote communities are increasingly being forced to move to the town to access medical facilities and other services. Such communities have been hit by the wider inflationary crisis, as well as price cuts, including essentials such as food. Some remain in town without work or secure housing.

When torrential rains caused flooding earlier this month, remote communities cut off from roads and transport faced a major crisis. Ampilatwatja, one of those towns, is about 350 kilometers north-east of Alice Springs. Its population of 500 people has only the most rudimentary medical facilities. When one resident suffered a medical episode, transporting them for treatment was a major logistical exercise.

Christine May, manager of the local clinic, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC): “Because we didn’t have a sealed air strip, there was no way we could get anyone in or out.” She added: “People come here to live because this is their country… but when they need services, they are very poorly served out here… This is one of the biggest problems of living remotely. “

Another ABC report this month noted: “Over this Christmas and New Year period, The Salvation Army has seen a 30 per cent increase in the number of clients dropping into their centers across the NT compared to last year.” Many of the homeless were from remote communities, whose residents are often forced to live in temporary housing. Overcrowding is the norm. Few such properties have air conditioning, under conditions where summer temperatures in the NT often exceed 40 degrees Celsius.

The ABC article added: “In Alice Springs, only a handful of shelters still have space – but according to the Salvation Army, these shelters are not accepting children.”

The Northern Territory government is pushing ahead with rent changes for public housing, likely to drive up costs. Rent is no longer to be charged based on income, and is replaced by a flat rate of $70 per bedroom per week, capped at $280. Charity groups have warned that this will lead to a further increase in housing insecurity and homelessness in the NT, which is already among the worst in the country.

A number of community representatives condemned the alcohol ban and the prospect of their reintroduction in remote areas. They noted the punitive and racially discriminatory nature of such measures, as well as the fact that they do nothing to address the underlying social crisis.

NT youth are locked up at the highest levels in the country. A December report by the Australia Institute of Health and Welfare last December found: “In the Northern Territory, from the June quarter 2020 to the June quarter 2022 there was still a sharp increase in the rate of young people in custody on an average night of 6.6 per 10,000 in the June quarter 2020 to 21 per 10,000 in the June quarter 2022.” That figure compares with 1.1 to 2.2 per 10 000 in other states and territories.Often 100 per cent of youth detainees in the NT are Aboriginal.

Indigenous children playing at remote settlement outside Alice Springs in 2008. [Photo: John Hulme/WSWS]

The conditions in such facilities have previously been condemned by international human rights groups as akin to torture. In 2016, an ABC investigation revealed the use of spit hoods, brutal beatings and other abuses at the Don Dale facility.

The role of the police, now given a further boost by the Labor government, was underlined by the police killing of Aboriginal youth Kumanjayi Walker in the remote town of Yuendumu in 2019.

The police officer who shot Walker, Zachary Rolfe, was found not guilty of murder last year. In a text message to a friend published by the media, Rolfe wrote: “Alice Springs sucks ha ha. The good thing is it’s like the Wild West and f*** all the rules in the job really… but it sucks.” The police could do “cowboy stuff without rules” in Alice.

The current campaign is reminiscent of the atmosphere that prevailed before the introduction of the NT intervention in 2007. Loud reports of child sexual abuse were broadcast by the media, led by the ABC. This was used as the pretext for the deployment of the army to the NT. There, the army not only enforced discriminatory measures, such as the alcohol ban, but further attacks on social conditions. This included denying residents their welfare payments, and instead providing them with “basic cards”, which can only be used at a handful of shops.

In 2008, recently elected Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd issued an apology to Aboriginal people for government crimes against them, including the forced removal of children. The apology, praised by Liberal commentators and others, was a cynical fig leaf for Labour’s deepening of the intervention, which remained in place until 2012.

Likewise, the Albanian government is now proposing an indigenous “voice” to parliament. The establishment of the consultative body, which must be approved by a referendum, will do nothing to improve the social conditions of Aboriginal workers and youth, who are the most oppressed part of the working class. Instead, it would further entrench a layer of privileged upper middle class Aboriginal figures, as another mechanism to maintain and enforce that oppression.

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