Beneath the Alice Springs 'crime wave' are complex issues – and a lot of politics

The supposed dimensions of the “crisis” in Alice Springs have been exhaustively portrayed in the media, both nationally and in the Northern Territory. The stories abound: shopfront windows repeatedly broken, groups of young children wandering the streets at night, and defenceless elderly residents struck down during violent robberies of their homes.

This week, the respected chief executive of “Congress”, the peak Aboriginal medical body in Central Australia, was on local ABC radio describing her fear when, while she was alone at home, two drunken men violently attempted to enter in search of alcohol.

The statistics bear out the perception: assaults, domestic violence, property damage and theft rose by more than 50% over the past year, the largest element of that increase in the past three or four months.

The settler community has called for more police and more stringent policing. However, the assistant commissioner of the NT Police, Michael Murphy, countered by saying you “can’t arrest your way out of this”. The police have a clearer understanding of the current situation than do Alice Springs social media denizens, or the “tough on crime” Country Liberal Party opposition.

Read more: Alcohol bans and law and order responses to crime in Alice Springs haven't worked in the past, and won't work now

Aboriginal societies in remote Australia are under significant social, cultural and economic pressures. They are also changing, albeit in disjointed and erratic ways.

However, it is not our purpose here to analyse that change and its implications for crime in Alice Springs, but instead to focus on the politics of alcohol.

Alcohol is commonly identified as intrinsic to much of the current “crime wave” in Alice Springs. Many crimes occur either in the pursuit of alcohol or because excessive alcohol has been consumed.

Alcohol has become emblematic of non-Indigenous people’s concerns about Aboriginal crime and “anti-social” behaviour. These concerns have dramatically increased over the past six months, beyond the usual bigots, to encompass a very large proportion of the settler community.

Even respected Mbantua Aranda (the traditional owners of Alice Springs) elders have called for their non-Aranda countrymen to return to their homelands and communities. If the NT Labor government is to retain control of the political agenda - and prevent contagion to electorally crucial Darwin - it needs to have solutions for alcohol and related crime issues.

Alcohol and policing have become the de facto central policy instruments to manage the political crisis. Since the start of the 15-year “intervention” brought in by the Howard government in 2007, residents of Alice Springs have become used to showing their proof of identity or driver’s licence to a police auxiliary officer at the door of the bottleshop, as well as to the cashier at point of purchase.

This measure has failed to prevent alcohol consumption by “banned drinkers”. Secondary (that is, illegal) consumption of alcohol abounds, as people buy alcohol for banned drinker relatives. Also, notwithstanding policy, it is clear that large amounts of alcohol are entering Alice Springs and not being sold through licensed outlets.

In a stage-managed visit to Alice this week, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and NT Chief Minister Natasha Fyles came up with a plan to tackle the crime wave in central Australia. The plan predictably provided some more money: to the police, for CCTV surveillance, emergency accommodation (for victims of domestic violence), and for Tangentyere Council to assist in their management of town camps.

But the central feature of the package was the ban on alcohol sales on Mondays and Tuesdays. This was modelled on the temporarily very successful policy developed in Tennant Creek to ban alcohol on “thirsty Thursday”. The package is temporary, pending a report from a new regional controller, Dorrelle Anderson.

The political tactics are clear: create a hiatus, and hope the crime wave issues die down as cooler weather forces countrymen back to their communities. The NT government needs this ploy to succeed if it is to be re-elected in 2024.

Read more: Grattan on Friday: Response to Alice Springs crisis poses early Indigenous affairs test for Albanese

Ignored in the package were measures for Indigenous children’s welfare. The drift to Alice has significantly affected the accompanying children, leading to “kids-out-of-control” tropes on social media.

Government services are trying to work out who these children are and where they come from. These kids exhibit the feeling of shame that reflects the impact of the systemic intergenerational trauma of past policies. Also missing from the package is the right for Indigenous community residents to access adequate funding, to teach generations of kids their culture and language, thereby giving back their pride and identity. There is a need for funding for youth groups, employment programs, housing, rehabilitation, therapeutic responses, and support for local Indigenous leadership to boost role models for young people.

Another important aspect of this that has been lost in media coverage is whether this situation is part of a broader phenomenon. It is. Similar, if not quite so serious, fault lines are exhibited across a swathe of northern Australia.

For example, Mount Isa social media has many posts similar to those from Alice Springs, lamenting break-ins and “kids out of control”. This situation repeats in Western Australia, from the Kimberley to Carnarvon to Kalgoorlie. It appears that what is needed is not more policing in Alice Springs or anywhere, but more analysis of why these dysfunctional situations are intensifying.

Importantly, the current crisis in Alice has diverted attention from the first policy buds that indicate that the systemic disadvantage suffered by Indigenous communities in the NT is slowly being addressed. The age of juvenile legal responsibility is being increased by two years. And the NT government has flagged a review of a controversial attendance-based school funding system that systemically disadvantages Aboriginal schools. These policy buds have been threatened by the politics of the crime wave.

This article is republished from The Conversation is the world's leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. A unique collaboration between academics and journalists. It was written by: Rolf Gerritsen, Charles Darwin University and Tanya McDonald, Charles Darwin University.

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The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.