“I KNOW we got big problems.” It was an understatement that might have drawn jeers, but the audience of mostly white, angry residents of Alice Springs listened. Few would have recognised the man despite his chairmanship of a major regional political institution, the Central Land Council. He did not introduce himself as such and indeed, you would never hear the kind of straight-talking that followed through the official channels of that organisation. What held the mostly respectful attention of Lindsay Bookie’s audience was that here was a black man, a man with strong traditional culture and standing, taking to his feet in a mostly white and potentially hostile forum, identifying himself with the town (“we”), recognising the gathering’s grievances and proposing some practical solutions.
This was a public meeting held on Tuesday evening this week, attended by upwards of 250 people. It had been organised by a group calling itself Action for Alice, formed after a worse than usual summer of criminal and anti-social behaviour. There is always a seasonal rise – youthful raging against the long hot months of boredom – but this summer has seen a prolonged spike starting last October. Local police chief Commander Anne-Marie Murphy recently charted its course for a worried town council. In October “unlawful entry of dwellings” offences jumped 150 per cent on the previous month. Commander Murphy said this was explained in part by the activity of two groups of young men who had developed a “pack mentality,” competing with one another “to commit the most number of crimes for sport.” They were stealing cash and small items such as iPods, televisions, jewellery and alcohol. Things quietened down in November, before taking off again in January when unlawful entry into buildings showed a 250 per cent jump on the November figures.
Particularly targeted were premises stocking alcohol. Geoff Booth, instigator of Action for Alice, owns two such, a tavern in Todd Mall in the centre of town and a club in Eastside, a mainly residential area. Across the two he’s experienced twenty-five break-ins since Christmas. He took part in victim–offender conferencing with three young culprits, a “restorative justice” measure designed to divert the young from the courts, only to be told that three days later they had broken into a school. It’s the kind of personal experience that deepens the cynicism of many about the effectiveness of well-intentioned programs, especially when break-ins appear to be inexorably rising. The NT Department of Justice’s statistics over the six-year period 2004–05 to 2009–10 show that house break-ins in Alice have increased by 64 per cent and commercial premises break-ins by 185 per cent.
It’s not only crime against property that has people worried. News of vicious assaults is an all too common feature of Alice Springs life. They mostly occur between Aboriginal people, often husbands and wives or between young men, but sometimes cross other family relationships, such as the woman outside Northside shopping centre on 10 January, stabbed by her son with a steak knife in the shoulder and in the chest, which punctured her lung.
It is no doubt true that the general population in Alice has become hardened towards this kind of news. It is seen by many as the inevitable escalation of the screaming arguments and brawling witnessed on the streets, particularly around shopping centres, pubs and bottleshops, on any day of the week. The violence is fuelled by alcohol and largely idle lives, and the mainstream population, including many Aboriginal people, feel either sad and powerless to do anything about it, or contemptuous.
But when the violence becomes more random, when the victims are strangers to the assailants, and especially when the victims are white, that’s when people become afraid and angry and start calling for draconian responses. Recent examples from police reports include an incident in January when four men were attacked as they sat on their front verandah. When they refused one man cigarettes, he was joined by three more, asking the victims for money and threatening them. The victims handed over cash and a lighter. Then one of the offenders struck one of the victims in the face and another hit him with a metal pole. Six to ten young people joined in, throwing rocks and beer bottles at the victims.
More recently, and very fresh in the minds of those attending the Action for Alice meeting, were two shocking random assaults. One, which has been widely reported, was on 12 February, a seemingly unprovoked attack on a group of four tourists, including a twenty-nine-year-old German woman who was stabbed in the shoulder. The five assailants were Aboriginal and, most worryingly, three of them were young women, who have since been arrested. There is considerable anger and anxiety over the fact that the eighteen-year-old woman accused of the stabbing has been released on bail. The other assault, in which the victim was a fifty-year-old woman, occurred on a suburban street, at around 2.30 am on 20 February. According to the police report, youths had gathered outside the woman’s home where a party was being held. When she tried to move the group on, they began assaulting her with rocks and then, as she turned to go back inside, the group began attacking her with large wooden stakes, causing her to fall. They then started punching and kicking her as she lay on the ground. The woman suffered facial fractures and has been evacuated to Royal Adelaide Hospital.
Meanwhile, alarm has been rising about large numbers of people gathering on the streets of the CBD at night and into the small hours. Commander Murphy has spoken of crowds in the “hundreds” and “unprecedented” numbers, including many children. A hot spot has developed near the 24 Hour Shop, opposite what is now a large vacant unlit site, formerly occupied by a backpacker hostel with a nightclub, hastily demolished and still awaiting redevelopment.
What these crowds of people have been doing has been colourfully and dramatically described by Indigenous politician Alison Anderson, formerly a Labor MLA, now an independent and a constant irritant for her former Labor colleagues. She has a lot of credibility with the mainstream population in Alice because she is an articulate, sophisticated Aboriginal woman with a command of several Aboriginal languages, with deep and extensive ties to families and communities across the region, and because of her no-holds-barred speaking style. She has suggested, among other things, that there is organised prostitution of young girls taking place in this part of town. In a speech to the Legislative Assembly on 15 February she alleged the involvement of Sudanese men as well as “an Indigenous woman in a little red car… Her boot is always full of alcohol and drugs… she goes around picking up young girls and taking them to the Royal Flying Doctor grass.” She’s been keeping watch in the area, counting 282 people on the street in one night, saying she had “never seen so many children exposed to the amount of violence so late at night.” She’s as strident in her criticism of Aboriginal people and their leaders as she is of the ineffectual agencies meant to be dealing with vulnerable youth and the broad failures of government policy.
Action for Alice could find no better ally than Ms Anderson, at least not until Mr Bookie came along. Ms Anderson runs the risk of being sidelined because of a tendency to launch scatter-gun attacks. It’s easy for her critics to forget how close the issues are for her. Among the young people she spotted on the “Royal Flying Doctor grass” at one o’clock in the morning was her niece. A few hours later the girl attempted to commit suicide and ended up in intensive care.
Mr Bookie, too, has been investigating the problems on the street first hand, which is probably a lot more than most people attending the meeting had done. He’d been sitting at the hot spot “every night, watching,” he told them. He described and deplored the public drinking, the children and adults who hide when the police come. He made the practical suggestion of lighting up the area so that people can’t hide. He described a youth worker talking to kids, five and six years old, with the kids just walking away and the youth worker not even trying to make them get on the bus to be taken home. “They don’t do their job properly,” he said, “you got to force them.” He was asked by the meeting’s MC, Adrian Renzi, a popular talkback radio host, how to get people to return to their communities. (The widespread assumption is that much of the trouble in Alice is caused by visitors from the bush, although the police have provided figures to suggest that a good part of it is homegrown.) Mr Bookie didn’t hesitate: after they’ve done their shopping, “get a bus, put them in it and send them back,” he said, to resounding clapping and cheering. He urged measures to be taken to prevent people from converting into cash the money on their Basics Card (the key card that gives access to quarantined Centrelink benefits, supposed to be spent only on essentials like rent and food): “Basics Card is for families to feed their kids,” he said, implying that the cash is spent on other things such as alcohol. He asked what the major Aboriginal alcohol rehabilitation facility, CAAAPU, is doing, implying that it is not doing much. He suggested that young people on the streets needed to be taken out bush, on something like a boot camp but with Aboriginal elders involved. He said kids not going to school and adults not working should be made to clean up their communities: then they’d be “too tired to come out at night.”
All this was music to the ears of his audience. This kind of plain-talking, about clear priorities, direct and immediate action, and high expectations of effectiveness, is lost in the dominant political discourse around processes and programs. It is clear that the major social ordering structures of family, education and work are very weak across large sections of the Aboriginal population in Central Australia. The former Indigenous affairs minister, Mal Brough, recognised this, which is what led to the Northern Territory Emergency Response, or the Intervention as it is popularly known. The kind of people involved in Action for Alice would have been strong supporters of at least the goals of the Intervention. Indeed, an earlier iteration of the group, called Advance Alice, with a very similar campaign over the same kind of issues back in 2007, went into abeyance in the wake of the Intervention. Now, however, the tide has turned. The Intervention is seen as too much of a blunt instrument, and as having dire unintended consequences.
Among Action for Alice’s demands is the “rescinding of all divisive law based on race.” The group was immediately challenged on this by anti-Intervention activists attending the meeting. That must mean that the Intervention should be stopped, one of them cried. It emerged that this was indeed the feeling of many. A feisty resident of Mount Nancy town camp, Barbara Shaw, the most prominent anti-Intervention activist, has long been claiming that its harsh measures have driven people out of the communities and into town and she reiterated this at the meeting. She got strong backing from businessman and photographer Steve Strike, a long-time resident of Alice, who has suffered multiple break-ins at his home and business premises. He was scathing about the failure of governments to understand that it is experience that counts in the Northern Territory, not received knowledge. From Intervention bureaucrats to police commissioners, their lack of local experience is their downfall, Mr Strike argued.
Governments should look to “a decent old bloke like Lindsay Bookie,” not to knowledge from Canberra. He’d never been a “big fan of Barb Shaw,” who’s a “bit out there,” but she had a point: the Intervention had forced “all the bad bastards” into Alice Springs. Now the government had to work out how to “take the bad bastards off the streets – we don’t want them here.” This was greeted with huge applause.
What was not raised at the meeting but is the outstanding issue remaining to be effectively tackled by the Intervention or other means, was welfare dependency. Among significant groups of the Aboriginal population there is little to no experience of work (for some families this has been the case for two or three generations), an exceptional level of passivity around helping themselves, and an unrealistic sense of entitlement. This is too large a policy failure to discuss here but many feel that there is little chance of broad scale change until passive welfare is overcome.
THERE is some cause for some hope as increasing numbers of Aboriginal children go to school, at least here in town. When my children were in primary school here in the ’90s, little to nothing was being done in mainstream schools to cater for the needs of Aboriginal children from non-assimilated backgrounds and few of them were enrolled anyway. Now every local state primary school has very significant Aboriginal enrolment as well as its own dedicated unit and/or programs for those requiring extra assistance and there is some evidence of success, such as greatly improved attendance rates. Each year also sees increasing numbers, though they are still small, of Aboriginal Year 12 graduates. This is a vindication of empowering and resourcing educators to work with the realities as they see them on the ground. From the examples I’ve seen, it has involved intensive relationship-building with individual families and groups of families, transforming their oft-expressed wish to see their children educated into action in everyday life.
A final point to make is about the impact that a lack of political autonomy has on Alice Springs, which Mr Strike alluded to in the meeting. Much is expected from the town council, as the level of government closest to the people, but it doesn’t have the powers, the budget, the depth of talent and expertise required to deal with the problems the town is confronting. Much is also expected from Aboriginal organisations – that they will somehow take the lead with “their people” (a common rhetorical question is: where is The Centre’s Noel Pearson?), but they pursue their own organisational agendas, carefully manage and massage their messages, refuse to answer probing questions from the media, and rarely take part in the civic debate. They are increasingly involved in the acquisition of property and making money and this includes the controversial purchase of takeaway liquor outlets. The issues are fraught, but property and business ownership is possibly part of what makes someone like Lindsay Bookie feel that he has a strong personal investment in the town.
The NT government, meanwhile, is remote and uninterested, and given to kneejerk responses when the heat is on, such as its recent hasty announcement that it would create a juvenile detention centre at the Alice Springs jail. The government’s only member in the region, Minister for Central Australia Karl Hampton, is a creature of his minders and their political bosses. He is a meetings man, not a man of action, and quite unable to communicate to the broad population, except on the matter of football. That leaves the federal government, which is pouring money into the town through the Intervention and related measures. The resultant activity is bringing about some material improvements in Aboriginal lives, even if there is resentment and frustration over the multiple intrusions that they are subject to. But, as I have said, there is not yet anywhere near the necessary work being done to transform what is so glaringly obvious: that too many Aboriginal people “have nothing to do and all day to do it in” and this extends to whether or not they take responsibility for their children. Alice Springs would benefit enormously from strengthened political autonomy built on local understanding and experience – structures that could galvanise the kind of social energy and community conversation in evidence at last Tuesday’s public meeting. •
Kieran Finnane is a founding journalist with the independent weekly, Alice Springs News, now in its eighteenth year of publication. She also contributes to national arts journals.