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Authorities Reinstate Alcohol Ban for Aboriginal Australians

Authorities Reinstate Alcohol Ban for Aboriginal Australians

Geoff Shaw opened a beer, relishing the simple freedom of having a drink on his porch on a sweltering Saturday morning in mid-February in Australia’s Northern Territory.

“For 15 years I couldn’t buy a beer,” said Shaw, a 77-year-old Aboriginal elder in Alice Springs, the territory’s third-largest city. “I’m a Vietnam veteran and couldn’t even buy a beer.”

Mr Shaw lives in what the government has considered a ‘prescribed area’, an Aboriginal urban camp where from 2007 until last year it was illegal to possess alcohol, part of a set of extraordinary race-based interventions in the lives of Indigenous Australians.

Last July, the Northern Territory allowed an alcohol ban for hundreds of Indigenous communities to expire, calling it racist. But little had been done in the years that followed to address the serious underlying disadvantage of the communities. Once the booze flowed again, there was an explosion of crime in Alice Springs widely attributed to Aboriginal people. Local and federal politicians reinstated the ban late last month. And Mr. Shaw’s taste of freedom ended.

From the corridors of power in the nation’s capital to ramshackle outback settlements, unrest in the Northern Territory has reignited difficult questions that are even older than Australia itself, about race and control and the open wounds of discrimination.

For those who believe that the country’s predominantly white rulers should not dictate the decisions of Indigenous peoples, the return of alcohol prohibition reproduces the effects of colonialism and weakens communities. Others argue that the benefits, such as reduced domestic violence and other harms for the most vulnerable, may outweigh the discriminatory effects.

For Mr. Shaw, the restrictions are just a distraction – another band-aid for communities who, to address root issues, need funding and support and to be listened to.

“They had nothing to offer us,” he said. “And they’ve had 15 years to sort that out.”

Alcohol restrictions prohibit anyone living in urban Indigenous camps on the outskirts of Alice Springs, as well as those in more remote Indigenous communities, from buying alcohol to go. The town itself is not subject to the ban, although Aboriginal people there often face more scrutiny when trying to buy alcohol.

On a recent day at Uncle’s Tavern in central Alice Springs, patrons – almost all of them non-Indigenous – drank under palm trees strung with lights. In the town of 25,000, it seemed like everyone had a friend, relative or neighbor who had been the victim of an assault, burglary or destruction of property.

As night fell, Aborigines walking the otherwise empty streets were separated from pub patrons by a fence with high black bars, like something out of a prison. Sometimes those outside crowded against the bars; the children asked for money for food and the adults for cigarettes or alcohol. The door to the pub was open, but there were unspoken barriers to entry for people outside.

Many Aboriginal people travel to cities to obtain basic services from the remote communities where they live, in conditions more akin to those of a developing country. Some aboriginal leaders in and around Alice Springs attribute the rise in crime to these visitors.

During the day, they were often the only people seated in public spaces, with nowhere to go to escape the scorching heat. An Aboriginal visitor to Alice Springs, Gloria Cooper, said she had traveled hundreds of miles to seek treatment and was camping in a nearby dry creek bed because she could not afford housing with their social assistance income.

“Lots of people in the creek,” she said. “A lot of children.”

The roots of the 15-year alcohol ban were a nationwide media storm that erupted in 2006 over a handful of graphic and high-profile allegations of child sexual abuse in the Northern Territory.

Many allegations were later proven to be baseless. But just months before a federal election, the then Conservative prime minister used them to justify a draconian set of race-based measures. Among them were restrictions on alcohol, as well as mandatory revenue management for welfare recipients and restrictions on the rights of Indigenous peoples to manage the lands they owned.

Now the debate has erupted again at another politically charged moment, as Australia begins to discuss the constitutional enshrinement of a ‘voice in Parliament’ – an Indigenous body that would advise on policies that affect communities aborigines.

Opponents have used the Alice Springs debate to argue that the proposal diverts attention from the practical issues facing Indigenous communities. Proponents say such a body would have allowed for more consultation with affected residents and prevented the problem from getting worse.

Indigenous leaders say the roots of dysfunction in their communities run deep. The lack of job opportunities has kept poverty entrenched, which has exacerbated domestic violence. Soaring Aboriginal incarceration rates have left parents locked up and children adrift. Government controls on the lives of Indigenous peoples, imposed without consultation, have bred resentment and despair. Add alcohol to the mix and the problems only mount.

“We never had our own choice and decision-making, our lives were controlled by others,” said Cherisse Buzzacott, who works to improve health literacy for Indigenous families. For this reason, she added, members of the most disadvantaged communities “do not have the belief that change can change; they have no hope.

Some Indigenous leaders oppose alcohol prohibition on these grounds, arguing that it perpetuates the history of control of Indigenous communities. Others say their own contributions to the community show why blanket bans are unfair.

“Some of my gang, some are workers and some are just sitting around, not having a job,” said Benedict Stevens, the Hidden Valley town camp president, using a colloquial term for an Aboriginal group. “And what I’m saying is it wouldn’t be fair for us workers not to be able to go home on the weekends, relax, have beers.”

Before the alcohol ban expired last year, a coalition of Indigenous and non-Indigenous organizations predicted that a sudden free flow of alcohol would lead to a sharp increase in crime. They called for the restrictions to be extended so that affected communities have time to develop individualized transition plans.

The predictions turned out to be correct. According to the Northern Territory Police, commercial burglaries, property damage, domestic violence-related assaults and alcohol-related assaults have all increased by around or more than 50% between 2021 and 2022. Australia does not break down crime data by race, but politicians and Indigenous groups themselves have attributed the increase largely to Indigenous people.

“It was an avoidable situation,” said Donna Ah Chee, chief executive of one such organization, the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress. “He it was Indigenous women, families and children who were paying the price,” she added.

The organization was among those calling for a resumption of the ban as an immediate step while long-term solutions were developed to tackle the underlying drivers of destructive consumption. Ms Ah Chee said she saw the policy as “positive discrimination” in protecting the most vulnerable.

What Indigenous leaders on all sides of the debate agreed on was that long-term strategies were needed to address the complex disadvantages facing Indigenous communities.

The problems in Alice Springs were caused by decades of not listening to Indigenous people, said William Tilmouth, an Indigenous elder. The answers, he added, would be found when “politicians and the public look beyond alcohol. What they will find are people with voice, strength and solutions waiting to be heard.

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