A wave of alcohol-fuelled violence in a remote Australian town that has seen street fights with tomahawks and nurses beaten up is threatening to derail one of prime minister Anthony Albanese’s key election promises.
Last year, the Labour leader personally pledged to boost indigenous political participation by creating a constitutionally enshrined advisory group for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, a project known as The Voice. A referendum on the plan is set to be held later this year.
Critics say the project, which has been around since 2017, would be racially divisive and add more layers of bureaucracy instead of addressing the real problems of poverty, exclusion and unemployment faced by people descended from Australia’s first settlers.
Mr Albanese has been accused of failing to explain how it would work, how much it would cost and what the legal ramifications would be.
The arguments for and against The Voice have been turbo-charged by a recent Aboriginal-led crime wave that has brought fear and chaos to Alice Springs, a town in the heart of Australia’s red centre.
Local baker Darren Clark, whose shop has had 41 break-ins, said people are “very scared”.
“Last night there was a big fight in town where they came in using tomahawks, axes, hunting knives and steel rods,” he said. “The home invasions are brutal.”
800 people arrested
As he was talking to The Telegraph, he was handed a note about another attack – this time at a local McDonalds: “They are even robbing people in the drive-through now.”
The unrest was initially sparked by the lifting of a controversial alcohol ban directed at Aboriginal communities in town camps and remote communities in the Northern Territory last July, shortly after Mr Albanese took office. Ever since then, the number of assaults and burglaries has soared.
A government welfare card which could not be used to purchase alcohol was also abandoned, allowing people to access their cash without restriction.
As a result, young men from miles around have flooded into town to buy booze, with many turning to crime when their money runs out.
Last year, assaults in the town increased by 43 per cent, with alcohol-related assaults up by 54 per cent.
Around 800 people have been arrested in Alice Springs in the past eight weeks alone, according to Northern Territory Police Commissioner Jamie Chalker.
Located in central Australia about 450 km northeast of Uluru, a fifth of the citizens of Alice Springs are indigenous Australians.
‘No one’s coming here’
Mr Clark, 51, who has lived in Alice for 25 years, admitted he would leave town if he could.
“We’ve got nurses being beaten up, doctors being attacked and we’ve already got a shortage of health staff here,” he said.
“But I’m not going to be able to sell my business any time soon, because no one’s coming here.”
In the most recent break-in at his premises, thieves used a stolen car to ram-raid his shop. It cost him nearly £18,000 to repair.
Earlier this month, a local Woolworths was attacked by a 13-year-old wielding a machete. The store no longer opens after dark for security reasons.
Stories such as these have filled the Australian press over the past weeks, eventually forcing Mr Albanese on Tuesday to make a last-minute 1,500-mile journey from Canberra to meet local emergency personnel and officials.
The visit, which lasted just two hours and – perhaps for safety reasons – did not involve a street walk, ended with a decision to ban the purchase of takeaway booze on Mondays and Tuesdays starting on Monday and restrict sale times the rest of the week.
All Australians deserve to live in safe and healthy communities. I’m here in Alice Springs to meet with community groups, council, the NT Government and frontline services, to hear about the urgent challenges they’re facing. pic.twitter.com/ed2aa9IOs4
— Anthony Albanese (@AlboMP) January 24, 2023
Back in Canberra, Mr Albanese used the trip to plug the Voice project, campaigning around which will begin next month. “This is an opportunity…that I sincerely hope that Australia doesn’t miss,” he said.
The past week has seen opposition leader Peter Dutton accuse the Voice plan of being thin on details and call on Mr Albanese to “demonstrate to Australians how it can work”.
Many in Alice Springs think there are more immediate concerns.
“We are always having problems with drunk people causing issues and kids running around all hours of the night when they should be in bed,” said Owen Cole, the managing director of the town’s biggest shopping centre.
He is from the Luritja and Warramunga tribes and has fought for the rights of First Nations people for the past 40 years and wants to see more investment in local communities.
“People have had enough and they want the government to start taking some affirmative action to address the causes.”
Mr Clark agrees. “I don’t think [the Voice] will help,” he said. “People in remote communities haven’t heard of [it].”
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