Pressure is growing on the Northern Territory government to ban alcohol sales in Alice Springs in an attempt to restore law and order to the troubled town.
The NT government had flagged limits on grog sales to help put a lid on spiraling harm, street crime and family violence.
But on Friday the NT government stopped short of instituting tougher restrictions on the sale of alcohol, saying it wanted retailers to self-regulate.
Federal politicians and community leaders are calling on the NT government to do more to help restore order and safety to the town.
Medical experts say crime and antisocial behavior are being driven by increased access to alcohol, while Labor’s federal member for the region has now called for tighter restrictions on alcohol sales.
Dr John Boffa, from the People’s Alcohol Action Coalition and chief medical officer at the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress, said increased alcohol was behind much of the unrest.
“This was something that was predicted,” Dr Boffa said.
Alcohol-related harms have increased dramatically since the Intervention-era bans on alcohol in remote Aboriginal communities came to an end in July, when liquor became legal in some communities for the first time in 15 years and others were able to purchase takeaway alcohol without restriction.
“A range of Aboriginal organizations wrote to governments warning them that if this legislation was to simply allow it to lapse, that we would see the sort of crisis we’re seeing now and unfortunately, it’s happened,” Boffa said.
NT police statistics show that reported property attacks jumped by almost 60% over the past 12 months, while assaults increased by 38% and domestic violence assaults were up 48%.
Boffa supported calls from Indigenous leaders for restrictions to be reintroduced.
“We were living in what most people would see as a normal town. Now we’re seeing back on the streets, back in the riverbed, back in the scrub people who’ve come to town who was squatting in Alice drinking to get drunk,” he said.
“We’re seeing women being beaten on the streets in front of our faces. We’re seeing the trauma that was there to come back again.”
“People are shocked at what’s happening, it’s unacceptable.”
He rejected the notion that reinstating restrictions was “racist”.
“What we’re talking about is an additional form of regulation that was highly effective. I think it’s way too simplistic to just label it as racist,” he said.
The Indigenous MP for Lingiari, Labor’s Marion Scrymgour, told Radio 3AW that debates about the voice to parliament were dominating discussions in urban areas, but in Alice Springs there were more urgent problems to address.
“The voice couldn’t be further from people’s view up here … because people are under siege in their own homes,” Scrymgour said.
Scrymgour was critical of the state government for moving to optional alcohol bans after the federal legislation ended last year.
“The Northern Territory government did nothing to put in place its own legislation and what they did instead was to bring in a policy for communities to opt in, so at the moment it’s all open slather,” she said.
Over the weekend NT police suspended the alcohol licensing of two retailers in a troubled town over fears of community safety.
Acting police commander Mark Grieve said in a statement that a 48-hour ban on takeaway alcohol sales was imposed over the weekend “after extensive investigations into the responsible service of alcohol. The police are satisfied that the actions of this licensee constitute an ongoing threat to public safety in the area.”
NT police said alcohol-related harm was a “catalyst” for complex issues facing the community.
“Domestic violence, property crime, road incidents and antisocial behavior are all frequent symptoms of this wide-ranging problem,” Grieve said.
The federal opposition leader, Peter Dutton, has said the NT as a more pressing concern regarding Indigenous affairs than the voice to parliament, calling for federal intervention in a press conference on Monday.
Dutton also said the issue was beyond the resources of the NT Government with the Files government strongly rejecting the comments in a statement to Guardian Australia.
NT Chief Minister Natasha Fyles said the government acknowledged alcohol related harms as one of its “biggest challenges” and said it was tackling the issue through a suite of measures, including a banned drinkers register, and through funding for alcohol treatment and family and sexual violence prevention services.
“The Federal Intervention was tried in 2007 – it did not work then and it will not work now. It targeted and empowered Aboriginal Territorians and entrenched disadvantage, rather than improving it,” she said.