Racial Profiling And The Issue Of Alcohol In Central Australia

The laws on alcohol purchase in Central Australia are racist and discriminatory. Simmering social unrest is a natural response.

By Marlene Hodder
Monday, October 20, 2014

The Northern Territory Intervention did untold damage by labelling all Aboriginal people in the 73 ‘prescribed communities’ in the NT as alcoholics and child abusers, and the huge blue and white signs erected at the entrance to each of the living areas stating “No Liquor No Pornography” emphasised this stigma. 

Most of the communities and some of the town camps had been ‘dry’ areas through community initiative and consensus decision-making prior to 2007.  The repressive NTER (Intervention) laws (compulsory leasing of land, undermining of organisations and local autonomy with the imposition of statutory regulations and government business managers, income management controlling how and where people could spend their social security entitlements) was compounded by the NT Government abolishing community councils and introducing a shire system of local government which crossed tribal boundaries and saw a huge increase in the exodus of people from communities to the major centres.

This all led to the inevitable increase in social problems — youth on the streets and up to mischief, overcrowded housing, petty crime, an increase in alcohol consumption, domestic violence and so on.

The Stronger Futures laws were enacted in 2012 after tokenistic consultations with some communities and groups. Alcohol was raised as a major issue but no-one asked for repressive, punitive and racist solutions. Both the NTER and Stronger Futures laws include Alcohol Management Plans. Some communities have undergone the long process of devising appropriate plans for their areas more than once but to date these have not been approved by the federal minister(s).  In fact the current Minister for Indigenous Affairs was vague on the details of where those plans were at when questioned in Parliament recently. 

In the meantime the Northern Territory Government is fulfilling its election promise to ‘get tough on crime’. This has included more police on the streets in Alice Springs, a targeting of youth, the establishment of mandatory rehabilitation centres and the criminalising of chronic alcoholics. The new government scrapped the ALP’s Banned Drinkers’ Register which was at least non-racist in its implementation with all purchasers of alcohol being asked to provide identification.

In recent times, the town has seen racial vilification and racial profiling taking place at all liquor outlets. Offensive sandwich boards and/or posters are displayed and Aboriginal customers are asked to show identification. If they cannot prove they will not be drinking in a restricted area, they are not allowed to purchase alcohol or, if they have already done so, their alcohol is confiscated. If you are an Aboriginal person from interstate with no local ID, you are unable to purchase alcohol. 

Sometimes the police ask for ID from everyone in a random effort to appear non-racist but in the main Aboriginal people are targeted even if just shopping for groceries or other items. People find it offensive when they are stopped and searched, when they have to wait whilst their details are radioed through to the police station, when they are questioned continually. They feel shame and humiliation.

Aboriginal people know they are being targeted. They know the laws are discriminatory. Workers who live in town camps are particularly outraged that they cannot have a drink after work in their own homes. 

The police claim that the laws are working, that crime and assault figures are down. However, the contradiction is that (according to local media) domestic violence is on the increase. It is difficult to analyse the vague information which is released on a piece-meal basis. Are crime rates down because so many Aboriginal people are now in jail?  Is domestic violence increasing because many people are angry and frustrated at the way they are being treated and are hitting out at the ones closest to them?

Information on the outcome from mandatory alcohol rehabilitation is also difficult to access. If arrested three times for an alcohol-related offence, people are forced into an alcohol rehabilitation institution (with little explanation or legal representation). If a person absconds three times from this institution they can be sent to jail. There is little public discussion or information available on this issue although two people have appealed their mandatory rehabilitation and won, due to inadequate consultation processes. 

Recent times have seen actions at bottle shops against racial profiling and racial vilification, and also large community protests. People are concerned and angry at the liberties being taken by police in the treatment of family members and particularly their young people. There is a simmering social unrest in this town and, considering the Aboriginal population is increasing rapidly and significantly, it should be cause for grave concern for the community and all levels of government.