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Northern Territory

Jul 29, 2009

Racism is a blanket in Alice Springs

Alice Springs town council is proposing a range of new powers; all pointed to one end: tackling anti-social behaviour. Except, it includes throwing out blankets used by homeless people...

Chris Graham

Tracker managing editor

News emerged from Alice Springs this week of new by-laws being floated by the local Town Council, aimed at tackling anti-social behaviour.

My personal favourite is the one that allows council rangers to dispose of stuff they find around the town. Stuff which they reasonably believe to be abandoned. Stuff like … blankets used by homeless people.

In Alice today, it’s standard practice for the homeless (also known as “Aboriginal people”) to store their blankets somewhere in public (in some bushes, for example) during the day, and then collect them again in the evening, in preparation for a cold Alice night where temperatures can drop well below zero in winter.

As it stands, it’s already routine for local rangers to seize the blankets — they wander about in the morning and collect them from bushes and wherever else the homeless have stashed them. But by law, the rangers are not allowed to dispose of the blankets, so instead they’re dropped off at Tangentyere Council. Inevitably, the blankets are collected again later that day and re-utilized by the homeless that night.

It’s a merry game the local council plays. The practice is meant to make life as uncomfortable as possible for Aboriginal people (as though sleeping in the freezing outdoors weren’t already uncomfortable enough). But under the proposed new by-laws, rangers would be able to throw the blankets away. Nice.

The proposed new powers don’t stop there. The council is also aiming to stop camping on the Todd River, where a lot of homeless Aboriginal people congregate. They presumably share the council’s desire that they do otherwise. Most people don’t sleep in a freezing river bed by choice. They do so because they have nowhere else to go.

Then there’s the proposed law to fine people for begging. Basically you can be fined if you’re caught “soliciting” from someone in the Alice Springs town limits.

Why do people beg? Because they have no money. And how do we stop it? By issuing them a fine for $130. And can they pay it? Of course not, at least not without begging a bit more. And then we fine them again. And eventually, they go to jail for non-payment of fines. No need to beg in prison, where in the Northern Territory, the population is already 83% black. It’s pretty unlikely that outlawing begging among a dirt poor population is going to help reduce it.

Russell Goldflam, Principal Legal officer for the Alice Springs office of the Northern Territory Legal Aid Commission has written a submission to council about the proposed laws. He notes that the Alice Springs Council is seeking to give itself powers that far exceed even those of the Northern Territory police.

For example, Goldflam notes the council wants to empower its rangers to demand identification from local residents. NT police are allowed, in certain circumstances, to demand a person’s name and address, but not date of birth. Council rangers will be able to demand the whole kit and kaboodle. Council is also proposing to extend its powers to make only certain types of identification acceptable. Again, a power NT police do not enjoy.

Under the proposed by-laws, the Council is seeking to make it illegal to stage a protest without council permission. The laws go so far as to make it illegal for “a group or even [an] individual” to behave in a way “apparently intended to publicise that person’s view about anything” Goldflam notes.

It gets worse. Under the heading, “Other Activities”, Goldflam says the Council is seeking to empower itself to “declare that any activity whatsoever ‘within, on, under or over a public place’ requires a Council permit”.

Many of the by-laws also replicate existing laws, such as by-law 53, which proposes to make it illegal to urinate and defecate in public, as though it isn’t already.

But why would anyone defecate in public in Alice Springs? Well, it might have something to do with the fact that the two major shopping centres in town — the Alice Plaza and the Yeperenye Shopping Centre — have introduced pay toilets; a measure designed to stop poor blackfellas coming in to use them.

And just in case, both centres have also placed a ban on people entering without shoes. That was introduced to stop poor blackfellas coming in. Period.

What I’m wondering is why anyone is even surprised by all this.

It is, after all, the same part of the world that in March 2008 saw a group of Aboriginal people asked to leave an Alice Springs hostel because tourists had complained about their “scary appearance”. The blackfellas were young leaders, hand-picked by their community of Yuendumu to attend a Royal Life Saving Society course, prior to the opening of their local pool. It’s the same Territory where black males are jailed at a rate almost five times greater than that practised by South Africa during the Apartheid era.

It’s the same Territory where, earlier this year, a video emerged of a drunk Aboriginal man — Chappy — who was made to dance by a police officer and sing By the rivers of Babylon, before he was arrested for public drunkenness. Chappy is based in Katherine, somewhat north of Alice. The policemen captured it all on his videophone, and then posted it on YouTube. It complete is easily one of the most degrading videos I’ve ever seen.

I think, therefore, it’s official. Alice Springs — and the Northern Territory generally — has every right to be seen as a racist backwater.

And where is all this heading, you might ask? Well, over the weekend, a four-wheel drive containing a group of about four or five white males drove through two of the itinerant camps on the dry Todd River bed which the council is seeking to close down.

Later that morning, the body of a black male was discovered. He had reportedly been walking alone on a nearby street. Police are seeking any information on the occupants of the vehicle, but are remaining tight-lipped about the motive, fearing an escalation of violence.

That certainly won’t do anything to enhance the reputation of Alice Springs, and nor will the by-laws, as noted by Russell Goldflam. He described the proposed anti-begging laws as liable to “promote the reputation of Alice Springs as an uncaring and inhumane community”.

With the greatest of respect, I’d suggest the horse has already bolted on that front.

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33 comments

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33 thoughts on “Racism is a blanket in Alice Springs

  1. Jim Reiher

    What a depressing report. When will this kind of racism ever stop in this country? Why is it that nothing seems to ever be done? Rudd is proving to be useless when it comes to the NT and race relations. Macklin is floundering at every turn. Howard’s crap still reigns there. And now this.

    My memory of something good seems to be fading. What seems like a long time ago: Sorry day. It was a great day. We thought it was the start of good things ahead. Better times. Sadly it was just words.

  2. stephen martin

    Yes, I read this nonsense in this mornings NT News, my first impression was that the Council was probably exceeding their powers in much of the proposal. And as noted the some is a duplication of legislation already promulgated. And yes, I loved the proposal to fine people with no money – brilliant.
    We really have some star attractions in local councils up here. Darwin City Council for example .Aldermen accepted 70 free tickets each from the circus in lieu of rent payable for the circus site. Some might call this misappropriation of rate payers funds. Oh and the previous mayor of Darwin managed to go to jail for stealing from the council!

  3. Georgina Smith

    Chris thank you so much for writing this, and Crikey thanks for posting it.

    This is appalling! I knew the plight of Aboriginals in this country was pretty rough, but this is just pathetic. As a white Aussie I’m ashamed. I confess I’ve never paid much attention to the issue before, but this article has really made me sit up and pay attention.

    The attitude on display here seems to be “why won’t you all just p*ss off and die?”

    If the Alice Springs Council is reading this, take note – I and my tourist dollars will never come to your sh*tty town if this is the best you can pull off. I’m disgusted at such a reprehensible and snivelling set of actions, and I’ll be telling my friends what you’re up to.

  4. Georgina Smith

    If you don’t like what you read here, email the Council’s mayor, Damien Ryan, on dryan@astc.nt.gov.au. I have.

  5. Liz45

    Thanks again Chris for such an informative article. Like Georgina I’m ashamed! I had such hope when the Rudd Government was elected; and watched the Apology with black and white people in my local area – I like many others was moved to tears – it was a wonderful day, and the stories and discussions on the 7.30Report for the whole week were moving and challenging. And now? Sadness, regret and great shame. This is just too despicable for words!
    I’m going to investigate the possibility of sending an email to this revolting group of individuals at the Alice Springs Town Council! If not, I’ll send a letter!
    Georgina, Steven and Jim, you’ve said it all! I agree totally!

  6. Mark Duffett

    Much of what Chris Graham writes of here is indeed reprehensible, or at best ham-fisted. But I think tarring the shopping centres as racist is a bit harsh. Surely they’re not in the business of providing public toilets (weren’t some new ones built only a couple of blocks away on the banks of the Todd?)?. And am I right in thinking that Yeperenye is still majority-owned by Aboriginal-controlled Centrecorp?

  7. jungarrayi

    There has always been racism in Alice Springs ever since it got its new name, and it’s not been exclusively white people that have been racist. There have also been many people (black and white) that have treated each other with respect and dignity. It doesn’t make a headline: “Today many black and white people in the Northern Territory got on great!”
    What is not made obvious in the article is that a decade of conservative dog-whistling politics (the appropiation of Pauline Hanson’s agenda by the Howard government) followed by the King and Queen of spin (Kevin Rudd & Jenny Macklin) has resulted in a significant increase in overt racism.
    The playing of the “race card” in NT politics at every election is not much help either.
    It’s been over two years since Mal Brough declared that Aboriginal communities were dysfunctional depraved cesspits with paedophyle-rings, flooded by “rivers of grog” and reigned over by “pornography barons” (this one comes from Tony Abbott- a member of the now in opposition cheer squad).
    The result of the Intervention is that the racists have come out of the closet. The message from the authorities is that Aborigines are to be pitied or despised depending on your inclination. The urban drift has accelerated noticeably and is partly driven by what I call “Income Management refugees” as well as families hanging about Alice Springs to visit their husbands and fathers in gaol or watch their Football heroes (yes, they’ve stolen our former bush games from us!). As most “bush” Aborigines don’t stand much of a chance at getting the so called “real jobs” (promised by Mal Brough) there is nothing better to do than to get on the grog thereby re-inforcing the racist stereotype and further “justifying” racist attitudes which are often responded to in kind.
    Thank you Pauline Hanson. Thank you John Howard. Thank you Mal Brough. Thank you Tony Abbott. Thank you Kevin Rudd. Thank you Jenny Macklin. Walkanji-patu.

  8. Liz45

    If you put Alice Springs Town Council into your search engine, you can click on ‘contact’ and send a message objecting to this blatant act of racism. I’ve just done that!

  9. cdmeares

    Interesting to know that Alice Springs Cinema is refusing to show Samson & Delilah. Says a lot I think. Censorship is alive and well.

  10. Jason Bryce

    Chris Graham has a slightly disturbing habit of throwing the racism word around a lot.

    Alice Springs isn’t that bad a town and most people there are not racist at all.

    This is a town, like many in outback Australia, that is trying (pretty unsuccessfully) to deal with a myriad of social problems. But that doesn’t mean the council, the shopping centres ( one of them is owned by an Aboriginal corporation) and the people there are racist.

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