Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has pledged to respond as soon as possible to the alcohol-fuelled social emergency in Alice Springs, as he awaits the findings of a snap report that will consider whether liquor bans should be reimposed on Indigenous communities.
Albanese made an urgent visit to Alice Springs last week amid a spiralling crime crisis and appointed a Central Australian Regional Controller, Dorrelle Anderson, to report to the federal and territory governments by Wednesday about best options for addressing the situation and on whether alcohol bans with opt-out provisions should be reinstated.
But his commitment to quick action contrasted with the response by NT Chief Minister Natasha Fyles, who urged against “knee-jerk” announcements in response to Anderson’s report.
By Wednesday afternoon Albanese said he was still awaiting delivery of the report, but was prepared to act immediately in line with its findings.
“If there are recommendations which suggest immediate action, then I’m certainly up for it,” Albanese said during a press conference in Perth.
“I want to act as soon as possible. I want not to delay, but I also understand that some of these issues are intergenerational. They are not easy, off-the-shelf solutions. It is not just about alcohol. It is about employment, about service delivery, about getting staff on the ground.”
Albanese said he would discuss the report with Fyles when they meet in Canberra on Thursday ahead of meeting of the national cabinet. Earlier on Wednesday, Fyles, who has advocated for holding ballots in every town camp to determine support for future alcohol restrictions, said longer-term solutions were needed.
“People would appreciate that we are not taking a knee-jerk reaction, that we are working through this thoroughly with the Commonwealth government,” she said.
Asked whether her government would support any recommendation by Anderson to reinstate alcohol bans that expired under federal legislation in July, Fyles said the option was “on the table”. However, she characterised it as a big legislative step that could conflict with racial discrimination laws.
She said temporary stop-gap measures imposed last week – which included restrictions on the sales of takeaway alcohol in Alice Springs – had already made a difference.
“I have been briefed by police and they have seen that difference on the ground. But that is a short-term solution to provide respite to the community. We need to have long-term measures that allow us to have a safer community,” she said.
NT Labor Senator Malarndirri McCarthy said while alcohol was not the only problem in communities it was a “real scourge” across the NT, and ballots did not provide the immediate circuit breaker that communities needed. She said pressure must be applied to the NT government to pass laws to ensure communities could be dry.
“I know in my conversations with the chief minister and with the attorney general of the Northern Territory that I’ve expressed that, so I do believe that other steps can be taken immediately right now,” she told ABC TV.
Escalating violent crime has ravaged the central Australian town and surrounding areas after the federal laws restricting alcohol in some communities were allowed to lapse, and the NT government moved to an opt-in model that required communities to apply to continue alcohol prohibition.
It became a focal point of national debate in recent weeks after Alice Springs mayor Matt Paterson pleaded for federal intervention, and Opposition Leader Peter Dutton seized on the crisis to draw a contrast between the law and order challenges requiring immediate resources and the government’s focus on the Voice to parliament referendum.
Paterson said the town was at breaking point and needed help.
“We can’t continue to live the way that we’re living and feel like prisoners in our own home,” he told Nine’s Today Show.
“It’s getting awfully difficult to live here. You have people who are scared to go to bed at night because they’re not sure what’s going to happen whilst they’re asleep.”
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