Australia is obsessed with a ‘youth crime crisis’ in Alice Springs, but we risk ignoring the root problems

Australia is obsessed with a ‘youth crime crisis’ in Alice Springs, but we risk ignoring the root problems
  • PublishedApril 12, 2024

Alice Springs is entering its third week under a curfew designed to keep children off the street to stem a string of break-ins that had begun to unnerve the desert town.

Much has been said about this “emergency” measure being akin to a band-aid on a gaping wound.

The third week of this curfew signifies another tiny plaster being affixed over an injury so large it will take decades to heal.

The response to the curfew has been mixed.

Some residents want it to be in place indefinitely.

It underlines the seriousness of the situation to see some Aboriginal organisations support the curfew as a temporary circuit-breaker, although some do so reluctantly.

For others — including the lawyers who represent Aboriginal kids in court on a daily basis — this is a damaging knee-jerk reaction.

Despite its size, Alice Springs has long been a political plaything over the “problems” that arise from decades of policy disasters that have failed to lift black communities out of extreme poverty that the United Nations once described as worse than “Third World” nations.

The Australian media is obsessed with crime, a “crisis” and “law and order”.

But scores of Aboriginal leaders who are experts in children and families will tell you that crime is just one symptom of the intractable tragedies you see unfolding in Central Australia.

Usually the headlines shouting “crisis” refer to the tip of the iceberg — not the greater danger which lies beneath, the other slow-burn crises that are harder to see.

I say “danger” because First Nations communities face serious long-term harm if governments and the media continue to obsess over one facet of a crisis and not all the other threads that go under-reported.

For example, it’s had scant mention in much of the media coverage, but the very real crisis of Australia’s first people living destitute on their own lands is something a curfew cannot confront.

Children in Alice Springs and remote communities should not be growing up in dilapidated housing with  no air conditioning, contaminated drinking water and living under food insecurity.

But that’s the reality in one of the richest countries on Earth in 2024.

The crime obsession masks unspoken, ongoing traumas

Crime — and the influx of children into jails and the criminal justice system — might be the visible trauma in town, but there are many others that First Nations leaders argue go drastically underfunded.

The shocking, unacceptable deaths of dozens of Aboriginal mothers, for example. Or the long-term impacts of The Intervention on families in Central Australia, which some research suggests, led to a drop in school attendance and birth weight.

Many of the teenagers who have broken into houses and businesses over the past few years in Alice Springs are the children of The Intervention.

These kids have grown up under heated political debates over alcohol policy, hand-wringing about over-crowded housing, income management and forced school attendance.

Why, given all the billions spent in Central Australia, are youth workers still saying they have few resources to get kids back in connection with their country and off the street?

In an election year, when few newsrooms in Australia employ any Indigenous reporters, we’re probably unlikely to hear too much about these other crises.

Which is a great shame. We are left wondering what could have been achieved if there had been serious, sustained interest in policy forged by listening to Aboriginal youth workers, women and elders.

Declaring that “parents need to take responsibility” might feel like an easy answer, but politicians continue to be responsible for decisions that have been blundered over decades and decades.

The truth is that, tragically, a lot of Aboriginal families have had parental responsibility stripped from them — in fact, entire Indigenous communities have had limited power over the policies that affect them.

The decimation of Aboriginal societies and the broken and unequal relationship between governments and Indigenous communities is the most complex question of our time.

Unless we grapple with that, the nation can pre-book another “Alice Springs in crisis” and another one and another one.


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