Geoff Shaw cracked open a beer, savoring the simple freedom of having a drink on his porch on a sweltering Saturday morning in mid-February in Australia’s remote Northern Territory.
“For 15 years, I couldn’t buy a beer,” said Mr. Shaw, a 77-year-old Aboriginal elder in Alice Springs, the territory’s third-largest town. “I’m a Vietnam veteran, and I couldn’t even buy a beer.”
Mr. Shaw lives in what the government has deemed a “prescribed area,” an Aboriginal town camp where from 2007 until last year it was illegal to possess alcohol, part of a set of extraordinary raced-based interventions into the lives of Indigenous Australians.
Last July, the Northern Territory let the alcohol ban expire for hundreds of Aboriginal communities, calling it racist. But little had been done in the intervening years to address the communities’ severe underlying disadvantage. Once alcohol flowed again, there was an explosion of crime in Alice Springs widely attributed to Aboriginal people. Local and federal politicians reinstated the ban late last month. And Mr. Shaw’s taste of freedom ended.
From the halls of power in the nation’s capital to ramshackle outback settlements, the turmoil in the Northern Territory has revived hard questions that are even older than Australia itself, about race and control and the open wounds of discrimination.
For those who believe that the country’s largely white leadership should not dictate the decisions of Aboriginal people, the alcohol ban’s return replicates the effects of colonialism and disempowers communities. Others argue that the benefits, like reducing domestic violence and other harms to the most vulnerable, can outweigh the discriminatory effects.
For Mr. Shaw, the restrictions are simply a distraction — another Band-Aid for communities that, to address problems at their roots, need funding and support and to be listened to.
“They had nothing to offer us,” he said. “And they had 15 years to sort this out.”
The liquor restrictions prohibit anyone who lives in Aboriginal town camps on the outskirts of Alice Springs, as well as those in more remote Indigenous communities, from buying takeaway alcohol. The town itself is not included in the ban, though Aboriginal people there often face more scrutiny in trying to buy liquor.
One recent day at Uncle’s Tavern, in the center of Alice Springs, patrons — almost all of them non-Indigenous — drank beneath palm trees strung with lights. In the town of 25,000, it seemed as if everyone had a friend, relative or neighbor who had been the victim of an assault, a break-in or property destruction.
As night fell, Aboriginal people who walked the otherwise empty streets were separated from the pub’s patrons by a fence with tall black bars, like something out of a prison. Sometimes, those outside pressed up against the bars; children asked for money for food, and adults for cigarettes or alcohol. The pub’s gate was open, but there were unspoken barriers to entry for the people outside.
Many Aboriginal people travel into town for basic services from the remote communities where they live, in conditions more akin to those of a developing country. Some Indigenous leaders in and around Alice Springs attribute the spike in crime to these visitors.
In the daytime, they were often the only people sitting in public spaces, with nowhere to go to escape the blistering heat. One Aboriginal visitor to Alice Springs, Gloria Cooper, said she had traveled hundreds of miles for medical treatment and was camping in a nearby dry creek bed because she couldn’t afford a place to stay on her welfare income.
“Lots of people in the creek,” she said. “Lots of children.”
The roots of the 15-year alcohol ban were a national media firestorm that erupted in 2006 over a handful of graphic and highly publicized allegations of child sexual abuse in the Northern Territory.
Many of the allegations were later found to be baseless. But just months before a federal election, the conservative prime minister at the time used them to justify a draconian set of race-based measures. Among them were the alcohol restrictions, along with mandatory income management for welfare recipients and restrictions on Indigenous people’s rights to manage land that they owned.
Now, the debate has flared up again at another politically charged moment, as Australia begins to discuss constitutionally enshrining a “voice to Parliament” — an Indigenous body that would advise on policies that affect Aboriginal communities.
Opponents have used the Alice Springs debate to argue that the proposal distracts from practical issues facing Indigenous communities. Supporters say that such a body would have allowed more consultation with affected residents and prevented the problem from escalating.
Indigenous leaders say that the roots of the dysfunction in their communities run deep. A lack of job opportunities has left poverty entrenched, which in turn has exacerbated family violence. Soaring Indigenous incarceration rates have left parents locked away and children adrift. Government controls on Aboriginal people’s lives, imposed without consultation, have bred resentment and hopelessness. Add alcohol to the mix, and the problems only mount.
“We’ve never had our own choice and decision making, our lives have been controlled by others,” said Cherisse Buzzacott, who works to improve Indigenous families’ health literacy. Because of this, she added, those in the most disadvantaged communities “don’t have belief changes can change; they don’t have hope.”
Some Indigenous leaders oppose the alcohol ban on these grounds, arguing that it continues the history of control of Aboriginal communities. Others say that their own contributions to the community show why blanket bans are unfair.
“Some of my mob, some are workers and some are just sitting down, haven’t got a job,” said Benedict Stevens, the president of the Hidden Valley town camp, using a colloquial term for an Aboriginal group. “And what I’m saying is it wouldn’t be fair for us workers to not be able to go back home during the weekends, relax, have some beers.”
Before the alcohol ban expired last year, a coalition of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal organizations predicted that a sudden free flow of alcohol would produce a sharp rise in crime. They called for the restrictions to be extended so affected communities could have time to develop individualized transition plans.
The predictions proved accurate. According to the Northern Territory police, commercial breaks-ins, property damage, assaults related to domestic violence and alcohol-related assaults all rose by about or by more than 50 percent from 2021 to 2022. Australia does not break down crime data by race, but politicians and Aboriginal groups themselves have attributed the increase largely to Indigenous people.
“This was a preventable situation,” said Donna Ah Chee, the chief executive of one of these organizations, the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress. “It was Aboriginal women, families and children that were actually paying the price,” she added.
The organization was among those that called for a resumption of the ban as an immediate step while long-term solutions were developed to address the underlying drivers of destructive drinking. Ms. Ah Chee said she considered the policy to be “positive discrimination” in protecting those most vulnerable.
What Indigenous leaders on all sides of the debate agreed on was that long-term strategies were needed to address the complex disadvantages facing Indigenous communities.
The problems in Alice Springs were caused by decades of failing to listen to Indigenous people, said William Tilmouth, an Aboriginal elder. The answers, he added, would be found when “politicians and the public looked beyond the alcohol. What they will find is people with voice, strength and solutions waiting to be heard.”