The Northern Territory government has told alcohol retailers in the troubled central Australian town of Alice Springs they need to limit grog sales to help put a lid on spiralling harms, street crime and family violence, or it will step in and toughen up the laws.
The NT police minister, Kate Worden, issued the ultimatum after meeting with the town’s social order response team (SORT), made up of police, local council, business and community leaders, on Friday.
Federal and local authorities also held crisis talks on Thursday over the escalating wave of crime and violence in the town, after the Alice Springs mayor, Matt Paterson, called for the army to be brought in to take control. Paterson said the NT was “due for a heavy-handed response”.
NT police statistics show that reported property offences jumped by almost 60% over the past 12 months, while assaults had increased by 38% and domestic violence assaults by 48%.
But on Friday the NT government stopped short of instituting tougher restrictions on the sale of alcohol, saying it wanted retailers to self-regulate.
“Our primary focus was to talk to those takeaway alcohol retailers to see how they can contribute to making Alice Springs a safer place to live,” Worden told Guardian Australia.
Coles and Woolworths have already removed one-litre bottles of spirits from their shelves, but Worden said all retailers needed to do their part.
If they could not “come to the table” with self-regulation, the government would step in.
Worden said the government could set individual purchase limits and restrict trading hours, and could also extend the banned drinkers register, a territory-wide list of people who are prohibited from buying takeaway alcohol, to include on-premises bans. Around 800 people have been added to the register in Alice Springs in recent weeks.
Local Aboriginal community organisations say alcohol-related harms have risen dramatically since Intervention-era bans on alcohol in remote Aboriginal communities came to an end in mid-2022, when liquor became legal in some communities for the first time in 15 years.
Worden was critical of the stronger futures legislation as a federal government policy that “infantilised Aboriginal Australians”, but denied its sudden end in July had caused the current social unrest in central Australia.
She said tensions had flared since Christmas, when “a large group” of people from 11 different communities became stranded in Alice Springs, unable to get home because of severe flooding. A number of communities remain inaccessible.
“We were seeing an increase in dysfunction within families and alcohol was a very, very big driving causational factor,” Worden said. “It’s quite clear that 90% of those offences and 90% of those people out and about are not from Alice Springs itself.”
Michael Liddle, a Alyawarre man and Alice Springs councillor from central Australia and senior mens cultural lead with the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress health service, said alcohol laws needed to be stronger.
Liddle said that too often young people and children were on the streets, getting into trouble and turning to crime because families were struggling and the children lacked supervision.
“Mum and dad are gone – if there is a mum and dad – or it’s a grandpa and nana … and so the kids are just free to do what they like, so off they go,” Liddle said.
Relying on elders and older community members for solutions was important, he said, but it was vital that everyone worked together to address the underlying reasons.
He said tackling alcohol-related harm was an industry-wide problem and that governments and retailers needed to ensure public wellbeing and safety.
“They all have to show leadership and I am certain they will because who wants to be linked with an alcohol service, supplying alcohol to the people that create domestic violence, sexual abuse and all the other problems that alcohol brings into Alice Springs?” Liddle said.
Escalating tensions have also led to concerns about the potential for vigilante-style behaviour. Worden said social media had fuelled those views. Two local TikTok accounts with around 200,000 followers had been shut down due to inappropriate content, she said, and other materials had been reported to the e-safety commissioner.
“Certain social media pages have a lot to answer for really. They’re doing more damage than any single child who smashes a window,” Worden said.