Australia will limit the sale of alcohol and consider wider bans to control spiralling alcohol-fuelled violence in a central region, in the run-up to a referendum on Indigenous recognition that is shining a light on deep social divisions.
The new rules in the town of Alice Springs, 2,000 km northwest of Sydney, and the surrounding region, mean that the sale of takeaway alcohol will be restricted on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday and sales will be reduced on other days.
A fifth of the citizens of Alice Springs are Indigenous.
Community leaders across Australia have long identified alcohol abuse as a huge factor behind violence and health problems.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who met politicians, police and community leaders in Alice Springs earlier on Tuesday, said the steps on alcohol had to be seen in a broader context.
“Today’s decisions are in the context of the gap that exists in health outcomes, housing outcomes, life expectancy, incarceration rates between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians,” Albanese told a news conference.
Albanese said a report due on Feb. 1 would consider legal changes including moving to a situation where communities would need to opt out of alcohol bans.
Australia will hold a landmark referendum late this year on recognising Indigenous Australians in the constitution and creating a permanent “Voice” to parliament that would be consulted on Indigenous issues.
Albanese has staked much political capital on a “Yes” vote in a country that has only passed eight referendums since independence.
“What a Voice to parliament will do is to have a representative body that is able to advocate and give advice to parliament and to government,” he said.
Sceptics are calling for more detail on the proposed changes, with some using the violence to argue the government should prioritise practical steps over constitutional change.
Domestic violence, assaults and property damage in Alice Springs rose between 43% and 60% in the 12 months to November 2022, according to the latest crime statistics from the territory government. There were 2,653 assaults over the period in a town of roughly 25,000.
Northern Territory Police Commissioner Jamie Chalker told ABC radio on Tuesday that violence had risen since laws restricting alcohol consumption ended last July.
The laws trace back to 2007 when the then-government sent soldiers and police into the territory to combat rampant violence and sexual abuse.
“There’s a lot of symptoms here that are showing that there is some clear structural problems … but the consumption of alcohol and that broader impact on our health services are undeniable,” Chalker said.