Drying out in Alice

September 10, 2006

A couple of weeks ago, here in Alice Springs, the bottle shops at Coles New World and Woolworth’s ran out of their last stocks of four-litre wine casks. Selling four-litre casks is interdicted now across all liquor outlets in Alice. You can only buy two-litre casks. And in a few weeks, from October 1st, you will only be able to buy one two-litre cask per person at any one time, and then only after 6 pm.

When you ask the bottle shop attendants why the restrictions have been imposed, they look at you in disbelief, then smile quietly and take your money without answering your question. “Must be a tourist”, you can see them thinking.

Of course everybody knows why the ban has been implemented. Drunken violence is epidemic in Alice, but only in a part of Alice — the Aboriginal community. Everyone here knows this, too. The ban, which applies to everyone, is the latest attempt to curb the violence.

One might ask — if the problem is limited almost entirely to Aboriginals, why not restrict the sale of cask wine to Aboriginals only, rather than inconvenience everyone? Answer: you can’t do it. It would be racist, discriminatory and contrary to fundamental human rights. Alice would be pilloried from pillar to post.

One might also ask — is this nonetheless not a return to the discredited paternalism of the past, when the whites forbade Aborigines’ access to liquor? Well …. discussions about indigenous issues in the big cities usually turn around this and similar abstract concepts: the background issues of colonial dispossession, self-determination, reconciliation, so forth. I can tell you these things mean almost nothing up here. All the familiar ideological and sociological arguments go out of the window somehow. The people who care have lives to save, and the need is pressing and urgent. It can’t wait while we determine the patterns in the wallpaper.

Something has to be done. Levels of violence against Aboriginal women and children are horrific — in the transients’ camps, in the old dry river bed that runs through the town, in the outlying desert communities. Nanette Rogers, Crown Prosecutor at Alice for 12 years, recently disclosed on the ABC’s Lateline program how horrifying they are. There are crimes here that I could not bring myself to describe to another person.

Every day on the streets here you see women walking like the dead, the living spark beaten out of them. Every day you see the children: straight as lances with marvellous smiles at the age of 10, bent and broken by violence and substance abuse at 20, and all too often dead at 30 or 40.

And every day, you see the slow cavalcade of human wrecks shuffle up from the bad end of town, heading for the bottle shops which open at 2 pm, buying their two- and four-litre casks and taking them back to their ruined houses or down to the Todd to drink and drink and drink until they’re senselessly, mindlessly, murderously drunk.

Every day in Alice Springs the heart breaks more, a little more. Or it becomes indifferent.

I say bring on the liquor bans, and let them be for all of us. It may work, it may not. But it might just mean that fewer Aboriginal women and children get raped and assaulted and murdered by drunken, predatory males, and fewer infants get bashed in utero, later to be born with deformities and disfigurements that will kill them before they reach puberty. For that, we should be able to put up with a lot more inconvenience than having to wait till six for our chateau cardboard.



  1. Well said, Rob. Glad to know you have a heart 🙂

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