ABC Online

AM - Labor and CLP in Northern Territory take hard line on anti-social behaviour

AM - Thursday, 16 June , 2005  08:28:00

Reporter: Tony Eastly

TONY EASTLEY: AM is this morning broadcasting from Darwin where on Saturday voters will go to the polls to decide whether to return Labor for another four years or give the Country Liberal Party a chance at government.

The single biggest issue here is law and order. If any party is taking the harder line, it's Labor, which is proposing a tough new anti-social behaviour act. It targets alcohol abuse and Labor says habitual drunks will accept treatment or they will face jail.

Alcohol abuse in the Top End is rife. Last year a total of 20,000 drunks each spent a night in the lockup before being released. The Country Liberal Party says it's got a policy of zero tolerance towards anti-social behaviour.

Aboriginal legal aid lawyers say it doesn't matter who wins on Saturday, because the policies of both parties will see more Aboriginal Australians put in jail, which should be an issue of national concern.

Already more than three quarters of those in jail in the Territory are Indigenous Australians.

The new legislation proposed by Labor casts a wide net and will affect Darwin's homeless people who are known locally as itinerants or long grassers - people who sleep rough in public areas. Most of them are Aborigines.

One organisation tries to provide help before the police are called in. I spent some time with them on a night patrol around Darwin.

JEFF PROSSER: It's Jeff Prosser, I'm the Services Manager for Mission Australia in Darwin, in their community initiative programs. We have the sobering up shelter, where intoxicated people are brought to a safe place to sober up. It's a 34-bed facility which looks after Darwin. When it's full both police and community patrols take the intoxicated people to the police cells.

TONY EASTLEY: A man has been spotted lying on the pavement close to a main road, and there's concern he could be in trouble.

MAN: Take me home… mum's place.

MISSION AUSTRALIA WORKER: We will. Hop in then. We'll take you home, first to your mum's.

TONY EASTLEY: He's put in the back of the van and taken off to sober up, and eventually ends up at the police watch house.

PETER GORDON: I can tell you now, what we're doing is not working, is it? We're continually getting this problem with problem drinkers causing a disturbance for the wider community.

TONY EASTLEY: Superintendent Peter Gordon is the policeman in charge of the Darwin area. He's worked around the Territory from Arnhem Land to the Tiwi Islands.

PETER GORDON: People that I know from (inaudible) 20 years ago are in town and they're habitual drunks. And I see them in my watch house every day. Now, they're here because they've been banned from their own club.

Why did they get banned from their own club? Because their behaviour was too extreme. You know, they were going home, assaulting their wives or they were getting involved in disturbances or you know, they caused a problem in the club so the club said we're not prepared to put up with your behaviour. So does that mean that the residents of Darwin have to?

TONY EASTLEY: And these are the same faces from 20 years ago?

PETER GORDON: Yeah - people that I locked up as drunks 20 years ago, 18-year-old men, are still getting locked up in the watch house here in Darwin, but they're getting locked up every night now.

TONY EASTLEY: Labor's new approach will not only see people put in the watch house overnight for drunkenness, but given jail terms if they refuse treatment.

Sharon Payne is the Director of the Territory's Aboriginal Legal Aid Service, and she's not impressed with either the Labor Party's or the CLP's policies.

SHARON PAYNE: The problem is, I think, that a lot of new comers to the game, certainly politicians who have become instant experts, don't understand all the ramifications of what they propose.

The Royal Commission into deaths in custody is still relevant today because people are still dying in custody and going into custody in increasing numbers, and a number of the anti-social policies that have been released where they indicate that they were going to re-criminalize public drunkenness, certainly show, I think, a retrograde step back to the 80's.

TONY EASTLEY: Sharon Payne says there are cultural reasons for people camping in the city.

SHARON PAYNE: White fellas tend to have places where they go to drink - they have homes to live in. A lot of our mob don't. They've been coming to this country for thousands of years - it's actually quite a natural thing for them to come in here and camp around the place and do business and then leave again.

TONY EASTLEY: But is it part of the way of life to get drunk in public, though. I mean, that seems to be the problem - not that they're actually coming into the city, but they are either drinking to excess or asking people for money?

SHARON PAYNE: Well again, I think it shows a fairly… it's a sad indictment on our society that we judge people so summarily for that sort of thing.

TONY EASTLEY: But if they're drinking to excess, fighting and using bad language, then lock them up?

SHARON PAYNE: Well, that is an offence. Assault is an offence. Offensive language is an offence, so we already have those on the books. But this is about just being drunk. It's not about being drunk and abusive, it's not about being drunk and violent. It's just about being drunk.

TONY EASTLEY: Just a couple of minutes walk from Sharon Payne's office is Darwin's mall - the retail centre of the city. Some of the shopkeepers here have been the most vocal in calling for a tougher approach to anti-social behaviour.

Lucy Dount (phonetic) runs a women's fashion store.

LUCY DOUNT: It's been such a problem for a long time, ever since we've basically been trading in the mall and I just feel that there's not enough done. I just think that it should be cleaned up and a hard tactic should be placed, and also I feel that the availability of alcohol in the vicinity of the mall is the biggest problem.

TONY EASTLEY: Superintendent Peter Gordon says he understands the concern.

PETER GORDON: You talk to the shop owners. A shop owner, he comes to work at 6 o'clock to get his café going, he's got three or four drunks or itinerants sleeping in his doorway because the wet season's arrived, it's a place of shelter because you couldn't sleep in a park in Darwin in the wet season. You'd probably drown just out in the open air, there's that much rain.

But these people are causing a problem for them - there's mess, there's defecating, they're leaving their rubbish behind. This guy's got to do half an hour's work before he can even start business.

TONY EASTLEY: So what do you do with those people at the moment?

PETER GORDON: We take them into… if they're drunk, we take them into protective custody. If they're not drunk, we ask them to move along. So we move them from one spot to the next.

TONY EASTLEY: And they end up doing the cycle again?

PETER GORDON: They end up doing the cycle again. You know, we could go and tell one person to move from that shop front tonight. The next day he's back there.

TONY EASTLEY: Back at the mall, the shops have shut. Many have brought down their protective shutters for the night. Three Aboriginal men are looking for somewhere to sleep. They've already been in police custody, and they're wary of spending another night in the watch house.

MAN 1: In Darwin City Police Watch House they just lie on a wooden floor, only one blanket, no pillow.

MAN 2: Bit cold. They give us only a blanket, that's all. And you sleep on the floor. I am not a dog.

TONY EASTLEY: Sharon Payne from the Legal Aid Service says the treatment of these people is a national disgrace.

SHARON PAYNE: The problem is, as a community, we are judged by how we treat the most vulnerable and disadvantaged groups. Human rights are not meant for the rich and the powerful, they're meant for the people who through no fault of their own often find themselves in this position.

As a society, as a community, the fact is in the Northern Territory, 30 per cent of the population is Aboriginal. So you're talking about a huge number of people up here.

TONY EASTLEY: Do you think people in the southern States especially, have any idea of what it is like to be an Aboriginal in the Northern Territory?

SHARON PAYNE: I think that the Aboriginals in the southern States might have some inkling, but certainly there is a sense of desperation, of dispiritedness.

The kind of hopelessness and helplessness that people here are manifesting, I think would shock a lot of people. I mean, they see people walking around here with their heads down, and chronically ashamed of being Aboriginal. That is the big message here, that if you're Aboriginal, you should be ashamed of it.

TONY EASTLEY: Sharon Payne, the head of the Northern Territory Aboriginal Legal Aid Service.

© 2005 Australian Broadcasting Corporation