ALICE SPRINGS NEWS,
March 25, 1998

CHAMBER OF COMMERCE TO TAKE PULSE OF ALICE ECONOMY. Report by ERWIN CHLANDA.

An ongoing survey monitoring the town's major business activities is being planned by the Alice Springs branch of the NT Chamber of Commerce and Industry, according to its chairman, Eric Neil.He says he hopes to periodically collect data on wholesaling, retailing, the motor industry, the accommodation sector and real estate, so that trends up or down from a set benchmark could be identified.Details from the wholesaling industry alone would not give a reliable picture about shopping trends because the big supermarkets bring in their own supplies. Retail appears to be down but there are no conclusive facts.Mr Neil says the chamber, which this Friday and Saturday is sponsoring Expo 1998 in a bid to stimulate the local economy, would use the information to formulate policies and take action."One of our major problems is to get a picture of what is actually happening in Alice Springs," says Mr Neil."All we've got now is anecdotal evidence, from within the industry, talking to each-other, reporting within the chamber."Mr Neil says to ensure information gathered from individual sources is treated confidentially, he would favour the task to be performed by an accountant outside the chamber.The survey would result in an index similar to the one compiled by stock exchanges, indicating movements without disclosing individual details.Mr Neil says the Alice Springs economy could be in for "a very patchy year."Katherine is getting mentioned a lot."There are opportunities up there to do some business, but the other side is that, necessarily, the Government had to divert funds from current and future contracts to put into Katherine."On the other hand, the Asian currency crisis is less likely to affect the town because Asia isn't one of The Centre's traditional tourism markets.Mr Neil says early indications are that the tourism accommodation industry is doing better than last year.There are fewer cancellations of tours from Europe, where elections in major countries during 1997 had created a "wait and see" attitude."As soon as there is an election they stay at home and hold on to their chairs," says Mr Neil.To start a formal survey is vital because the town's economy is unlike that of any other country in Australia."We're not relying on the rural sector, which is struggling all around the nation."Our main income is from tourism and service, with the joint defence project injecting a lot of money into our economy."Cattle raising, although still a big part of our economy, has declined over the past few years."We're part of the Territory, we're going forwards, not backwards, which other states have been," says Mr Neil."Employment is strong. It's still not easy to get skilled people into town."He says there have been promising initiatives in the recent past.Market gardening at Ti Tree, pushed ahead by Tony Alicastro, and by Mo McCosker in the Ilparpa area, are just some examples."While it's only small it's a start."However, the town is lacking a plan for the future."Where do we want Alice Springs to be in five year's time?"Very few people seem to know," says Mr Neil."The chamber has had some good discussions with the town council on various issues."But we need a vision of what we want."How do we want to portray the town to outsiders?"What sort of town do we want ourselves?"It's time we started to push for answers out of, probably, our elected members."When business is good, people don't worry about it. They're happy."When there's a problem they start looking for answers," says Mr Neil."We really need the town council, as the major representative body resident in this town, to pull that focus and vision together, and promote it."The council has to be the driving force."There are some thorny issues that are not yet resolved: car parking, public toilets in the CBD, the use of council land, those sorts of things."There are an awful lot of opinions about heritage, but no cohesive plan."We need that. To me the old gaol is the perfect example."We need to draw in the stake holders in the town, the business community - split up into tourism and service - the Aboriginal community, and the environment."We don't want it spoiled."Mr Neil says town planning is open for discussion again, with a land usage plan released by the Government for public comment.He says a major issue is the alignment of the proposed Alice to Darwin railway."We're not to fussed about it going through the town," says Mr Neil, "but we'd like to see the freight handling facilities located south of the Gap."The land of the present freight yards could then be used for other purposes."

WAVE OF YOUTH SUICIDES HITS ALICE SPRINGS.

Reported by ERWIN CHLANDA with EMMA HUGHES, KAYLENE WILLIAMS, GEMMA LEVET and ADAM LIST
The youth suicide problem in Alice Springs may be a lot worse than official statistics indicate.Police Superintendent Michael Boldiston says since last June, there were 10 suicides of people aged 15 to 24 in the Southern region, stretching from Borroloola to the SA border, including five in Alice Springs.However, youth sources have told the Alice News that there have been five youth suicides in the town alone during just two months of this year, which would put the local rate at more than 30 times the national one.According to Reach Out, an initiative by the New Australia Foundation, some 500 young people die in Australia by suicide each year.Reach Out last week launched an internet site to help young people contemplating suicide (www.reachout.asn.au), and are promoting two telephone counselling services, Kids' Help Line (1800 55 1800) and Lifeline (131114).It appears that police here treat as suicide only events where death was brought about by unambiguous methods - usually by hanging.But the Alice News has been told that deliberate car crashes and drug overdoses have also been used.Supt Boldiston says two Aboriginal males and one female, as well one non-Aboriginal male and one female made up the five victims in Alice Springs since last June.According to information given to the Alice News, the five young people of whom they were aware, who killed themselves this year were all non-Aboriginal, three boys and two girls.A local teacher, who asked not to be named, says he has personally known six young people who committed suicide in the past three years.Boredom and unemployment appear to be the main reasons."You can only watch so many Midday Shows on telly," says the teacher.He believes that most - if not all - youth suicides are drug related.One young man last year deliberately crashed his car on the Stuart Highway after telling friends that he would be taking his life.An Alice Springs student attempted suicide three to four weeks ago by slitting her wrists because her boyfriend had dumped her.She said this made her feel "worthless" and unloved.She is close to her mother, but they are separated form her father.She is middle-class and has a good social life. Her suicide attempt was related neither to music nor to drugs.The Alice News spoke to several other local teenagers who had attempted suicide.One said: "It's too painful, there's no point digging up the past."Another girl, 13, said she'd attempted suicide two months ago because she was "pissed off with a member of my family".Asked whether she would try it again, she said: "It depends if it happened again"."She did not write a suicide note and tried to slit her wrists with a blunt knife.She has "an OK social life," and is close to her mother, who has "average money" and is separated from her husband.Asked what advice she would give to anyone contemplating suicide, she said: "Don't do it, it's selfish to your family."A former police officer with 20 years' experience in Alice Springs and interstate says about suicides generally: "In the majority of cases, prescription drugs or alcohol were used by the person committing suicide prior to doing it."Women used sleeping tablets and other prescriptions, carbon monoxide poisoning with exhaust fumes."Males used guns, hanging, slit wrists, crashed cars, a variety [of methods], including drowning and lying on railway tracks."About half of those in his experience had left suicide notes."An 18 year old who had a fight with his girlfriend rang her up and said, ‘I'll teach you a lesson,' and shot himself."The former police officer says there are usually signs indicating that a person is contemplating suicide: "People who are normally outgoing become withdrawn."The person who's not usually fussed about his or her personal papers suddenly takes an interest in the likes of making a will, and ensures that bank accounts are neat and tidy."Some suicide candidates give away personal belongings for no apparent reason. There's often a general moodiness and depression that is out of character."It's a pity people close to them don't take time to notice the changes and behaviour that precede the event," says the former police officer.

JUNE'S GEMS. Column by June Tuzewski

Recent publicity regarding the Alice Springs Landscape Strategy and proposed plants on the North Stuart Highway has led to the Department of Transport and Works arranging for a public display of the proposal. This week the display is in the foyer of the Greatorex Building. Do take advantage of this opportunity to have a look, and make your comments on the forms provided. Even if it means popping in during your lunchtime, don't miss out on having your say.
Talking of "having a say" brings me to the Territory Constitutional Convention. I was interested to read comments by Colin McDonald, QC in last week's paper. Like many Territorians I have also been concerned over the way some aspects of the Convention have been put in place. However, it wouldn't be the Territory if there wasn't some controversy. Strong public discussion, on topics which people feel are of real importance to them, is one feature of Territory life that I enjoy.During the early days of self-government, constitutional development had a very low profile. At that time, Chief Minister Paul Everingham didn't see statehood occurring for 25 to 50 years. He was clear however that it would only come about by the will of the people. Our second Chief Minister, Ian Tuxworth, did progress the NT's bid for statehood in the mid 80s by setting up a steering committee. This was charged with developing a substantive case and advising on strategy. The impetus was, I believe, the actions of the ALP Federal Government which changed the Territory's financial arrangements with the Commonwealth. In future there was to be no special treatment for the NT. Territory funding from the Commonwealth was to be on exactly the same terms and conditions as the states. This arrangement has become permanent, and ironically, it is the one area where we do have full and equal status with the states. Appointed by Ian Tuxworth, a former Alice Springs politician, Jim Robertson, was the first full-time special minister for statehood and he chaired the first Select Committee on Constitutional Development.Steve Hatton became Chief Minister in May 1986. He already had a strong commitment to statehood and since that time has worked tirelessly on this issue. It was sad to see Steve miss out as a delegate to the convention because he was not elected by his parliamentary colleagues. I have known him for many years and we have had many long discussions about statehood, for it is a topic about which we both feel strongly. I can still recall one of the first public meetings in town, chaired by Steve, when only a handful of people turned up. After the meeting, we talked of strategies to involve the wider community. Now, as co-convenor of Territorians for a Democratic Statehood, he continues to ensure that constitutional development takes a high profile and increases public discussion on a most important issue.However, it is important to remember that the Constitutional Convention is only part of the process. For more than a decade there have been public meetings held by the bi-partisan Select Committees in every corner of the Territory with the opportunity for community participation. Numerous discussion papers and reports have been written and circulated.Delegates to the formal convention now underway can be lobbied. But this is not the end of the process. A report on the convention's deliberations is required to be published and presented to the Legislative Assembly by June 30. This report and other material will be considered in the Parliament before a final draft constitution is determined.The many other forums which are currently taking place all serve to highlight and increase people's participation. All Territory politicians, whether they admit it or not, will be following what is happening. In the meantime, as individuals, we can lobby our local pollies before these issues are debated in the Parliament.I am sure that much of what is currently happening will form part of that debate and affect the outcome.
I always enjoy the feedback on my column and am happy to set the record straight. So apologies to Nevil Shute fans for the incorrect spelling of his name. Thanks to Hermann Weber who let me know that Nevil Shute did indeed visit The Alice in January 1949 seeking background for his book. A year later, when the book was published, locals noted that some characters resembled people they knew. Later the Australian premier of the film took place in Alice. The film also attracted criticism from locals for its depiction of Alice Springs. However, the book, film and subsequent publicity has helped to put The Alice on the map, both then and now. Travel the world and people may not know exactly where it is but they have all heard of Alice Springs - and a Town Like Alice.

ALICE LAND PRICES LEVEL OFF

It'll be a steady-as-she-goes year in Alice Springs real estate, with growth in values continuing but possibly at a slower pace than in the past four years, during which some land has doubled in price.This is the view of Andrew Doyle, the Southern delegate of the Real Estate Institute of the Northern Territory.He says average increases had been running at around 10 per cent a year for the last four to five years.Last year the increase in housing values dropped to four per cent, but unit growth remained at a high nine per cent.The biggest area of growth was in the vacant land sector: blocks now average around $70,000, up 13 per cent last year, with golf course frontage land selling at more than $100,000."Five and a half years ago you could buy them for $43,000."There wouldn't be too many people in this town who've bought land in the past four or five years and who haven't shown at least some capital growth in their investment."While the population isn't growing much at present - around one to two per cent a year - we're seeing a stabilisation of our population, says Mr Doyle."Kids around 18 or 19, leaving school, are now staying in town, whereas in years gone by they used to head back to wherever mum and dad were from."Now they've got employment here, they can walk straight into a full time job."Mr Doyle says many bypass renting - still more expensive than buying - altogether, helped on their way by the availability of new low-price units, and the NT Government's Home North scheme."A lot of people are buying the cheaper accommodation," he says."That's the big benefit of the Gap Estate, it's given those young people an opportunity."If they can get just $3000 or $4000 together, they can buy under the Home North scheme which purchases up to 30 per cent of the equity, providing they meet the criteria."The new home buyers can borrow most of the remaining 70 per cent at a very reasonable interest rate."It's given people an opportunity of getting into the housing market."The Home North scheme's fantastic, especially now that the limit has been raised from $120,000 to $140,000," says Mr Doyle."Previously, there has been limited stock in that range, at the bottom end of the market."One bedroom units in the Gap Estate go for $77,000, and two bedroom ones, for $98,000.The 100-odd units there, about 60 of which have been sold, have skewed the average value figure: because of the low prices in the Gap Estate, the average for the town will drop, although units elsewhere have maintained their value or appreciated.Return on investment for residential rental properties is between 6.5 and 8.5 per cent, says Mr Doyle, more than interstate returns, which are around four per cent.Nevertheless, percentage returns on rental properties here have slipped from around 10 per cent, as values of properties increased sharply, and rents didn't keep pace.Units in the town, around half of the recent sales of which were to owner-occupants and half to investors, will remain a good deal, says Mr Doyle.During 1997, many first home buyers got into the market, and many people upgraded - as properties they'd bought a few years ago shot up in value."The bottom end of the market appreciated faster than the top end," says Mr Doyle."For example, a neat and tidy ex-Government home four years ago would have been worth $100,000 to $110,000. It's now worth $130,000 to $145,000."Your golf course property was worth, say, $200,000. It's now perhaps $220,000. The gap has narrowed."People who've built up good equity in their homes are now looking to upgrade."That's been one part of the market, and this trend has created stock at the lower level, for first home buyers to come in."Mr Doyle says most people transferring to The Alice through their employment "will buy at some stage".Company supplied or subsidised rental "is no longer as much of a factor as it was, say, 10 years ago".In those days, "to get people to Alice Springs you had to provide these incentives," says Mr Doyle, whereas now, the good employment chances are luring people north from economically depressed areas."I know people who came up from country South Australia, mum, dad, two kids and the kids' girl friends."The best they could do in SA was part time work. Three weeks up here and they were all in full time employment."That's one of the major things this town has going for itself - the strength of our employment."The wild card on the property market is Pine Gap: they've bought up virtually the entire Vista - Stephens Road development, some 100 units, and may need more as the base continues to expand."I've heard anything from 200 to 450 families are due to come out," says Mr Doyle. "What the actual number is I don't know, but 250 is a number fairly constantly mentioned."It's good for the town. It brings more people and more money that goes through the whole economy."While demand for units from the "space base" and new home buyers is expected to remain high, pressure on homes and vacant land is easing, says Mr Doyle."We've got a good supply of land all of a sudden."Two years ago, about the time the native title claim was lodged over Crown Land, a number of sites were in the hands of private developers, but they were not ready to go onto the market."We had a real surge in vacant land prices."Then the water slide land came on line. That land was snapped up and it just about fully built out now."Most blocks are gone also in the Stuart Estate on Gap Road, land sold by the NT Government to developers Harry Bitar and Gerry Thompson; and at the former Greenleaves Caravan Park, on the Eastside, brought on stream by the construction company, Sitzlers.More new housing land is in Bradshaw Drive and at the rear of the Diarama, and a few blocks at the Golf Course Estate's Cromwell Drive and at Carmichael's, off Larapinta Drive."We've now got a good supply of land," says Mr Doyle. "However, if the native title issue isn't resolved, and the government can't turn off Crown Land, then eventually we'll be running out of land again."The native title impasse helped send land prices through the roof. It could happen again."The industrial sector of the market has also experienced strong growth with properties in the $200,000 to $350,000 range. Income-producing buildings return around 10 per cent."In previous years you could expect returns of 12 to 13 per cent but lower interest rates have helped push returns down."There is still good demand. The strata titling of the sheds on Smith Street, some 17 sheds, has gone well."There was a similar development on Elder Street, with some old sheds being upgraded, new sheds being built and strata titled off."Meanwhile, in the Western Precinct, former railway land alongside the Peter Kittle Motor Company, is seen as an up-market development, with prime Stuart Highway frontage."I believe there are a couple of major national companies coming in," says Mr Doyle."Vacancy rates in the CBD are way down."Available ground floor retail space in this town is basically zero."There have been some good increases in rents. Vacancy rates have been on the decline since 1986. The three major shopping centres are all just about fully tenanted," he says."All in all, we won't be having any boom or bust this year - just, steady, reliable growth."

AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL TAKES AIM AT TERRITORY MANDATORY SENTENCING LAWS. Report by KIERAN FINNANE

Mandatory sentencing laws and conditions of detention in the Northern Territory are coming under the scrutiny of Amnesty International.Heinz Schurmannn-Zeggel, responsible for Amnesty's research in the South Pacific and Australia, and based at the organisation's international headquarters in London, was in Alice Springs this month.He was interested to see at first hand the impact of mandatory sentencing on the everyday operations of the magistrate's and the children's courts.He also interviewed a number of children who have been "in trouble" with the police. However, he was denied access to the police cells where some of the children had been detained.Mr Schurmann says Amnesty never relies on just one side of the story but always follows up on the government's perspective.Is the government always forthcoming?"Generally, yes. We don't always get the kind of answers we want. Sometimes governments, and here I am not singling out the Territory, claim that security issues impinge on the kind of questions we have, for example, on prisoner management, but on the whole we do get answers."Mr Schurmann, who has an MA and PhD in Australian Studies, visited Australia with an Amnesty team two years ago to follow up on the work of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody."Many positive initiatives have been taken in response to the recommendations of that commission," he says."However, they have been somewhat undermined, in our view, by other steps taken by state and territory governments, including mandatory sentencing."Mr Schurmann will report on the finding of his current investigations to Amnesty's international executive board.However, the release of their report is likely to be delayed by the forthcoming federal election in order to preserve Amnesty's reputation for impartiality and political neutrality.Amnesty's activities focus on human rights as defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the international treaties that have followed from that.Their first and foremost concern is with prisoners of conscience but the focus of this visit is with what the United Nations has defined as cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of people in any form of detention or custody.Mr Schurmann describes the visit as routine: "We are not responding to any particular event. We aim to visit every region where we work in the world, once a year or at least every two years."There is a misunderstanding amongst Australians that they are being ‘picked on', but they are not. "In fact, since I have been working from the secretariat in London, since 1995, there has been much less campaigning on Australia, than in any country of a comparable population. There is much more intensive campaigning on the UK and Europe than on Australia."In 1992 Amnesty started work on a campaign to urge the Northern Territory Government to replace the old Alice Springs Gaol.Mr Schurmann says he's "glad" to see that a new prison is now in place and operating."Based on information we have received from the authorities, there don't seem to be any problems with the building."It doesn't have anywhere near the problems that we see elsewhere in Australia."I will have to look at some of the management issues that I have heard about, and at the lack of a purpose-built youth facility in Alice Springs and the detention of young people generally."Mr Schurmann says Amnesty is concerned by the discrepancies in the rights of children in the various criminal justice systems of Australian states and territories. "In one state or territory a person committing an offence may be threatened with imprisonment, whereas in the neighbouring state or territory the same offence may only carry a community order type of sentence."We have asked the Federal Government in our latest report to have a national approach on children's rights."This is not just Amnesty's idea. It has been backed by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child last year, and by the Australian Law Reform Commission and the Australian Human Rights Commission."He has also heard "with alarm" that Aranda House is the renewed object of government plans to make it partly into a detention facility. "I'm not quite sure whether that wouldn't impact on the reputation of Aranda House as a safe haven for children who are fleeing from domestic violence or other problems," says Mr Schurmann. "I'm not sure it would be a good idea to have both the institutions under one roof."On the lack of a juvenile detention facility in Alice Springs, Mr Schurmann says:"What is more humane, to give young people the chance to be in an adequate purpose-designed juvenile detention facility like Don Dale in Darwin, when at the same time that means being 1000 miles from home, which limits any visits from family which are so important for rehabilitation."The policy in Australia generally is that juvenile correction shouldn't be a dead end. Prison should be part of the system to make it absolutely clear that whatever these children did wasn't acceptable, but when rehabilitation is made difficult by distance from relatives then that is an additional problem."Whether that means that Amnesty will be calling for a separate juvenile detention facility in Alice Springs, I wouldn't like to speculate. That's not up to me. I report about the situation on the ground. Conclusions are drawn by a team of people in London."On the distance of the Alice Springs adult prison from the town: "When I saw the plans, even before it was built, it was the first question I had: was there a kind of commuting facility for visitors? "Generally I haven't heard anyone complaining about that being a particular problem. It would seem to be essential that there be a reliable sustained service for people who haven't got cars."On the Traffic Infringement Notice Enforcement Scheme: "It's not a unique Territory problem. The community has a right to be protected from crime and to have a police force which can operate effectively. There may be cause for on-the-spot fines, and if people don't pay there should be consequences. "Problems may occur when the original offence is a crime liable to an on-the-spot fine or a non-custodial sentence, the non-payment of which ends up seeing a person in detention."[With regard to children], there are problems of adult responsibility, proper care and custody of the children. Who is in the position to understand the consequences of non-payment?"Is a 14 year old child in a situation where he or she understands the consequences of not paying a fine for not wearing a bicycle helmet? These are the questions we will be looking at and which I'm sure my organisation will be raising with the government."

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