Nose-diving CBD: it happened on the 11th Council’s watch

COMMENT by KIERAN FINNANE

 

When the aldermen and Mayor Damien Ryan now seeking re-election, were standing for council in 2008, law and order and alcohol regulation were at the top of the local agenda and there they’ve pretty much stayed for the four years since. What’s new is the dramatic decline of the Alice Springs town centre. Two weeks ago I suggested it might be a “shuddering readjustment“; now it  is starting to feel like a nose-dive, with the voluntary administration of the Memo Club and the closure of the Town & Country Tavern made public knowledge on the one day.

The picture is one of a town centre being abandoned, even while we talk about its rejuvenation or revitalisation. The term may soon have to be resurrection.

Four years ago we already had CCTV in the mall to respond to anti-social behaviour – a move of the 10th Council – despite having been warned that international and national research showed we could have no firm expectations of it in terms of its impact on crime.

The 11th Council would successfully agitate, led as much by CEO Rex Mooney as anyone, for the NT Government to better fund and extend it (along the way we also got the futile police shopfront in the mall). Imagine what the millions that have been put into CCTV could have achieved if they’d been directed instead towards stimulating business, social and cultural activities in the mall.

Four years ago we were accepting that the Dry Town approach – an additional piece of legislation banning public drinking when we already had the 2km law – was a failure.

At the time Damien Ryan, as mayoral candidate, said in response to questions on this issue that he would do his best to see that “the new council will have the resolve to enforce its by-laws”.

He also said new by-laws may be considered.

Public places by-law furore

This certainly came to pass. The debate around the public places by-laws was one of the most controversial of the 11th Council. Together with some notorious incidents of violence and episodes of anti-social behaviour, it generated a lot of bad publicity for the town, some of it quite hysterical, painting a picture of rangers on freezing nights taking blankets from illegal campers in the town’s creekbeds.

But have the by-laws worked? Taken together with the Cash for Containers scheme and the advent of short-term accommodation, giving rangers somewhere to send illegal campers,  the general assessment by aldermen in council meetings has been that the town is now cleaner and the river clearer of campers. I have heard Aldermen Eli Melky and Murray Stewart congratulate the rangers for their efforts, and their fellow aldermen for their resolve.

A recent influx of people from remote communities meant that the short-term accommodation facility, Apmere Mwerre, was full and there was consequently an overflow of people “sleeping rough”. Council’s Director of Corporate and Community Services Craig Catchlove, who oversees the enforcement of the public places by-laws, suggested an additional facility on the north side of town may be needed. In response, aldermen passed a motion calling on the Australian and NT Governments to address the need for additional short-term accommodation.

But stepping back to look at the everyday experience of public places, has it changed for the better?

I think the consensus would be “no”.

We couldn’t expect that change to arise from by-laws alone, especially as their emphasis is on what can’t be done, rather than on what can. That’s where there’s a huge deficit in the public space. Council has done some good work in developing the night markets and its Christmas parties – which build on the success of the Sunday markets and events like the Alice Desert Festival and time-honoured Bangtail Muster – but these occasions are too few and far between. There appears to have been no thinking about stimulating activity, creating drawcards for people to come into the public space of the town centre for positive reasons on a daily and nightly basis. And where enterprise fails – and in this regard it clearly is failing in the mall – governments need to act!

Council, and especially the mayor as co-chair of the steering committee, has had a key role in the CBD revitalisation process. It’s a fair call to say that council has not grasped this opportunity with the vigor it needed – we are still waiting for the ‘first sod to be turned’ for the physical  infrastructure at the northern end of the mall and in Parsons Street. In the meantime council’s works in the public space, such as the increased amount of concreting right through the CBD, has worked against the spirit of what is trying to be achieved.

Importantly, there is also nobody on council articulating what is to happen and why, despite Mayor Ryan’s early assertions in his term that his role would be “centering on communication”.

Nobody, amongst the town’s elected representatives at all levels of government, has been doing the talking that would build bridges between the people who use the public space or who would like to.  Most of our public discourse – and the current election campaign has been a good example – is reactive, criticism and counter-criticism.

Strong local Aboriginal voice needed

There is no strong local Aboriginal voice with a bridge-building intent. Back in 2008 Darryl Pearce had come to prominence as the CEO of the native title body, Lhere Artepe.  He appeared to have that bridge-building potential. His address to the June 2008 Planning Forum was a standout, acknowledging non-Aboriginal locals as the “additional owners”, recognising the long relationship between the Arrernte and the “historical” non-Aboriginal people of the town, and quipping: “We just don’t want you to turn into the hysterical people.”

In a letter to the editor at the time of Mr Pearce’s ascendancy, Phil Walcott, long-declared independent candidate for Greatorex, welcomed Mr Pearce’s vision for the role and function of Lhere Artepe in turning around what Mr Pearce termed as “anti-cultural behaviour”.

None of this early promise translated into sustained leadership, with the opposite sadly true as the Alice Springs News has chronicled.

The dysfunctionality of Lhere Artepe has no doubt hampered council’s bridge-building efforts, such as they have been. The Arrernte leadership has been hugely distracted and is probably still in shock over the Lhere Artepe fiasco – a fresh, credible voice has yet to emerge.

Early in the 11th Council’s term a strong emphasis was put on establishing committees to deal with council’s partnerships with Tangentyere and Lhere Artepe, but little has come from this. Probably the most positive improvement in relationships between council and Aboriginal people has come about through council’s resumption of responsibility for municipal services to town camps, including dog control, supported by the Australian Government.

Issues around alcohol control will continue to dog the incoming council. There’s no skirting this as the views of local government must be taken into account by the Licensing Commission for all licensing applications in their area, as stipulated by the Liquor Act.

Back in 2008 Mayor Ryan argued that “the layer on layer of restrictions has been ineffective and harks to an era of prohibition” –  which remains a popular view and essentially that of his current opponents. In council since he has taken a more moderate stance, notably reluctant to put his name to council’s letter to the big supermarkets asking them to rescind their decision on the withdrawal of ultra-cheap wine from their Alice stores.

Ryan supports current alcohol restrictions

His moderation reflects his time served on the Alice Springs Alcohol Reference Panel. He now supports the current restrictions regime. If a particular restriction is not working, “let’s see how it can be tweaked”, he says.

“I don’t agree with ‘let’s open the doors’. I’m not an opponent of Enough is Enough [the NT Government’s current packages of alcohol reform measures] and I’m a supporter of the Banned Drinkers Register.”

On a take-away grog free day, he says he is open to discussion but has yet to be shown its “consequences” and “relevance”.  He understands the Tennant Creek Thirsty Thursday was designed around the then welfare cheque payday, but the era of electronic banking has changed that.  “A lot more building blocks need to be in place” for the case for a take-away free day to be made out, he says.

Tourism identities Liz Martin and Brendan Heenan, both elected for the first time in 2008 and seeking re-election, were strong anti-restrictions campaigners, although Ald Martin on this site has indicated recently she also has an open mind – waiting to be persuaded – on the question of a take-away free day. The direction council will go in will depend very much on the make-up of the new council. The block associated with Action for Alice views remains adamantly anti-restrictions – it’s an article of faith with them. The alternative candidates are mostly open to be persuaded, at a minimum, of the merits of a take-away free day. But it’s going to get complicated with someone like candidate Aaron (Charlie) Dick, who is for a take-away free day, taking a stance that is independent from the pro-restrictions lobby.

“We need to convince the Federal Government that remote community Alcohol Management Plans aren’t working for Alice Springs. The bullet needs to be bitten with a return to the Living with Alcohol policies that accept prohibition policies on communities aren’t working and are contributing to a binge drinking culture,” said Mr Dick in a media release this week.

In the 2008 campaign Mr Ryan recognised that “more legislation and rules” were not the answer to anti-social behavior.

He said at the time: “The answer lies in providing gainful objectives in outstations and communities, with structured travel to and from Alice Springs and education of visitors in our community pride. Alice Springs is a town for everyone.

“We also need development of hostel style accommodation for young working people seeking to gain employment in our town.”

These remain outstanding issues. The 11th Council’s contribution to Indigenous employment in town was to raise its target to 20% of its workforce (in the 10th council it was set at 15%). The target is reported on monthly and has fluctuated throughout the term. This year’s figures have not been heartening: 11.8% for February, 13.75% for January.

Four years ago, Mr Ryan as candidate made it clear that he would work to liaise with the other tiers of government: “If the door is shut you can’t do anything,” he said at the time.

Working with the NT government 

His critics suggest this has compromised his leadership. In relation to the CBD revitalisation process I believe it has. He consistently declined to comment on that process as it developed, always deferring to the Minister (initially Delia Lawrie, subsequently Gerry McCarthy) when asked anything about it. What was the point then in having him as co-chair of the steering committee (along with the mute Karl Hampton as Minister for Central Australia)?  Discussions about the process in council were always behind closed doors. This approach left the fate of the most important public space in the town dangling and contributed to the despondent mood that now hangs over it.

A final point about leadership style: that councillors have to be able to work constructively together, despite representing a range of views and approaches, some of them very strongly held, goes without saying. Finding the way through division is the work of a leader. In my observation of council meetings particularly in the last 12 months – and I’ve reported on this before – Mayor Ryan could have done a lot better. The challenges were not easy, coming from Aldermen Eli Melky, Samih Habib Bitar and, at times, Murray Stewart. Mayor Ryan’s approach, particularly to Ald Melky from the get go, was to play hard ball. He doesn’t like criticism (his defensiveness over the Stuart statue debacle is an example) and he can be as antagonistic as the next guy. Sure, Ald Melky on his side was provocative from the start, but he was also naive and inexperienced. Finding a way to working with him to harness his considerable energy for the good of the community should have been possible. Ald Habib Bitar’s  contributions were often anarchic but it has not been a pleasant spectacle to see him patronised and humiliated. The prospect of sharply divided views on the 12th Council is strong. If Mayor Ryan is returned, he will need better strategies than the ones he has displayed to take the new council forward.

 

Pictured: Top and bottom, Alice Springs closed for business? The southern end of Todd Mall around 6.15pm last night. Dead as a doornail. • Drinks are over for the mall’s Town & Country Tavern, which closed yesterday. Centre: The mall is transformed when people are drawn into it. Here, the Town Council’s Christmas Party, 2010.

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8 Comments (starting with the most recent)

NB: If you want to reply to a previous comment, start your comment with this notation: @n where n is the number of the comment you want to reply to.
  1. Diana Whitehouse
    Posted March 23, 2012 at 11:44 am

    @ Nose-diving CBD: It happened on the 11th Council’s watch.
    Yep, great reporting Kieran and others in stimulating debate in what otherwise would have been a colourless council election.
    Through your attempts to pursue the facts we MAY get an improved local administration.
    May I say that one’s vote is a valuable thing.
    Sad to see that Alice is not on Darwin’s radar. That is evidenced by poor turnout at the Alice Springs Town Council mayoral meeting.
    Where is Karl Hampton? Ditto for the next (apparently CLP) Member for MacDonnell?
    If things were going forward, shocking incidents like the bashing of a stalled car in broad daylight in Schwartz Crescent just would not occur.
    That as most know, is a stone’s throw from where Kwementyaye Ryder was killed 25/07/09.
    Hendo may have tossed in the towel but we have not.
    Regards,
    Diana Whitehouse.

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  2. Russell Guy
    Posted March 22, 2012 at 9:10 pm

    Look out, here he comes again! The man who for several weeks at the beginning of this campaign refused to believe in the value of what he called “idiotic” statistics, now in the full bloom of his Campaign Management induced wrath, is reduced to shoring up fizz bang logic by resorting to those terrible, but unsubstantiated numbers.
    One need not try to read Steve Brown’s latest missive twice – once is enough. It should carry a health warning. Those contorted sentences are desperate to gain office. Twenty years in the wilderness of opposition can turn a strong man to drink.
    He fires off bursts of bile, e.g., “Well I say baloney to that and Baloney to the anti-alcohol lobby your time is up! You are totally discredited!”
    Nobody has ever said anything about “anti-alcohol.” It’s free-market regulation that the Brown Headquarters can’t understand, but I mustn’t forget to quote them on the aforementioned lobby having “taken our town to the brink of collapse, many residents to the edge of despair.” I like that one, but too much like daytime television to win the workers.
    Delusions of grandeur, former Prime Ministers, Kings of Babylon and assorted lesser types say can lead to demented psychosis and when it sets in, apoplexy arrives and responsibility for one’s actions departs. It’s far worse than alcoholism and in that there’s some poetic justice.
    We must win this Mayoral race, otherwise we’ll lose face and the town will cease to exist, but first let’s shove a few more adjectives in to those last few paragraphs, or better still see if we can cut them altogether, otherwise there’ll be nobody left alive to vote for us.

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  3. Posted March 22, 2012 at 6:06 pm

    It would seem that drinks may not be over for long for the Town and Country Tavern. According to yesterday’s ABC News (quoting a “spokesman”), the closing of the Town and Country is temporary, due to “a recent slow-down in trading”. On ABC’s Drive program the previous day, Geoff Booth, who is standing for Council and has delineated law and order as one of his campaign issues, said Town and Country was in “probably the worst location now with the law and order issues”. He also mentioned the tourism lull, the Australian dollar and the loss of Tiger as other reasons for the closure.

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  4. Steve Brown
    Posted March 22, 2012 at 6:02 pm

    50 years of restrictions of one kind or another should be enough time enough evidence for any reasonably intelligent human being to realize, “that they do not work”! They simply create anger, division and isolation at ever increasing levels as we tighten the screws. Just look back at the escalation in crime levels over the past six years of ever tighter restrictions, they have escalated every quarter by up to 80% given that that is compounding the overall increase is simply staggering.
    Those arguing for further restrictions point to miserly supposed drops of a few percent in consumption as being an indication that restrictions are working all the time conveniently forgetting to point out the effect of declining population and visitor numbers on those percentages, let alone the effect of online shopping which is mentioned in the press constantly by retailers as being in the order of 30% but apparently according to the evangelists pushing further restrictions, doesn’t have any but a very minor effect on alcohol purchases.
    Well I say baloney to that and Baloney to the anti alcohol lobby your time is up! You are totally discredited! Your measures haven’t bought about any change to the levels of Alcohol consumption and you have created for this town an unmitigated disaster! You have poisoned and destroyed many lives you have taken our town to the brink of collapse, many residents to the edge of complete despair.
    The time has come for this Town to put the endless divisive restrictions aside and to introduce a new sensible “Living With Alcohol Policy”. This Policy will see the introduction of sensibly licensed and controlled clubs on communities the lifting of all restrictive measures that lead to the criminalization of many who are coerced into being providers. The reintroduction of sensible seven day a week trading hours that will see binge drinking pressures reduced. The removal of restrictions that prevent people from consuming alcohol in their own homes, the provision of legal public drinking areas appropriately serviced and policed the removal of degrading insulting laws that allow the pouring out of alcohol.
    At the same time we will toughen up penalties for drunk and disorderly behaviour immediately removing to the detox shelter for at least an eight hour period any person found to be to be drinking or intoxicated in Public Areas The introduction of a Mandatory rehabilitation centre that will see those arrested for drunk and disorderly behaviour or alcohol related domestic and driving offences committed for a length of time related to the seriousness and number of offences. The introduction of these measures and the removal of paternal race based measures will bring an end to much of the anger, the division, and the isolation that has bought about so much of our retaliatory crime and will start Alice on the long road to recovery.

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  5. Dianne
    Posted March 22, 2012 at 3:40 pm

    Great summary Kieran. One of the things that I don’t think that you have given enough attention to is the lack of a strong voice in the Minister for Central Australia. Since Alison Anderson went independent there has been no one on the Labor side of politics (who are in charge, let’s face it!) with any backbone to push for Alice Springs needs.
    It is quite sad really that Territory Labor seems to have the same disease as Federal Labor in punishing electorates or people that don’t support them. Alice Springs could be used as a textbook case of this type of thing.
    One wonders if the Chief Minister is organising his “luxury coach tour” for local business people to show off the project work in this town as he is in Darwin.
    And, where is our Minister for Central Australia – SILENT as always. Very disappointing.

    ED – Dianne, you’ll be interested to read the comment piece in this edition by Erwin Chlanda, titled ‘Minister for Football’.

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  6. Hal Duell
    Posted March 22, 2012 at 3:37 pm

    Once again those of us in Alice Springs with eyes to read and a computer to read from owe our thanks to the Alice Springs News. The above is the most perceptive critique of our 11th Council that I have read.
    From my seat in the gallery during both Committee and Ordinary meetings, I would add only one word: Bullying.
    There has been bullying during the life of this Council to such an extent that at one point I asked during Public Question Time if Council would consider passing a motion forswearing the practice in its public meetings. There was an initial positive reaction, but the idea soon died when the conversation moved behind closed doors.
    They have loved to close those doors. Usually the reasons cited are either that the matter being discussed concerns an employee, or that the matter is commercial in confidence. While I usually agree with the first, I always wonder at the second. And what I wonder goes something along the lines of once the money trail has been obscured, is anything left but trivial pursuit?
    It becomes far too easy to assert that all is progressing swimmingly.
    Four of our current Aldermen have nominated to become Councillors in the 12th Alice Springs Town Council. I hope two of them are successful.
    I’ll go out on a limb here and predict that our next Mayor will be either Steve Brown or Damien Ryan. But whoever it is I beg of you to do two things – become fully conversant with Standing Orders and foreswear leading from the chair.

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  7. Chris Godden
    Posted March 22, 2012 at 1:00 pm

    Thanks Kieran for your carefully considered assessment of the current Council issues and its performance over the last term. For those of us who don’t make it to Council Meetings it is invaluable to have your attentive presence there, and your sensible reports on its debates and decisions. Yes, we are lacking leadership from all groups in our town, and let’s hope the new Council can address the CBD, the short-term accommodation, the alcohol and its disruptive effects and all the other challenges it faces (including our river’s trees). I will vote with hope but little optimism.

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  8. Russell Guy
    Posted March 22, 2012 at 12:23 pm

    Alice Springs Town Council could offer an Award for Sustainable Housing Design as a practical step against merely talking about “hostel style accommodation” for a number of clients seeking accommodation in Alice. So could Desert Knowledge mob.
    Land could be found and not necessarily resulting in the boring subdivision model, but some creativity applied to a village concept as exists in many of the other tourists towns of Australia.
    There’s so much expertise in Alice, but at the end of the day, out comes another Chardy and it’s lock-up the blackfellas or move ’em all back to Yuendemu! What a joke!
    While the excellent project driven CBD revitalisation project is overshadowed by anti-social behaviour, much of it alcohol-related, this same talk talk tack is applied to a lack of emergency implementation of a take-away alcohol restriction regime. Nero fiddles while Alice burns.
    Turning down the grog tap has everything going for it from productivity gains, welfare reform, cost savings on every social indicator and a tourism shine.
    It’s unbelievable that any sane person could oppose it, even more that those same people could not agree to ask the NT Liquor Commission to act. It’s not rocket science.

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