By KIERAN FINNANE
One barometer of popular support did not augur well for Alderman Eli Melky’s youth curfew motion: the public gallery at last night’s council meeting was half empty. A few people from the youth sector had turned up and Acting Commander Michael White from the NT Police was also there. But the 1000 plus signatories of the petition circulated by Alds Melky and Samih Habib Bitar, who seconded his motion, had stayed away in droves.
Perhaps its defeat had been accepted as a fait accompli. Opponents of a youth curfew, who had signed a petition organised by high school student Gavin Henderson, were also absent. Mr Henderson himself, however, had followed through and gave a short presentation in support of his views. He had gathered 393 signatures, which he saw as “great support”. But decisions, he said, should be based on the evidence, not on what is popular. He had circulated three documents to aldermen – a report by the Youth Round Table, another by the South Australian Council of Social Services, and a third by the non-government youth sector in Alice Springs.
He claimed the evidence shows that crime does not decrease with the imposition of a curfew; rather it shifts to other places. A curfew would also cause unnecessary tension between youth and police: young people would feel targeted and would be reluctant to turn to police for help.
He also pointed out that there are local organisations and services responding to young people who are on the streets at night, mentioning Tangentyere Council, Congress, and the Youth Street Outreach Services.
He called on council to “invest in young people”, to provide better support to children, youth and family services and a sustainable program of events for young people.
Ald Bitar asked him if he would feel safe to walk home from the cinema at night. He said no, his parents would pick him up; if they couldn’t, he’d find a way to get home with a friend, but he wouldn’t walk home. Ald Bitar, appalled that a young man would not feel safe to walk home at night in Alice Springs, later cited this answer in support of his argument for a curfew.
The issues were hotly debated by aldermen. Supporters of the motion – Ald Murray Stewart in addition – spoke with feeling about the protection of children; having to control juvenile crime was their other core theme. Ald Melky admitted that a blanket curfew may not be seen as fair, but said that is the case with many of the rules young people must live by. He said there was “overwhelming evidence” of crime being committed by young people but did not produce that evidence in a form convincing to his colleagues.
Referring to the number of signatures on his petition, he said that was evidence of support for a curfew, although a decision should not come down to numbers: the support was enough to bring the issue to council’s attention.
Ald Sandy Taylor, who chaired the debate, said Ald Melky had made “broad sweeping statements” about youth crime but hadn’t provided hard data. She said she had looked for hard data but hadn’t been able to find any, but had noted a “trending down in the media” in the reporting of youth crime.
Mayor Damien Ryan said he didn’t consider media stories as evidence. He was concerned that young people were being seen as a threat, rater than as “valued members” of the community. He also noted the contradiction in the curfew supporters’ opposition to blanket restrictions of alcohol, yet acceptance of a blanket measure in regard to youth. He said Ald Melky did not give credit to the work done, for instance by police, citing the results of Operation Thresher.
Police had released the results of the operation for October 1-17 yesterday. With regard to youth their release said “38 Youth Conveyances” had been conducted (presumably “conveyances” means taking young people home or to a safe place.) They had also done 75 bailee checks.
Police Superintendent Michael Murphy said: “The main problems during the school holidays are usually anti-social behaviour and property crime, which is often caused by youth roaming the streets. This inevitably leads some young people into trouble, so an operation such as this helps to prevent the problems before they occur by proactive and targeted patrolling.”
The youth justice list yesterday was extensive, with 42 matters before the magistrates court. One young person had 13 property offences to answer to and two breaches of bail. Another had three property offences and four breaches of bail.
Ald Bitar said he felt sorry for the police having to “put up with the mess” but crime was “going up”, “politicians fail us” with “bandaid measures” and “half the town has left already”.
Ald Taylor said she wouldn’t consider the government’s $15.5m investment as a bandaid measure.
Deputy Mayor Liz Martin said no-one disputes that there are gaps in services for youth and that there are core issues that need to be addressed, with some young people not safe at home. She couldn’t support a blanket curfew, which could force young people to “the outskirts” where they may be more vulnerable. Council should support programs and activities to get children off the streets.
Ald John Rawnsley criticised the wording of the motion, particularly its failure to define what a legitimate reason for being on the streets would be, and what the boundaries of the area covered would be. He said a curfew would stretch police resources too far, taking them away from their core business.
He was upset about the way supporters of the motion had framed the debate in the media, suggesting that people who don’t support a curfew accept young people being out at night and being vulnerable. He said the presence of very young people on the street shows the need to improve child protection services.
Ald Brendan Heenan thought that kids would treat a curfew as a game. He wanted to know what the “KPIs” (key performance indicators) for youth organisations are and whether they are “performing to their charter”.
He said children being on the street at night is not a children’s problem, it’s a parents’ problem: parents need on-going counselling; children who can’t fit into a normal school need specialist teachers.
Ald Jane Clark was worried that council would be seen as “belligerent” by continually writing to the NT Government asking for the same action (the Tenth Council had written twice to the NT Government on the issue, with the government declining to support a curfew). She wanted to see council “take the front foot in the area of our expertise” – programs and services. She said media reports of youth crime were “exaggerated,” and “not backed up by the evidence”.
“Well said,” responded Ald Taylor, making clear her own strongly held views despite being in the chair. She said “a lot of us” would concur with Ald Clark’s position.
Ald Stewart argued that not supporting the motion would be “another example of demographical discrimination”. Council’s passing of its public places by-laws had shown that it would not accept such discrimination, that standards would be lifted “no matter who you are”.
He also said that a curfew would help white middle class families, backing up what they are trying to do at home. He cited the example of a 15 year old girl from “a good, middle-class white family” who had run away from home and was now “in the judicial system”, whose mother “in tears” had urged him to support a curfew.
Ald Taylor said accused Ald Stewart of “targeting Aboriginal youth in town”; Ald Stewart defended himself – “I said quite the reverse”.
The temperature was rising. Mayor Ryan only just stopped an expletive leaving his lips, suggesting to Ald Bitar that “this piece of ….” (the motion) was a bandaid solution.
Ald Melky referred to his work with two young Indigenous runners, the kind of opportunity he’d like to see given to every young person in town. He said while the curfew would apply to “all colours”, it was more likely that Indigenous kids would be in the streets as this is an Indigenous place.
Ald Rawnsley accused Alds Melky and Stewart of playing “the race card”. He again returned to how “badly written” the motion was. A rule needs to have a consequence if the rule is broken, he said, and the motion did not include a consequence.
Ald Clark said it was clear that the majority of aldermen supported a “more sophisticated approach” and urged that the motion be “put to bed”.
Ald Bitar returned to the crime theme: “People are being bashed because they are walking in the street”. He disputed that crime was decreasing (as suggested by preliminary figures on recorded assaults released by the NT Government yesterday): “Someone is playing with the figures.”
Ald Stewart defended himself from Ald Rawnlsey’s comment on the race card, referring to the strong Indigenous families he mixes with and his “100%” belief in the integration of all peoples.
Ald Melky said he would not apologise for not being more sophisticated, saying he had gone out of his way to be basic. He said everyone understands what a “legitimate reason” for being on the street would be; everyone understands “adult supervision”. His final comment was to challenge his critics “to speak two languages fluently” (Ald Melky is bilingual, speaking Arabic, the language of his native Lebanon, and English).
Ald Taylor concluded the debate by quoting from a 1993 review of curfews as a means to control crime: “Those most in need of social support are those most likely to be subject to a curfew and most likely to fail its conditions”.
The vote, by show of hands, was lost, with only Alds Melky, Bitar and Stewart in favour.
Pictured above: Young opponent of a curfew, Gavin Henderson, who organised a petition against the proposal, with supporters, counsellor and independent candidate for Greatorex at the next NT election, Phil Walcott, and Alderman Sandy Taylor, chair of council’s Corporate and Community Services committee. • Alderman Eli Melky, author of the motion, in the council chamber before the meeting.
Hot debate in council over youth curfew, public stays away
By KIERAN FINNANE