The Alice: celebrate the good, fix the bad – now!


This week’s Food for Thought panel member is veterinarian Debbie Osborne, a local for nearly thee decades. When it comes to commitment to The Alice she’s put her money where her mouth is: A year ago she opened one of the nation’s best equipped animal hospitals in Milner Road. To her the town is mostly good – and what’s not can be fixed, and the sooner the better, she says!
Alice Springs is a great town. It has been since I first arrived 28 years ago, and I’m sure it always was. Seeing the stars at night still takes my breath away; as does the sight of ranges at certain times, in just the right light.
What better way to start the day than watching the sunrise through my kitchen window? Or to finish the day looking at the ghost gums in the evening sun from my back porch? We truly live in a special place. Is there anywhere else in Australia where you can live 5 minutes walk from the CBD and have chooks in the back yard?
Alice Springs has changed in 28 years. Change is inevitable. A lot of change has been for the better.
When I first arrived, someone commented that “Alice Springs people don’t walk; we drive everywhere.” That was true! Todd Mall was only half a mall, with traffic still allowed travelling from south to north. We couldn’t commit to the idea of no traffic in the main street. If we were going to lunch at Swingers Cafe in Reg Harris Lane and couldn’t park within three spaces of the entrance to the lane, we were really annoyed.
Now we still drive what I consider to be ridiculously short distances, but so many more of us ride bikes and walk. This has been made easier by the creation of bike / foot paths along the river and other parts of town, but we need more.
A recent improvement in the mall is the water bubblers and taps, with the signs encouraging people to reuse their water bottles. What a great idea! Could we take this further? Bundanoon, in the NSW Southern Highlands, has, since 2009, been Australia’s first (and only?) “Bottled Water Free Town”. Could we become a “Bottled Water Free Town”?
With Alice Solar City and Alice Water Smart and Cool Mob, we have already embraced environmental-friendliness. Could we extend the taps and bubblers project to other areas of town and encourage people to use reusable drink bottles?
Education has certainly improved. In the mid-80s, it was unusual to meet a young adult who had grown up in the town. Many children went interstate to boarding school, stayed for university and never really came back. OLSH only went to year 10 and St Philips was just a boarding hostel. There was no university in NT. Now there are lots of education opportunities and options in Alice Springs which  makes it easier for families to stay permanently.
When I first came here, I was intrigued by the “2km Law”.
Fortunately, there were no licensed premises at the airport (the tiny building just to the west of the new airport). December would see residents arriving at the airport with Eskys to farewell friends off home for Christmas. We’d sit on the lawn out the front of the airport, drinking beer, sipping wine.
The friends we were farewelling would head off across the tarmac to board their plane and just as we considered leaving, another group of friends (or perhaps just acquaintances) would arrive with their Esky, so we’d stay a bit longer. Several hours on a Saturday could be spent at the airport. (I’m sure we had a Sober Bob to drive us home, so please don’t anyone lecture me on glorifying our drinking culture.) Then someone put a bar at the airport and it was never the same.
Is there anywhere now where such an impromptu gathering could occur?
We are introducing more and more laws restricting sale of and places one is allowed to consume alcohol. I know the supporters of these initiatives believe they are the best option and have statistics to support their argument. I recognise the damage that alcohol does, but are we really achieving anything by more restrictive measures? Surely efforts (financial and manpower) would be put to better use in solving the underlying problems.
In November 2008, the Todd River was bank to bank at Wills Tce. There was a crowd of people watching the river. It would have been so “Alice Springs” to sit on the river bank on a hot November evening with a cold beer and perhaps some nibbles or even a picnic tea (maybe a pizza from Casa Nostra) and enjoy the spectacle of the river bank to bank. Yes, I can (and did) enjoy being there with the crowds without needing to consume alcohol. But a picnic with a few beers would have been so nice!
I have a belief that good laws are:
• enforceable;
• protect innocent people;
• do not inconvenience a reasonable person acting responsibly.
Based on the above criteria, Alice Springs has many laws that are not so good. Can we really stop people that are determined to get drunk from doing so, and if I am responsibly having a beer or two on the banks of the river, is that really a crime?
Can we, and should we, stop people from camping in the river? What harm is done by people camping in the river? Yes, littering is a problem and that should be dealt with via littering laws (and a reasonable person acting responsibly would not be inconvenienced by this). Being drunk and disorderly is a problem and should be dealt with under appropriate laws that do not inconvenience reasonable people acting responsibly. And people that need help should get help, not be pushed away from the public view, out of sight, out of mind.
Alice Springs has problems.
I believe we are mature enough to examine the problems and look for real solutions. Applying bandaids by creating laws that appear to be addressing the problems but provide no real solutions is not good enough.
One thing I loved about Alice Springs when I first arrived was the “can do” attitude. There wasn’t much happening, so we organised a B&S Ball, complete with band from down south. No government funding. It was held in the Youth Centre.
The organising committee was the Mt Gillen Ski Club. Alice Springs had a Miss Australia! (Nothing to do with the B&S Ball, just throwing it in there.) We still have some great ideas (e.g. Beanie Festival) and get things done in a one-off emergency (e.g. our fantastic fund-raising for people in need). However, now we tend to whinge a bit more and expect the government (whatever tier) to solve our niggling, chronic problems. We need another airline because Qantas is ripping us off. Really? If Tiger (and Virgin before them) were making a profit, wouldn’t they still be flying here? Darwin gets more money than us. Well, they have more people and more politicians. Nothing for kids to do. Really? You have the biggest back yard in the universe – get out there and enjoy it. Just be home before the street lights come on.
I do worry about our kids.
I hear the arguments for and against a curfew. I understand that as a punishment, there is no evidence that it works. What really concerns me is the argument against a curfew that says these children are safer on the streets than at home. We are a first world country. How can we leave children on the streets at night because they are safer there than at home? If there really are children on the streets at night because their homes are unsafe, then providing a safe environment for these children must be a priority. It’s not about punishment. It’s about looking after people who can’t look after themselves. We managed to raise money for a bunch of blokes to go on a sailing trip (Alice Springs Yacht Club in the Sydney to Hobart), so surely we can provide a safe haven for young people at risk.
Perhaps I am naive, but I have never felt unsafe in Alice Springs. I go to Melbourne and worry that I could be caught in the cross-fire of some gang warfare (thanks, Underbelly), but I am very comfortable walking home across the Wills Terrace bridge at 9pm. I doubt there is anywhere in the world I would feel comfortable walking around alone at 3am. I don’t mind bikes and skateboards in the mall (safe walking pace, please). Why ban bikes and skateboards? We can’t enforce this law. Just hold people accountable if they’re being irresponsible. The more people we have out and about, on foot, on bikes, on skateboards, with dogs, with children, the safer we will all feel, the fitter we will be and the more we will interact with each other. That’s got to be a good thing!
Alice Springs is unique. Our people are unique. Our environment is unique.
Let’s not be limited to doing things how they are done down south. Let’s not use restrictive and punitive measures to solve our problems. Let’s get back our “can do” attitude and not wait for outsiders to sort us out. We’re still great. Let’s be greater.
Photo above: Bicycle riders, skateboarders – provided they are sensible – could breathe new life into the mall.


  1. Well said Debbie … common sense from someone who is prepared to “tell it like it is”. It really is time for the city Fathers to sit down and face reality, and if they do not, perhaps Debbie should consider running in the next elections. I remember The Alice as a great little town, and a great place to bring up my five kids. Why not get it back to that?

  2. Agree with Debbie. With all the problems businesses are having staying in the mall, why impose laws that drive potential patrons away? Council, please consider some of these excellent suggestions.

  3. Thanks, Terry. They’re not called the good old days for nothing! However, to be fair to ASTC, they have done quite a bit to make the town more liveable. I mentioned the bubblers and the bike paths. The northern end of the Mall has power points and in the evening there are frequently people sitting in the Mall with their laptops plugged in. I don’t know if there’s WiFi access there or not, but assume there is. Having people in the Mall makes it safer, and should encourage more people into the Mall after dark, making it even safer. ASTC have introduced areas where people can exercise their dogs off leash. They even provide bags for the faeces to be collected. This also gets more people out and about, interacting with each other and creating a safer environment.
    The council can’t always get it right. Any initiative will have its detractors, and we tend to be much more aware of what they haven’t done or what hasn’t worked. However, I like to think all council members are there for the right reasons, even the ones I disagree with.
    Thanks for the support, but I’m not sure I’m ready for the public criticism that would come with being on council!

  4. I fully agree with the positive take on Alice, but I have to comment on camping in the Todd. Without expensive amenities, camping becomes a health issue. It’s important to remember that the Todd River is a shared natural, but urban, corridor, and what is the first thing we all do upon waking in the morning?
    This action common to us all is not voluntary, such as drinking responsibly is.

  5. Maybe Debbie feels safe walking across the Wills Terrace bridge at 9pm at night, I didn’t even feel safe walking across it at about 5pm, especially when I was nearly assaulted on that bridge, by a group of Aboriginal youths. They had already harassed a couple of other women with a baby with them when I was on the bridge. Once they had finished with the two women they ran back to harass me and one of them took a swing at me. I reported the incident to the police and they said they couldn’t do anything. Quite a few other times, I have been and I have also seen others being accosted on that bridge, by groups of youths, at various times during the day and night.


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