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.
Nose-diving CBD: it happened on the 11th Council's watch
COMMENT by KIERAN FINNANE