Coronavirus stimulus payments have unforeseen consequences for this remote community, say leaders
For the last few months traditional owner John Wilson has been devastated to see an upsurge in alcohol-fuelled violence tearing his remote Northern Territory Indigenous community, Peppimenarti, apart.
“We’ve had some devastating violence, people being injured, destruction of people’s private property,” he said.
The Peppimenarti community leader and West Daly Regional Council Mayor said since the Federal Government raised welfare payments in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, many local people have spent the extra money on alcohol.
“A lot of people are doing the right thing, buying white goods and food but a lot of people are doing the wrong thing with it, buying alcohol,” he said.
He said smugglers are taking advantage of the increased demand, in a community where takeaway alcohol has been banned since the NT Intervention in 2007.
“People are paying $500 for a bottle of rum and you can’t be spending family payments on alcohol,” he said.
“The families don’t seem to care but I wish they would see what $500 a bottle would do to put food on the table.”
The traditional owner said the heavy drinking has exacerbated tensions and jealousies within the community, which usually simmer below the surface.
He said community leaders have been working with the local police to try to stop the smuggling.
They have made some big seizures but they can’t man the main road into the area all the time and the smugglers carefully monitor the officers’ shifts.
New project channelling community energy during coronavirus
Many people in the community of 200 rely on welfare and under the Federal Government’s remote work-for-the-dole scheme, most who can are usually engaged in work and training.
But Mr Wilson said because the Government has also removed its welfare mutual obligation requirements during the pandemic, most people have disengaged from community development programs (CDP).
“They were doing beautification in the park and fencing, we’ve been doing courses with welding but when COVID-19 came in it stuffed us up,” he said.
But he can now see a ray of hope in the community because some of the people who have stopped doing CDP have now pitched in to help build a new BMX bike track for the community’s children.
Community organisations including the Council and local Deewin Kirim Aboriginal Corporation organised $25,000 and the labour needed to bring all the soil into the community and build the track.
Children who’ve truanted from school during the COVID-19 crisis won’t be allowed to ride here if they skip school.
“It will get the kids back to school because those that don’t go to an education, they won’t be on the bike track,” he said.
Coronavirus has ‘revealed cracks in the system’
Unlike many of the Northern Territory’s completely dry communities, Peppimenarti has a social club, which has retarded the demand for illegal takeaway alcohol by selling very limited numbers of drinks to locals four nights a week.
The club’s manager Karl Lukanovic said its forced closure during the national COVID-19 lockdown encouraged smuggling, not only in Peppimenarti but across the whole west of the NT.
“We were shut down for nearly eight weeks,” he said.
“The impact on us all has been anti-social behaviour, a lot of violence not just here in Peppimenarti, there’s been a lot be happening in the whole district.”
Mr Lukanovic, who is also the chairman of the West Daly Council’s Regional Authority said in common with many other remote communities, disputes and tensions in Peppimenarti are exacerbated by social disadvantage indicators including overcrowded housing.
“We have 15 to 20 people living in some of the houses.”
“Peppi needs about 40 more houses but we seem to get just one new house every 10 years.”
Mr Lukanovic said many people in the community are extremely worried the upsurge in violence will send more of their young people to jail.
“We don’t want to see them going into Don Dale or the Holtze Correctional facility, it just doesn’t work — when they come out and do it again,” he said.
Wes Miller, who manages governance programs for the NT’s peak Aboriginal health organisations, said that as he travels around the NT’s remote communities many leaders are telling him the increased welfare payments are being spent on alcohol.
“Coronavirus has revealed a lot of cracks in the system, just as it has in aged care facilities.
“Governments need to work closely together on this because of the unintended consequences.”
BMX track offers chance to make community stronger during pandemic
Peppimenarti’s community’s night patrol team leader Annunciata Wilson has been on the front line of dealing with the problems.
“There’s drugs everywhere, fighting, unrest, damaged properties,” she said.
But watching families interacting together for the first time in weeks at the BMX track she said she is hopeful this will be a place they can start to address their problems.
“When everything comes back to normal we’ll sit down and talk about the issues and move on and be happy again as a community and stronger.”
Twelve-year-old Peppemenarti School student Talia Donald said she is hopeful the new track will encourage all of her friends to come back to school.
“So everyone can get the right amount of education to do stuff they couldn’t if they didn’t get education, like get a job.
“I would like to work helping ocean life or to be a ranger like my father.”