The Socialist Party has worked in alliance with the local Aboriginal community in inner city Melbourne to win an important reform. Yarra Council has agreed to fund a new project officer to find a site and a suitable governance model for a new community centre for the indigenous people who currently meet on Smith St, Collingwood.
On May 7 the Socialist Party called a public meeting on the issue, where all chairs were filled at Fitzroy Town Hall’s Reading Room.
Smith St is a major centre for Aboriginal people in Melbourne, as indeed the whole local area has been for many years. Some traders and rightwing media outlets and more recently the State Government have been running a campaign to get Yarra Council to introduce Local Law No.8 to ban public drinking on the street.
In opposition to this, the SP has been working with the local Aboriginal community and other groups to have a harm minimisation/public health response to the issues on the street.
This would include an Aboriginal community centre on Smith St for people to have a shower, food, activities, and referrals for public health, education and training. With this alternative available, much fewer people will drink on the street according to the drinkers themselves.
After much campaigning by SP, including a public rally last year, Council has put aside funds in their 2008/09 budget for such a centre. This will go a long way to help on Smith St.
Unfortunately, apart from constant nagging to introduce Local Law No.8, the State Labor Government has not offered any financial help for this project and the Council has been forced to cover the costs alone.
SP Councillor Stephen Jolly addressed the meeting first and said that SP does not condone anti-social behaviour from anyone, however we need to put the issues in context. Most violent assaults in the area occur not on Smith St, but rather at night near the bars and clubs on Swan and Brunswick Sts, or as a result of domestic violence. He argued that a local law would only push drinking to nearby residential areas.
The second speaker was local Aboriginal leader, Denise Lovett. She powerfully explained the massive social problems and trauma experienced by many of the folk who drink on Smith St. She outlined the hypocrisy of those who want to ban (mainly black) public drinking, but allow (mainly white) street drinking as long as it occurs on outdoor chairs attached to clubs and pubs.
The final speaker was Meghan Fitzgerald from the Fitzroy Legal Service who explained that there were plenty of criminal sanctions already on the books to cover anti-social behaviour. A new local law, which would include a $200 spot fine for public drinking, would only lead to non-payment and more legal dramas for the most vulnerable members of our community.
In the discussion, the majority of contributions opposed a local law and supported the announcement of the community centre. Analogies were made between the previous and current Federal government’s law and order methods in the Northern Territory and calls here for a local law.
Aboriginal people spoke movingly of why some of their community drink to kill the pain of past trauma, including being part of the Stolen Generation. There was discussion about the thin layer of paid bureaucrats in Aboriginal organisations who soak up many resources but often resent independent action from ordinary people in their community.
In the sum-up, Stephen asked if the ‘War on Drugs’ failed in the powerful USA despite spending billions how can a ‘War on Public Drinking’ be won through a local law at Yarra? The issue of public drinking is a social problem and needs social solutions.
He said we need more resources for our community facilities like better staffing and we need to create this new facility quickly. This being said it is clear that at the moment the trend is for governments to move in the opposite, neo-liberal direction. This entire trend needs to be challenged.
SP and the community need to work together to fight for these reforms. This has been how we have saved services in the past years like ‘The Cottages’, St. Andrews Kindergarten, St Vinnies food depot and the Collingwood Community Information Centre. This is also the method that was used to convince Council to introduce Green Waste.
That’s why in November this year at the Council election we will not be surprised if the ALP and Greens make an unholy alliance to try to preference SP out of our position on Council. The message to residents from SP is clear – without fighting Councillors you will be worse off and the ALP and Greens will get away with murder like they do in neighbouring Councils.
By SP reporters