The 2007 Northern Territory Intervention resulted in a rise in driving infringements for indigenous people living in remote communities in Central Australia.
In these communities, access to a vehicle is essential and means the difference between isolation and community access and engagement.
UTS Law academic, Dr Thalia Anthony says before the intervention, there were often tacit agreements between police and residents about ‘off road’ areas:
For example, in one remote community, there’s a dirt track running parallel to the main highway in and out of town. Aboriginal people who perhaps did not have a driver’s licence or were driving uninsured and ‘un-roadworthy’ vehicles were allowed to drive these tracks, provided they were not inebriated.
This changed with the influx of police who did not have the same shared knowledge of the area and the indigenous communities.
Dr Anthony has conducted extensive field work and amassed a body of research including her latest co-authored study on the criminalisation of mobility:
It’s a critical issue for Warlpiri people who have no alternative than to drive, including due to obligations under Aboriginal law, even where they do not have a valid licence or a registered and insured vehicle. There is no public transport. Services they might urgently need are located several hundred kilometres away in Alice Springs.
Since the Intervention began, public policing in remote Indigenous communities has increased exponentially - driving offences that present no immediate risk and were previously informally tolerated are now the subject of robust law enforcement.
Dr Anthony says there’s a disconnect between white expectations and indigenous realities:
While the state has intervened in relation to law enforcement, it has not provided the kind of support necessary to ensure that Indigenous people can comply with the regulations. Many Indigenous people lack driving licences, which can only be obtained after passing a test in English which requires intimate knowledge and experience of urban road rules.
The research suggests mainstream law enforcement in remote communities is not working and there’s a pressing need to develop alternative systems to address driver safety.
Justice Alternatives - ROADS TO FREEDOM? Indigenous mobility and settler law in Central Australia, Harry Blagg and Thalia Anthony
STOP in the Name of Who’s Law? Driving and the Regulation of Contested Space in Central Australia, Thalia Anthony and Harry Blagg