There must be an early federal election in the wind – how else to explain the re-emergence of the “We will decide who comes into (Aboriginal) country and the circumstances under which they come” line from our Prime Minister.

The federal government’s mooted plan to abolish the NT Aboriginal land permit system is a “reform” designed simply to take media attention away from the Howard government’s repeated failings in Indigenous affairs. The bonus is that the reforms will increase white access to Aboriginal land.

The government is hoping media will mistake feverish activity for progress. Thus far, the only activity has been to undermine hard-won Aboriginal rights, and ignore desperate Aboriginal need. As the permit system currently works, if you want to access Aboriginal land, you need permission. You apply to a land council (which will also soon be abolished) for a permit and in some cases you may be charged a very small fee (but usually not).

The changes to the permit system are borne of a less than honest campaign from The Australian newspaper. It took great offence when a recent media frenzy over the community of Wadeye saw the paper locked out. Perhaps its lost on the big wigs in Holt Street, but Fairfax, the ABC and Channel Nine had no problems accessing Wadeye. Only News Limited did. I wonder why that would be?

A fortnight ago, Mal Brough was arguing that the horrendous s-xual abuse of a young boy in Maningrida was an example of why media should not be restricted in entering Aboriginal communities. This week, he’s arguing that the abolition of the permit system is about economic development and increasing opportunities for Aboriginal people.

Both arguments are pure tosh.

Firstly, with the greatest of respect to my professional colleagues, I’d suggest that the one thing communities like Wadeye and Maningrida DON’T need is more journalists. I think health, education, housing and economic development might be a more pressing set of concerns.

Secondly, removing the permit system does the precise opposite of creating economic opportunities. At the moment, it provides a source of income, albeit a very small one. Economic development is non-existent in Aboriginal communities not because of a land permit system, but because government’s know ignoring the needs of Aboriginal people won’t lose them an election (or even a seat in parliament).

The Howard government has spent the past decade repeating its mantra about the importance of “practical reconciliation” — ie, the delivery of real outcomes rather than symbolism. Yet confronted with the burgeoning crisis in Aboriginal communities (highlighted recently by a media that seems to have had no trouble accessing information), the government does precisely nothing to overcome the crisis other than fiddle at the edges of permit systems and land rights legislation.

Amending the permit system will not create a single job. It will not build a single house, educate a single child, or fix a single sick blackfella. Prime Minister John Howard told The Australian today that the land permit system had to go because it resulted in Aboriginal people being treated differently and kept out of the “mainstream”.

This is fantastic news. I look forward to the Prime Minister legislating to give Aboriginal people the same rights as everyone else. I look forward to the Howard government finally moving to address the $2.3 billion in unmet need in Indigenous housing which it has ignored for a decade. I look forward to the half billion annual shortfall in health also finally being tackled… Basically all the “stuff” other Australians expect as a right of citizenship.

But most of all, with ALL Australians now losing the right to determine who comes onto their land, I look forward to the barbecue at The Lodge which I’m planning for Saturday. I’ll be bringing a few friends. Should I bring a plate as well?

Peter Fray

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