Yesterday was the closing day for submissions to Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough’s Mickey Mouse inquiry into the effectiveness of the permit system which governs visits to Aboriginal land in the Northern Territory.

In October of last year, Brough used a parliamentary Dorothy Dixer to trawl through the sordid details of a particularly ugly s-xual assault in the remote community of Maningrida, 300 kilometres east of Darwin.

Then he had a brain fade. The abolition of the permit system, he told the media, would lead to increased media scrutiny of remote communities and therefore reduce the incidence of s-xual assault: That’s right, the Minister’s patented recipe for reducing violence in remote communities was the provision not of more police – but of more journalists.

In any case, the proposition that remote communities are not subject to media scrutiny is risible, given the saturation mainstream coverage of events at Wadeye and Mutitjulu during the last 12 months.

Brough’s bluff was called, and he responded by whipping up a quick and dirty “discussion paper” consisting of all of six pages of actual argument. The document bore the hallmarks of half an hour’s half-hearted internet research in the Qantas Club between flights.

The discussion paper signs off with the remarkably lame statement that “The Australian Government will consider the submissions received and any other relevant material with the aim of making an announcement of any reform in early 2007.”

Naturally the paper suggested a range of options. It’s a standard ploy to offer a handful of choices, however constrained, so that those affected will look unreasonable if they won’t agree to any of the proposals.

Would Indigenous Australians prefer to be kicked, punched, poisoned, garrotted or kneecapped? Well, sorry to seem curmudgeonly, Aboriginal people are saying – but none of these options have particular appeal.

The permits system has its legal basis in the 1976 Aboriginal Land Rights (NT) Act, which says simply that intending visitors to the private landholdings of Aboriginal people should first seek the permission of the owners: a familiar enough concept in western property law.

Central Land Council Director, David Ross, has pointed out that the permit system allows Aboriginal people a measure of privacy and offers some protection against desecration of sacred sites, and exploitation of Aboriginal people by unscrupulous art dealers.

Yesterday, ALP spokesperson on Indigenous Affairs, Jenny Macklin, called on the Minister to make submissions to the inquiry public, so that the issues could be more fully debated in the community.

She has a point. Minister Brough must provide a great deal more justification before interfering with the operation of a system which is widely agreed to be operating effectively.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey