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Jun 28, 2007

Howard’s land grab: The (d)evil is in the permit detail

There are two parts to Howard’s land grab. The first is the compulsory acquisition of the 64 ‘major Aboriginal communities’ spread across the NT , the second is the changes to the permits system under the Aboriginal Land Rights (NT) Act. Neither ‘initiative’ will do anything about Aboriginal child abuse in the NT. Both measures will ring the death knell for Aboriginal land rights, writes Bob Gosford.

Pat Turner is a widely respected Arrente woman renowned as a straight talker. Speaking on behalf of her countrymen and women, she was certainly talking straight when she described Howard’s coup as nothing more than “a land grab”.

“We believe that this Government is using child s-xual abuse as the Trojan horse to resume total control of our land,” she told reporters. “No compensation will ever, ever replace our land-ownership rights.”

There are two parts to Howard’s land grab. The first is the compulsory acquisition of the 64 “major Aboriginal communities” spread across the NT , the second the changes to the permits system under the Aboriginal Land Rights (NT) Act.

Neither “initiative” will do anything about Aboriginal child abuse in the NT. Both measures will ring the death knell for Aboriginal land rights.

Tacked onto the back of the four-page press release announcing Howard’s coup was a one-page document setting out the changes Howard will make to the NT’s permits system.

Howard and Brough have admitted that the changes to the permits law have nothing to do with their Damascene conversions as the new saviours of all Aboriginal children at the expense of their land, culture and law. The changes have everything to do with the hatred that Howard and his fellow travellers have for a system that has for over 30 years provided a sensible set of controls that gives the owners of land control over who can enter and remain on their land and the manner in which they can go there.

There are a few with a few simple rules apply to proposed legislative amendments to check if they are valid and worthwhile (we’ll steer away from legal validity for now – as Howard has said, he will do these things ‘because he can’). Firstly, identify the problem? Secondly, will the measures work? and thirdly, will there be any foreseeable negative consequences upon unrelated parties or persons?

Do Howard’s changes to the permit system in the NT meet this test?

What is the problem?

Brough’s one-page presser makes no reference to any issues to justify this land grab. But a Discussion paper developed by his Office of Indigenous Policy Coordination in October last year does. 

At page 4 the alleged “problems” with the current permit system are identified and include restrictions on media access, the tyranny of remoteness acting as a drag on economic development, that permits were “a vestige of the … protectionist system” and have had no impact on the “scourges” of drug-taking and violence and that they encourage lawlessness. No evidence or reasoned discussion is presented in support of these assertions – Brough wants us to just accept them as fact. There is no mention of child abuse.

Secondly, will the measures work?

From Brough’s press release of 21 June we know that the need for a permit will be removed for public entry into community “common areas”, access roads, airstrips and for attendance at courts. It will also allow unfettered access by NT & Commonwealth public servants. While much of this sounds uncontroversial, the devil, as always, is very much in the detail.

Most of these changes will have little real impact on-the-ground – largely because they have already been addressed. Many, if not all, NT communities have long welcomed the dollars from travellers transiting through Aboriginal lands and in need of fuel and food. Most Aboriginal art centres have either a delegation from the relevant land council to grant permits for visitors or have been able to negotiate a waiver for the need for a permit.

Similarly, the two major land councils, the Central and Northern, have established an expedited permit application process for the increasing numbers of travellers, particularly people like the so-called grey nomads, who want to transit through Aboriginal land. Both have established new protocols easing press access to Bush Courts and in relation to the issue of access to communities by public servants, NT legislation in place since NT self-government in 1978 has allowed the issue of so-called ‘Chief Ministers’ permits for those working on Aboriginal land.

Brough’s ‘problems’ evaporate once you examine the facts. Might there be another, unstated reason for the changes?

Both of the major NT land councils have issued statements in response to Howard’s changes to the permit system. Both condemn his actions as a gross overreaction that smacks of political opportunism:

“Central Land Council Director David Ross said he is concerned that the Government has used the recent Report of the Northern Territory Board of Inquiry into the Protection of Aboriginal Children from S-xual Abuse to force through land-based changes which have nothing to do with s-xual abuse. Furthermore, under the smokescreen of helping children, the Federal Government is taking the opportunity to impose its ideological agenda in relation to Aboriginal land.

“To imply that the permit system is responsible for disadvantage is simplistic and wrong, the only economies scrapping the permit system is likely to foster is the dealing of petrol, drugs and porn as well as to assist the carpetbaggers and unscrupulous art dealers that hope to operate in Aboriginal communities.

“There is just no evidence that ‘open’ communities are better off than communities on Aboriginal land whose access has been regulated by permits, we’re particularly concerned about the removal of the permit system from Mutitjulu at Uluru because the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park currently has half a million people visit it each year and that number of curious tourists is likely to lead to an extreme lack of privacy for people living in the community.” 

“Removing permits from major communities could provide a free-for-all peddling of alcohol and marijuana and pornography or the inflicting of further s-xual or physical abuse on children”.

Norman Fry, director of the Northern Land Council, said:

“… further detail is required. And the NLC opposes certain proposals, including the removal of the permit system in communities … The NLC also seeks clarification as to the extent of compulsory acquisition for five years of land in communities.

“In consultations earlier this year, all communities opposed the removal of the permits system because it allows police to remove drug dealers, carpet baggers, and s-xual predators”.

Brough’s assertions fail any test of facts you want to apply to them – as both David Ross and Norman Fry point out, the current permits system allows for the removal of the sly groggers, drug dealers, carpetbaggers and s-xual predators. That they are still able to ply their trades in some communities is a fault of inadequate policing – not of any inherent failures or flaws in the permit system. Removal of the permit system will give them the green light to do as they wish – do Howard and Brough really think that a few extra shiny-bummed bureaucrats and coppers will be able to stop them?

Will history judge the scrapping of the permit system as a valuable part of Howard and Brough’s fight to protect every Aboriginal child or will it be viewed as a cynical exercise in political opportunism?

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