The attack on the permit system in the Northern Territory is well underway — weeks before its abolition is enacted in federal law against the overwhelming wishes of traditional owners throughout the Territory, not to mention the Martin government.

And the leaders of the assault are not Howard and Brough in Canberra, but tourists, with western Arnhem Land as their first target.

Within weeks of the announcement of the “national emergency” facing Aboriginal Territorians, the first waves are hitting communities east of Kakadu, travelling to places such as Oenpelli — known by the locals as Gunbalanya — and Maningrida, the “capital” of this part of Arnhem Land, and the second largest Aboriginal township in the Territory.

In the last week, local Maningrida coppers have intercepted dozens of tourists who have just shown up out of nowhere — despite a road that is yet to be fully graded after the last Wet Season, and water still running high at the Mann River crossing. And despite the fact they are in breach of the Territory’s Aboriginal Land Act which might involve a fine of $1,000.

They all claimed they had been told the permit system had been abolished.

In large part, the false news had spread — word of mouth — through the complicated grapevine of Australia’s grey nomads: retirees and well-off holiday makers who take to the roads all over the country in convoys of caravans.

And others. At least one motor bike rider has already had to be evacuated from Maningrida after a crash on the corrugated road on the run to the isolated town. It’s a sh-t road which has claimed its fair share of accidents over the years with locals, let alone less experienced southern sojourners. Backpackers are on the way in their inevitable second hand campervans.

And there’s irony. One of the happy campers now illegally entering Arnhem land asked Maningrida locals last week where the local Centrelink office was. History doesn’t relate what kind of benefit the enquirer was on, or what the beef with Centrelink might be, but an interesting call in a community about to face compulsory “quarantining” of 50% of welfare benefits.

But it’s Gunbalanya, half an hour east of Kakadu from the Border Store, that is in the front line of the building invasion. ABC Television’s Territory Stateline last week looked hard but couldn’t find a single local supporter of the abolition of the permit system: but plenty of evidence of an escalating number of people slipping across the Cahills Crossing.

And this is a direct threat to traditional owners who have been able to gain an economic benefit from tourism in their town, as Jon Altman has pointed out in Crikey. Licensed tour operators who currently make this possible will now have no obligation to support this aspect of local enterprise for legal and practical reasons: anyone else will be able to get in for free. So much for building local Aboriginal enterprises, employment and income.

And this is only the beginning. Permanent and semi-permanent shanty towns of grey nomads are already on the edge of Aboriginal land, from King Ash Bay at the edge of the Aboriginal-owned Edward Pellew islands near Borroloola to Tomato Island, just over the river from Ngukurr in south east Arnhem Land. The Central Arnhem Highway from south of Katherine to Nhulunbuy will open the heart of northern Aboriginal traditional estates.

Ten days ago the Central Land Council released a firm warning that the permit system was still in place. The Northern Land Council has not done so.

In any case, Brough has only said that the “no permit” regime would only apply to “public areas” in specified communities. Tell that to the marines.

Enquiries have already been received about accommodation for fishing jaunts at Maningrida. Eighty percent of the coast line is Aboriginal-owned, and boats know fewer bounds than rough outback roads and tracks. It will be an assault by sea as well as land.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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