From day one of Howard and Brough’s concocted emergency in the NT, the proposed changes to the permit system under the Aboriginal Land Rights (NT) Act stood out as having only the most tenuous connection to the issue of addressing child abuse in remote NT Aboriginal communities. The permits proposal was (literally) tacked onto the back of Howard and Brough’s four-page Media Release announcing the intervention.

Howard and Brough have used three lines to justify the proposed changes. The first is that the system is broke – that the permit system has done nothing to protect Aboriginal children from abuse and did nothing to stop the rivers of grog flowing into communities.

The second is that they intend to open communities to the same kind of press scrutiny other communities in Australia receive while also “opening the floodgates” of economic opportunity to the impoverished townships.

The third line of reasoning is, notwithstanding the overwhelming support for the permits system from Aboriginal people, when Brough and his senior public servants talk to Aboriginal people in public forums, they tell one story in public, but tell another story in private.

All of these justifications have been closely examined by Crikey and elsewhere over the last five weeks and it would be fair to say that Howard and Brough have neither advanced their case nor adequately responded to the criticisms made of the proposal to abolish the permits system.

Australia Talks is one of those occasionally frustrating ABC Radio National programs that can one day be mawkishly sentimental and twee and the next provide a valuable and forensic examination of an issue. Last night’s program was one of the latter.

Host Paul Barclay asked the question:

Does the Federal Government need to assume Aboriginal land, and indeed, abolish permits in order to fix the child abuse problem in remote communities … is this the only way to make sure that the problem is addressed?

None of the callers and guests, bar one, could see any nexus between the proposed permit changes and child s-xual abuse.

One of Barclay’s guests was Major-General Dave Chalmers, Operational Commander of the NT Emergency Response Task Force. Like most members of the Task Force, Chalmers’ public exposure has been limited, so last night’s program provided a valuable opportunity to test Howard and Brough’s justifications for the abolition of the permit system:

BARCLAY: Dave, that relationship between child s-xual abuse and the permit system, do you believe that it’s a strong relationship, do you believe that it’s imperative that if we are to deal with child s-xual abuse that the permit system does need to be revoked?

Chalmers struggled to answer what seemed a direct and straightforward question:

CHALMERS: Well, firstly let me say that though I respect your caller’s views, um, there is no hidden agenda here, this is a complex problem, it’s a complex problem that needs to be attacked on many fronts. What we need to do is to re-establish security and law and order in communities, we need to stop the alcohol and stop domestic violence, and then … longer term process [sic]. We need to develop employment opportunities, education opportunities, help people to help themselves in improving the maintenance of their homes. So there’s many fronts and we need many tools to do that. Now look, the … err … permit system is one of the tools that the government is giving … err … me and the people who are working in the intervention to use.

Another of Barclay’s guests was Vince Kelly, President of the NT Police Association, who had no problem getting to the nub of the question and an assessment of the line run by Howard, Brough and Chalmers:

BARCLAY: What are your members, the police who work in these remote communities, what are they saying about the value of the permit system as a remote policing tool?

KELLY: I think the Major-General’s comments about the complex issue of permits, it seemed to me as defending a political position. The Major-General, nor has the Federal Government, made a clear connection between the permit system that they want to remove and the reduction or elimination of abuse of Aboriginal women and children in these remote communities. I’m not necessarily against the removal of the permit system but at this stage there is no clear connection been made in my mind and these statements that its going to help, that its going to reduce s-xual abuse, well if it is going to do it, how is it going to do it? Neither Mr Brough, nor now the Major-General can clearly make that point. Quite simply, the permit system does apply in a number of communities and our members on the ground in those communities, despite what the Major-General says, believe that this does provide a useful policing tool, a useful way for the responsible authorities like the Central Land Council and the Northern Land Council, have some sort of control over who comes into these communities.

BARCLAY: I think the Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister, Mal Brough, has said that the permit system clearly hasn’t protected anyone from grog-runner and child abusers …

KELLY: The simple answer to that is that the permit system isn’t designed to protect people from those kinds of things, and it’s, simply, the Minister has not made the connection … To somehow tie this permit system, in my view, has clouded possibly the good intentions of the Federal Government in what is clearly a political issue and it simply is not necessary. The Major-General also said that the removal of the permit system will allow government workers to assist in the process. Well that is simply nonsense. Government workers currently have access to these communities.

BARCLAY: And the argument that by abolishing the permit system you open up these remote Aboriginal communities to more intense public scrutiny and that might make a long term difference to stamping out s-xual abuse by making it more transparent …

KELLY: I don’t know that argument holds a lot of weight or a lot of water. Some journalists have suggested that the allowance of journalists into these communities to allow closer scrutiny will result in a reduction of sexual assault and this type of abuse. I simply don’t accept that. I don’t know the last time that a journalist was responsible for the prosecution of an offender for any offence.

Peter Fray

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