Crikey has seen legal advice on how Brough’s new laws will negatively affect Aboriginal religious and ceremonial practices, particularly in relation to the closure of land and country outside of the townships now seized by the Commonwealth.

On any day there are dozens, if not hundreds, of traditional Aboriginal religious or secular ceremonies being planned or held across the Northern Territory. They rarely come to the attention of the broader public, in part often because of their secret or sacred religious nature, and also because they are often relatively small, private affairs.

Some ceremonies involve activities in or close to townships but many travel across country from site to site and through the country of different language groups. These travels create new and confirm existing relationships between different groups, clans and individuals and often play an important role in conflict resolution and the maintenance of cultural and personal links across vast swathes of country. Ceremonies link people, cultures and land in a complex interwoven web of relationships, obligations, rights and knowledge.

To date it has been common practice that sites and areas of country where ceremonies are held are closed to all but those invited or essential to the conduct of the particular ceremony. This has often involved the temporary closure of particular roads or areas of land in order to ensure privacy and restricted access in times of ‘sorry business’ (mourning) or ceremony.

These closures are certainly lawful under Aboriginal law. Under European law they were based on the same rights of access enjoyed by all owners of freehold land and arguably, also on a right implied from specific legislation.

Mal Brough has made much of the fact that the changes to the permit system his Government has now rushed through the first phase of Parliamentary approval would protect the practice of religious ceremonies and practices on Aboriginal land. Brough’s Office of Indigenous Policy’s Fact Sheet 15 tells us that,
“The Northern Territory Government will also be given the power to make laws to temporarily restrict access to areas where the permit system no longer applies to protect the privacy of a cultural event or to protect public health and safety.”

But the devil in Brough’s actions is hidden in the detail.

What Brough’s legislation will do is strip from Aboriginal people the powers of determining who can come onto our country and the manner in which they come that they shared with every other owner of freehold land. These powers have now been given to the NT Government, where they will be administered by Clare Martin and her minions.

Inevitably there will be forms to fill in and delays. Inevitably, some applications will be refused. Inevitably, Aboriginal control over the practice of their religious and cultural ceremonies will be substantially diminished.

Brough has been caught out on a lie on his Government’s purported protection of Aboriginal religious and cultural practices in the NT. But that’s not all. Crikey understands that the permit system changes will not be implemented for another six months. 

Peter Fray

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