So it’s back to work, and the Rudd government’s honeymoon is already over – at least it is if the Murdoch press has anything to say about it.

Last week Aboriginal Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin announced that the permit system for Northern Territory settlements, marked for abolition under the previous government’s intervention, would be retained; and the wrath of the Sun King descended upon her and all her works.

Admittedly, this makes The Australian and its messenger, Nicholas Rothwell, a trifle out of step with the mainstream. The permit system favoured by the present federal government, the Northern Territory government, the Northern Territory police force, most Aboriginal leaders, most independent experts in the field and even the Arts and Media Alliance – the union representing the journalists who have most to lose by being barred from entering the settlements without permission.

And of course most of the communities affected were puzzled and alarmed when the gung-ho commander-in-chief of the invasion, the late and unlamented Mal Brough, announced that the permit system was to go.

But to Rothwell and his various editors, the system was anathema: a symbol of apartheid that provided very real protection for paedophiles and drug pedlars. The Australian has provided no evidence of how the system sheltered such criminals, and the police say it had the opposite effect of enabling communities to exile such offenders when they could not be charged. But it is true that the permit system at least once kept Rothwell from visiting Wadeye at a time of unrest.

Far from being some sinister and unique privilege granted only to Aborigines, as The Australian suggests, the permit system is a simple recognition that land owned by Aborigines has exactly the same legal status as land owned by other Australians. The title has been granted by the courts under the Land Rights Act; it is therefore private property, no more or less so than Rupert Murdoch’s own backyard. It is true that it is owned by a trust rather than by an individual, but that is irrelevant; the law allows for all kinds of multiple occupancy, strata title, gated communities etc and has for a very long time.

The permit system reaffirms the validity of the Land Rights Act; and one of the reasons there was so much distress and even outrage when Brough proposed to abolish it was that the proposal was seen as a covert attack on the whole system of land rights, a suspicion confirmed by Brough’s insistence that the settlements would be leased back by the Commonwealth for the duration of the intervention. Once the communities could no longer control who came to their land (or the circumstances by which they came, as John Howard might have added) it ceased to be their land in any meaningful sense; they were there only by the grace and favour of the government, which could be withdrawn (as the intervention showed) at any time.

Land rights has been arguably the only substantial achievement on the path to reconciliation. The idea remains absolutely central to Aboriginal culture and to any aspirations towards genuine reconciliation. Rothwell and The Australian have, in recent times, provided serious and thoughtful coverage of indigenous Australia. We can only hope last week’s attack was an aberration. If they really must beat up the Rudd government, there are plenty of less sensitive areas in which to pick a fight.

It is possible to make out a logical case for killing and eating some non-endangered whale species. Shorn of the anthropomorphism on which much of the anti-whaling argument is based (admittedly no easy task – the creatures are hugely appealing, at least at a safe distance) whales are just mammals; majestic ones, certainly, but not qualitatively different from cows, sheep or pigs. Indeed, there is a theory that the restrictions of a marine environment have meant they are less evolved and intelligent than many of the land animals we routinely domesticate and consume.

Farming whales is clearly impractical, but if you have no moral objection to eating meat, there is no reason not to hunt them in the same way as deer or kangaroos. Except one: it is just bad economics. For all but a handful of subsistence coastal tribes there are far cheaper and more reliable sources of animal protein. To suggest that a country as wealthy as Japan needs to send fleets to the Antarctic to maintain its food supply is clearly ludicrous.

The lie, which no-one believes (or is meant to believe) that is all in the name of scientific research to establish conditions for a return to genuine commercial whaling is even sillier. And in the end much of the catch remains uneaten anyway: despite efforts to inculcate Japanese children into a non-existent tradition of eating whale meat, much of it ends up as pet food or fertiliser.

So why do they do it? Sheer perversity? Some misplaced display of national pride? Or just because they can? Who knows. But they are not going to stop, and if shortages in other areas ever make hunting the more prolific whales (minkes, for instance) worthwhile, we had better have an answer to the argument above. We may see killing kangaroos as humane and legitimate, but not everyone agrees, and it is hard to make a case for one but not the other.

We can, however, refute one common libel: we are not the only country which eats its own national symbol. The English may have run out of lions and unicorns, but the French remain partial to coq au vin.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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