Australia – there goes the neighborhood

Australia – there goes the neighborhood

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March 27, 2007

THE BIG READ: There goes the neighbourhood
by Chris Graham,
March 22, 2007

Aboriginal landowners in the Northern Territory are facing the prospect of losing the land permit system which allows them to control who accesses their private freehold land. CHRIS GRAHAM takes a look at the federal government plans to ‘determine who comes onto Aboriginal land and the circumstances under which they come’.

It’s Mal Brough’s story, and he’s sticking to it: “I am… aware of the allegation of the rape of a 12-year-old boy in Maningrida in Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory…. [the boy] was raped by five juveniles and five adults from that community,” the Minister for Indigenous Affairs told federal parliament last year.

“It raised with me the concern I have as to why this had not been more widely reported, as I am sure it would have been in almost any other part of the country.”

That was Mal Brough in the House of Representatives on September 12 last year.

It was the first salvo in the Coalition’s long-held ambitions to water down the land rights of Indigenous Territorians.

Brough’s statements came in the middle of last year’s media frenzy over violence in Aboriginal communities.

The only problem was Brough was wrong on several fronts.

Firstly, the story of a young Maningrida boy allegedly being brutally raped has received extensive media coverage.

This newspaper has filed almost 20 stories on the matter. Both The Australian and the ABC have also filed extensively on the matter, as has Australian Associated Press (AAP).

Media were, admittedly, slow to pick the story up, but the reason is simple.

It’s called a suppression order.

Shortly after the men and youths were charged with the assault, a magistrate ruled that the matter could not be reported by the media.

Within a few days, however, the suppression order expired.

Media got to work.

By the time Brough made his comments in parliament around a dozen stories had already been filed nationally.

But it’s when you get to the reasoning behind Brough’s claims of lack of media coverage that his argument lurches from the tenuous to the bizarre.

“One of the conclusions I have come to is that unfortunately with Maningrida, like so many other remote Indigenous communities, people still require permits to go there.

“They need to seek the permission of a select group in order to be able to go directly to these communities.

“We can no longer allow the situation to occur where children are being abused, where these various serious crimes are being perpetrated on people and where the full glare of Australia’s public through its media cannot be brought to bear so that Australians demand that this no longer occur.”

So according to Brough, the violence that occurs in Aboriginal communities is a result of lack of media access.

One wonders how Brough explains the violence in Iraq, the Mecca of choice for a war-hungry media.

But logic aside, Brough is arguing that what Aboriginal towns need is more journalists.

It’s precisely the sort of claim you might expect from a minister in a government that has presided over more than a decade of government neglect of the nation’s poorest citizens.

Brough’s argument is not a particularly strong one. But first, the background.

Aboriginal land in the NT is freehold land – the same title that all other Australian land-owners enjoy, save for one important difference.

NT Aboriginal land is ‘inalienable’, which means it can’t be bought or sold.

It can only be transferred through generations of traditional owners.

The primary reason for the inalienability is to prevent Aboriginal land from being lost to carpetbaggers, developers and miners, a phenomena which has occurred in other western countries with Indigenous populations, like Canada and the United States.

The land is controlled by the Aboriginal Land Rights Act (Northern Territory), which was implemented in 1976.

The permit system was created in recognition of the fact that vast areas of Aboriginal land also contained large communities, thus there was a need to ensure balance between the freehold land rights of Aboriginal people, and the need to ensure access to Aboriginal towns and the broader Aboriginal estate.

It is this part of the system that the Howard government wants to break down.

A month after his September 12 attack on the permit system, Brough released a discussion paper which detailed the federal government plans.

The document runs to just eight pages, with the actual argument for abolishing the permit system taking up just four of those pages.

The entire document runs to less than 2,500 words (that’s about half the length of this NIT feature).

By anyone’s standards, it’s not what you’d call comprehensive.

It’s also not what you might class as ‘evidenced-based’.

The discussion paper is littered with bold statements of opinion, backed up by no examples of evidence.

To bastardise a recent quote by Paul Keating, Brough’s discussion paper is ‘all tip and no ice-berg’.

“Originally designed to ‘protect’ Aboriginal people from the worst aspects of modern society, the permit system has contributed to denying Aboriginal people access to the normal advantages of mainstream Australian society,” the paper claims.

“[The permit system]… has prevented Aboriginal people from benefiting fully from their land rights.”

Then there’s this: “Many Aboriginal communities on Aboriginal land in the Northern Territory are already remote geographically. The permit system has operated to maintain or even increase that remoteness – both economically and socially.”

And this: “It has detracted from self-reliance and contributed to Aboriginal disadvantage.”

And this: “Individual Aboriginal people who have wanted to engage in the market economy or mainstream Australian society have, in effect, been prevented by gate keepers.”

And finally this: “External scrutiny, from the media… while sometimes unnecessarily intrusive, acts as a check and balance on unhealthy or even criminal behaviour… [I]n remote Aboriginal communities, restricted media access has created what some have called a ‘monopoly of silence’.”

The paper puts forward five options for the future of the permit system. Readers of the paper are left on no doubt which option the government prefers.

Options one and two propose amending the permit laws in accordance with the recent changes to the ALRA which allow people – white and black – to lease Aboriginal land.

Neither option is worth dwelling on, because the discussion admits they’re unworkable and wouldn’t achieve the outcomes the government is looking for.

Option three proposes expanding the categories of people able to enter Aboriginal land without permission, most notably journalists.

Option five proposes abolishing the system altogether, in favour of trespass laws.

That leaves option four, which is clearly the government’s preferred model.

Indeed, it’s the only option in the discussion paper which the government says will achieve its stated aims.

It reads: “Reverse the current restrictive permission-based access system to a liberal system with specific area exclusions. Access to Aboriginal Land would not require a permit unless a particular area was designated as restricted. The Northern Territory Aboriginal Sacred Sites Act (NT) would continue to apply and the normal laws of trespass would apply as appropriate. People would only need to apply for a permit to enter restricted areas. Aboriginal land owners would need to demonstrate a case why these areas needed to be restricted. Such a system would allow for traditional owner management of public access to certain areas. A more liberal entry regime would promote the

benefits of openness while also allowing Aboriginal people to protect areas of their land where there are legitimate reasons. The administrative costs of this option would be relatively low.”

As with all government proposals, the devil is in the detail, and on this occasion the statement ‘Aboriginal land owners would need to demonstrate a case why these areas needed to be restricted’ is key.

Demonstrate to who? And what constitutes a valid ‘case’?

The paper does not elaborate.

What option four effectively does is allow everyone access to all Aboriginal land, including the media, unless Aboriginal people can mount a case that a particular area should be protected.

In other words, the onus of proof is on the landowner to show why their privacy should be respected.

No other landowner in this country is subject to such provisions.

For the rest of the continent, freehold land entitles you to the use of your land to the exclusion of all others.

Under Brough’s proposals, Aboriginal people can have the exclusive use of their land, subject to the generosity of others.

It’s clearly a violation of the rights of Aboriginal people and something which you’d imagine all Australians would oppose.

But arguably the most important institution which should be railing against this sort of legislation – the media – is actually agitating for it.

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