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Dysfunction co-exists with permits

By David Moore - posted Monday, 11 February 2008

Contrary to the suggestion of the Central Land Council’s David Ross (On Line Opinion), the permit system did not protect the Indigenous people of the Northern Territory. It demonstrably failed to do so.

It is self evident that permits haven’t protected people from poverty, abuse and nepotism. Those dysfunctions co-existed with permits.

By their very nature, permits are an instrument of control open to misuse by vested interests but provide few of the protections that Ross suggests. Indigenous communities are replete with stories of contractors and other workers being threatened with permit removal if they don’t “co-operate” and “do the right thing”.


There were three main arguments used to justify the permit system. The “it’s my land and I can do as I like” argument; the “we have no police so a piece of paper is a good alternative” argument; and the “tourists and other competing ventures might come and visit our towns and we don’t want outsiders here” argument.

Most private land around Australia, including broad acre holding, exists without a permit system. Most Aboriginal communities across Australia do not have permits. Nonetheless, Ross failed to acknowledge that in the NT, even after the Emergency Response legislation, the permit system is still in place for 99.8 per cent of Aboriginal land. The Government actually accepted that places like sacred sites were hard to register and left permits in place for those areas.

Permits were removed only from public access roads and public open spaces and facilities in the townships in the interests of opening up closed communities. Even then, townships can be closed temporarily for ceremonial purposes.

People either want the full rights and responsibilities of private ownership including the responsibility to fund their own houses, roads and private infrastructure, or they accept that townships are more like public space anywhere and warrant public investment. You can’t have it both ways. With public funding comes a reasonable expectation of public access just like other communities. With access comes scrutiny and economic engagement.

A piece of paper is no substitute for police protection. The permits don’t quell domestic violence and other crimes committed by locals, which require police presence. Permits haven’t stopped the carpet baggers and drug runners who are often present with the complicit knowledge of powerful locals. The existence of permits has been a convenient excuse for successive NT Governments’ failure to properly resource police so Aboriginal communities can have protection.

Ross says “While some argue that permits have not prevented sexual and substance abuse, the corollary is that without permits these problems would probably escalate”. The latter assertion doesn’t follow at all and Ross provides no supporting evidence. On the contrary, nobody, including police, could ever give me examples where pedophiles were “moved on” by revocation of a permit. Of course they couldn’t. Suggesting it is appropriate to move a child abuser on to another community instead of criminal prosecution is offensive.


While Ross says that permits are not a barrier to economic development, he is contradicted by those Aboriginal groups who argued to keep the permits in order to stop tourists from coming to communities (as if that was a bad thing) and, in some cases, to prevent access to prime tourism spots by competing ventures. This is an explicit acknowledgement that permits could and were used to restrain commerce.

Permits, along with welfare dependency, grog and a lack of police presence have been part of the dysfunction of many communities. There is not a patch of evidence to support the conjecture that removing permits would make things worse.
Having said all this, public policy is often decided on commonsense judgment. After considerable consultation and listening to all the arguments, the previous government took the view that the risks of the previous system were clear, particularly in relation to publicly funded townships. It decided to remove the permit system from 0.2 per cent of NT Aboriginal land. It left permits in place in the other 99.8 per cent. On balance, reverting to the old failed system will result in the same old problems.
Ross’s ultimate insult was the “mind your own business” argument. He said, “Strangely, the prospect of retaining permits … provokes outrage among those least affected by the issue”. It’s a curious argument which would suggest that most Australians shouldn't care about remote Aboriginal Australians because we are not directly affected by their problems.

Many of us do care. Many of us do want to see all Australians share in our nation’s prosperity and we have a right to question the proposition that permits have protected people when the evidence so clearly says otherwise.

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About the Author

David Moore David is the owner of The Next Level Consulting Services, a former Army Officer of 15 years and Chief of Staff to the former Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough. He holds a BA in Government and Australian History, and Post Graduate Business qualifications. He was a policy and media adviser in the previous government in areas including local government, regional services, employment, treasury and families and community services.

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