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Permit system protects residents

By David Ross - posted Tuesday, 29 January 2008

Strangely, the prospect of retaining permits for communities on Aboriginal land in the Northern Territory provokes outrage among those least affected by the issue. The very idea appears to be an affront to those who believe a radical free-market approach is the only course of action for combating Indigenous disadvantage.

As an Aborigine who has worked for Indigenous people in Central Australia for nearly 30 years, I believe positive social change is best implemented with the consent of the people it most affects.

It is also true to say public policy affects Aboriginal people disproportionately. While tweaks in the legislative system are unlikely to be felt dramatically by the wider community, they heavily affect Aboriginal communities where public policy so closely prescribes people's lives, often with unintended negative impacts.


These impacts are not felt by the public or the legislators but they are immediately apparent to the people on the ground who pick up the pieces.

In the case of permits, Aboriginal people in the bush have repeatedly told us at the Central Land Council that they want them retained.

The Land Council is unique in that 90 Aboriginal members from across Central Australia meet to decide many important positions. We are bound by our statutory functions to receive direction from our constituents. Furthermore, in independent meetings, Aboriginal people made their feelings on permits very clear to former Aboriginal affairs minister Mal Brough. These are the people who are most affected by any change in the permits system.

Permits, they say, give them a level of control over their land where trespass laws and inadequate policing have failed them. It is their land and they should have the right to decide who visits it. Just like every other Australian.

While some argue that permits have not prevented sexual and substance abuse, the corollary is that without permits these problems would probably escalate. Breaking down the barricades, as some would see it, may indeed be a pyrrhic victory.

Talk to any pastoralist in Central Australia and you soon realise that theft and vandalism are rife in remote areas. Generators, solar panels, tools, cattle: all of these disappear in a lonely land where it can be weeks before anybody passes that way again.


While the argument to abolish permits only for communities may seem to be of minor significance, Aborigines are worried about the potential of anonymous traffic along those long and lonely roads, which could increase the incidence of theft of valuable resources from their outstations and the temptation to visit and desecrate sacred sites, which can have a devastating impact on Aboriginal people.

One only has to look at well-known landmarks such as Lasseter's Cave and the Devils Marbles to see that mindless vandalism - mostly graffiti by tourists - penetrates the most remote corners of our continent.

The Central Land Council has examples of the permit system being used to evict bootleggers, traffickers and unscrupulous people attracted by that special quality of the outback: the remoteness and lack of accountability they hope it will afford them.

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First published in The Australian on January 23, 2008.

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About the Author

Mr David Ross was appointed the Central Land Council (CLC) Director following a meeting of the CLC Executive in January 2000. It is the second time he has held the position as Director.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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