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Thursday, 27 November 2008
Page: 7569

Senator IAN MACDONALD (4:00 PM) —I also wish to contribute to the debate on the Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and Other Legislation Amendment (Emergency Response Consolidation) Bill 2008, but I want to confine my remarks simply to the permit system, the abolition of which I think was a step in the right direction. The provisions of this bill, which effectively bring back the permit system, are in the worst interests of Indigenous people and indeed of all Australians.

I refer the chamber to the Australian Crime Commission’s report into the abuses that occurred in Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory. The task force chief said as recently as June of this year that the permit system had been put in place to keep wrongdoers out of communities but history had clearly shown that it protected the wrongdoers. Powerful clans and families had manipulated the system to prevent the scrutiny that I and the majority of sensible legislators think is necessary to give these communities, particularly young people in them, a bit of a chance.

It almost seems that governments have been prepared to accept this permit system because it meant that nobody really got in to see what was happening in these remote communities. I ask this question: if the permit system was so amazingly good, how is it that some of the worst prevalence of criminal behaviour in the world has occurred in these prescribed communities, which are hidden behind a veil of silence? There is also a question of basic human rights in relation to the reintroduction of permits. Under the changes proposed by the Labor Party, Indigenous organisations such as land councils will decide who can come and who can go, indicating who Indigenous people can associate with and who they can do business with. The right of free association that other Australians enjoy is going to be denied to Indigenous communities. It seems to me quite contradictory that when the emphasis is on creating proper jobs for Indigenous people, for improving communications and encouraging cottage industries and tourism, that, rather than turning these isolated communities into open communities engaged in commercial enterprises, the permit system puts up the shutters. Nowhere else in Australia would this fundamental denial of the right of association and interaction be tolerated. Yet legislators and bureaucrats in Canberra, the people who always know what is best for Indigenous people, are going to put in place this system that will deny Indigenous people that basic right of association.

Just a few weeks ago I had the pleasure of re-engaging with the Hon. Fred Chaney, who, you will recall, has amongst his many other pursuits an involvement with Reconciliation Australia. We met up while looking at remote desert communities. Mr Chaney is a former—and I think well-regarded by everyone—federal Aboriginal affairs minister. Mr Chaney launched a campaign to draw attention to remote Australia, a region which he described as a failed state awash with dysfunction, violence and illiteracy. Mr Chaney quite perceptively said that, when it came to Indigenous policy, nothing good ever came out of Canberra. I fear that this government legislation is going to again give proof to those prophetic words.

On a different note, I also find it quite offensive that any Australian should be denied the right to go to any other part of Australia. I do not for a moment suggest that anyone should have the right to invade my house and my background—although they do, I might say, but I reject them having that right; it is criminals who do that. Your home is your private castle, and the same is the case for Indigenous people. Certainly their traditional lands, their cultural lands, their homelands, should be protected. But it seems to me offensive that access to roads into a public community and that access to public assets like schools, halls, police stations and shops in these areas should be denied to other Australians. It seems to me that preventing certain people from going to certain parts of Australia that are public property is a way that Australia should not head.

Mr Acting Deputy President, you might recall that, in Mr Brough’s original legislation, there was a distinction made between those public areas and private areas. I urge the government to think very seriously about that and readopt those provisions that Mr Brough inserted. I am searching for my notes which list those. Not being able to put my hand on them, I refer senators to the original list of areas that were addressed in Mr Brough’s legislation.

Under the Brough reforms, permits were no longer required to travel to Aboriginal townships on designated roads. Sacred sites and traditional lands were protected, and access to them was made strictly off-limits. These were the protected lands and sacred sites—traditional lands. But in the run-up to the last election—and I quote the respected journalist Russel Skelton here:

… the ALP campaigned vigorously, and dishonestly, against the reform, saying grog-runners and art carpetbaggers would swamp communities and sacred sites would be trampled on by insensitive and unknowing tourists.

It was, as Mr Skelton pointed out, nonsense but it did win support for the ALP. It is the sort of typical populist mantra that you would run around in an electorate like the Northern Territory. No doubt the Labor Party did that and did it in other parts of Australia and succeeded in that populist promise on the basis of improper facts.

Under the proposed legislation, as I understand it, only journalists, some public servants and police will be exempt. Everybody else will be required to get a permit from an Indigenous organisation in order to go there, although I understand that, under this bill, the minister has power to allow people in. She has already indicated that she will give permission to journalists to enter. If journalists get into these communities by grant of the minister, one wonders how constrained those journalists might be in what they write. It seems to me unclear whether the grant given by the minister will be given to any journalist for any day or whether the approval will be given on a restricted and selective basis. Perhaps the minister, in responding to this speech in the second reading debate, might be able to elaborate on that.

Who else will be able to go into these closed Indigenous communities? I have seen somewhere in my research that political candidates can go in. Isn’t that lovely? No other Australian has the right to go there, but if you happen to be running for a political party then, sure, that is all right—you can slip into the community; you can promise what you like. I am aware of some of the promises that have been made in the Northern Territory by candidates in both federal and state elections. I have to say—putting this as delicately as I can—that some of the promises made by ALP candidates at the state and federal levels have been very ‘puffed’, if I can say that in polite-ish sort of way. No other Australian can get there. They cannot go to these communities, but political candidates can. Tell me the sense in that.

The whole purpose of this legislation was to address the evils that we became aware of a few years ago. According to the head of the Northern Territory Police Association, there is no evidence that the permit system hinders illegal behaviour. He is quoted as saying:

The permit system does not stop grog-running or sexual assault. It did not stop these things in the past; it will not stop them in the future. These are policing issues unrelated to the permit system.

Quite frankly, there is no moral, legal or other justification for imposing this permit system on these parts of Australia. Others in this debate have quoted—and the figures are readily available—that:

… grog smuggling is largely conducted by indigenous men who live in the dry communities and not by outsiders. If there has been a fall in the incidence of grog smuggling, and that is questionable, it is because there are more police on the ground to enforce bans.

Police and authorities directly involved have said this on a number of occasions. Plainly, the grog-running problem is a problem not about outsiders but about insiders.

I think a lot of the bill is fatally flawed, especially that part dealing with permits. The original system of doing away with the permits was made to ensure that normal interactions of society can occur, including external scrutiny. It would allow individual Aboriginal people to engage with and benefit from a market economy without the hindrance of someone else telling them who they can deal with and who can come into their communities and cut a deal with them. It would distinguish, under the Brough legislation, between communal or public space and private space on Aboriginal land.

That is the same as it is in the community I live in in rural North Queensland. There is a public area, such as roads, parks and shopping centres, where anyone can go and then there is my private area—my house and my yard. Nobody is allowed there unless I invite them. The legislation as it now stands, which this legislation is now trying to overturn, ensures open access to public space, including townships and related roads. The legislation as it now stands protects the privacy of those private spaces, including residences and most Aboriginal land. It respects Aboriginal culture on traditional lands, particularly through the support it gives to the protection of sacred sites and ceremonies. The legislation as it currently stands, which this bill is trying to alter, continues to allow for effective land management by Aboriginal groups. It was to be simple to administer, preferably by government, to ensure transparency and accountability.

I conclude by simply asking again: if the permit system is so good, why have we become aware of so much trouble there in recent years? That alone would seem to me to suggest that we should try anything else. I urge the Labor Party, the Greens and the crossbenchers to understand the failures of the past. We should not fall into the same old trap of thinking that we in Canberra know what is best for Indigenous people. We have to understand Indigenous traditions, as we understand the Scottish traditions of my ancestors. My ancestors used to wear funny skirts around their waists, instead of manly trousers, until they were cleared from the Highlands by those horrible English all those centuries ago. But I and the rest of modern society have moved on. I no longer wear a skirt—well, only occasionally, and with St Andrew’s Day coming up if I can borrow one I might wear a kilt—but it is something you do on traditional occasions. Nobody can ever take that from me and I am not suggesting that that should happen to any people, most particularly Indigenous people.

You cannot live in the past. You have to accept that the world moves on. We live in an age of being able to get from Sydney to London in 18 hours on a regular commercial aeroplane these days. Life has moved on. Technology has moved on. Science has moved on. We have all benefited from that. When I say we have all benefited from that, I mean we on the outside have benefited from it. I cannot see that Indigenous people have shared too much in the benefits of science and good fortune and wealth that the rest of Australia has seen. What we have done in the past has not proved to have been very good. It has been done with the very best of intentions by those doing it, but it simply has not worked.

I had a conversation just recently with Mr Mundine and the Bishop of the Northern Territory about the fact that we are doing the wrong thing if we are trying to quarantine Indigenous people from modern life and all the benefits it can give them. Indeed, the retrograde bill before us, which puts back into place a permit system which will lock up the problems that we all know are there, is just wrong. I plead with the Labor Party and the crossbenchers and the Greens not to allow this bill to proceed but to go back to a system which will allow Indigenous people to be part of the world in which we all live.