FAMILIES, HOUSING, COMMUNITY SERVICES AND INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS AND OTHER LEGISLATION AMENDMENT (EMERGENCY RESPONSE CONSOLIDATION) BILL 2008

There is no watering down in this legislation. I rise in support of the Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and Other Legislation Amendment (Emergency Response Consolidation) Bill 2008, and wish to say straightaway, in response to the repeated suggestions that were made by the member for Murray—suggestions that were also made earlier today and on Monday night in this House by the member for Warringah—that the legislation waters down the Commonwealth response in respect of the present difficulties being faced by Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory, that those suggestions are wrong.

There is no watering down in this legislation. I rise in support of the Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and Other Legislation Amendment (Emergency Response Consolidation) Bill 2008, and wish to say straightaway, in response to the repeated suggestions that were made by the member for Murray—suggestions that were also made earlier today and on Monday night in this House by the member for Warringah—that the legislation waters down the Commonwealth response in respect of the present difficulties being faced by Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory, that those suggestions are wrong.

In particular, I wish to support the restoration of the provisions of the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 which are directed at ensuring that Aboriginal people can decide who can enter their land. I want to make four main points. First, these calls that are being made repeatedly by the opposition to persist with the scrapping of the permit system—and that is the phrase that was used by the former minister for Aboriginal affairs, Mr Brough, last year—are being made without the slightest evidence that scrapping the permit system will do anything at all to assist in the elimination of child sex abuse in Aboriginal communities. Not only is there no evidence that the removal of the permit system would do anything to assist with child sex abuse; there is every likelihood that the removal of the permit system would in fact exacerbate the problems, because it would make it more likely and more possible for perpetrators to enter Aboriginal land in the first place.

The second point that I wish to make is that it needs to be understood that the position adopted by the former government, and still being adopted by them in opposition, that the permit system should be scrapped is in fact an ideological position, one which is not in any sense directed to present problems faced by Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory. It involves the removal of property rights. It is, to some extent, a smokescreen to talk about the scrapping of the permit system because, properly considered, the permit system is no more than an invitation for people to visit Aboriginal land. I expand on that by making the point that the form of title that exists under the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act is a communal inalienable title. It recognises the ownership by Aboriginal people of their traditional lands and gives effect to that ownership within the Australian legal system. It is, of course, an absolutely vital aspect of ownership, recognised in all forms of land ownership in this country, that the owner be able to invite onto that land those whom they wish to invite and exclude those whom they wish to exclude. Aboriginal people, in owning the land, as they do under the land rights regime in the Northern Territory, are exercising no more than those ordinary rights of ownership.

It is important to understand that the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act, as introduced by the Fraser government in 1976 with the support of the then opposition—the legislation of course having been produced following on from the Woodward royal commission, instituted under the Labor government—recognised ownership. It need not have established a permit regime at all, any more than there is a permit regime for the other half of the Northern Territory that is not Aboriginal land. The other half of the Northern Territory that is not Aboriginal land is pastoral lease or freehold title, and no permit system exists for that land. But recognising, quite practically, the form of communal title that the Aboriginal land rights act involves, this parliament in legislating for that regime established a permit system which, as I said earlier, operates as an invitation and a form or a means of seeking permission to go onto Aboriginal land. It is vital that we recognise that calls for the scrapping of the permit system have nothing to do with expanding access, and they have even less to do with dealing with the scourge of child sex abuse in Aboriginal communities, but have everything to do with attacking, for ideological reasons, the form of ownership of land that the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act sets up.

It is worth reflecting on the history of the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act in the Northern Territory and how it is that the present regime exists. One of the great problems in Aboriginal affairs for many years in this country has been that successive governments, when faced with problems in Aboriginal affairs, have forgotten the lessons of the past, forgotten the steps that have been taken and forgotten previous government programs, and have pretended that there is some magic answer ‘here and now’. It is very important that anything that is done by the Commonwealth government in relation to the Aboriginal people of this country not proceed on the basis that nothing was ever done in the past and that there have not been various programs in the past. It is certainly important not to forget the history.

It is a good starting point to recall Sir Edward Woodward’s comments in his royal commission reports. Starting in 1973 with his first report, Sir Edward Woodward said:

I am convinced that an imposed solution to the problem of recognising traditional Aboriginal land rights is unlikely to be a good or lasting solution. Although a result reached, so far as possible, by process of consultation and agreement will undoubtedly take longer to achieve, it is far more likely to be generally acceptable and to have a permanent effect.

There you have, in 1973, Sir Edward Woodward calling for and endorsing the process of consultation. In his final report in 1974, Sir Edward Woodward said this:

One of the most important proofs of genuine Aboriginal ownership of land will be the right to exclude from it those who are not welcome.

That was the basis for the legislation that was ultimately put to this House and enacted in 1976.

I can leap forward to 1999 because the permit system through the balance of the 1970s—and I have direct personal experience, having worked with Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory in 1979 and 1980 at the time that the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act was being introduced and implemented—and through the 1980s was seen to work well. There were no calls for its abolition—far from it. In 1998, there was a report done in the Northern Territory by John Reeves. I will not go to that report—it is not necessary to do so—other than to say that it is a report which suggested that there might be changes to the permit system and suggested that the changes could involve the introduction to Aboriginal land of the provisions of the Trespass Act in the Northern Territory. The Reeves report was the subject of a detailed inquiry by this House’s Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, which reported in 1999 to this House on it. Appropriately, the committee called before it Sir Edward Woodward, the author of the two seminal royal commission reports of 1973 and 1974. Of course dominated by members of the former government, that committee recommended against changing the permit system. Those last year in government, now in opposition, who are so keen to see the permit system scrapped, have completely ignored what the then government dominated committee said in 1999. This is the committee’s record of what it was told by Sir Edward Woodward:

Sir Edward Woodward told the Committee that the permit system is a practical and symbolic extension of granting land rights to Aboriginal people. For Aboriginal people not to have the capacity to control entry onto their own land, he believed, would have made a mockery of land rights.

The committee went on to say this—and this is in 1999:

Indeed, the vast majority of Aboriginal people told the Committee that they wanted the permit system to remain. It provides them with mechanism to control entry onto their land and it respects Aboriginal tradition to some extent by requiring that permission to visit Aboriginal land is obtained from the relevant traditional owners.

The 1999 report of this House’s Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs quoted from many Aboriginal groups, all of whom were in favour of the retention of the permit system. I am just going to quote a couple. The Ramingining Community Council had some very strong views. Ramingining, for honourable members who may not know, is in Central Arnhem Land and located on the Arafura Swamp, where the well-known film Ten Canoes was recently made. The Ramingining Community Council told this House’s standing committee in 1999:

This is why, when faced with the Reeves recommendation to abandon the permit system, we get very upset. Because we not only want to keep the permit system, but we would like to make the permit system even stronger if we could. To us, it’s a matter of survival—of the Yolgnu culture and the Yolgnu people themselves.

Other community groups expressed similar sentiments, and I would commend that report to members of this House. It is the case that the former government was not interested in consultation, not interested in the views of Aboriginal communities.

I do not have to stop with the 1999 report of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs. One can go to a report by the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs in 2007. This was a report dealing with the government’s legislation from last year. Again, it seems that, in its quest to pursue its ideological agenda, the opposition, just as it did in government, is very happy to ignore the views of Aboriginal people, very happy to ignore the views of anybody that expresses a view that is different to its own. There is some extraordinarily selective listing going on in the speech that we have heard from the member for Warringah and in the speech that we have just heard from the member for Murray, who choose to quote only from voices that agree with theirs and ignore the very, very many voices that have been raised in defence of the permit system and the very many voices that have been quoted in several reports. I will go to the Senate committee report in 2007. It referred to submissions, arguing:

... strongly against the proposed changes to the system. In a general sense, these submissions and witnesses suggested that a number of key measures in the bills, including the removal of land permits, are not related to the ‘national emergency’; and their inclusion in this package of bills as a measure to address child abuse is not justifiable.

It is a curiosity that the proposal announced on 21 June 2007 by the former Minister for Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and the former Prime Minister to scrap the permit system sprang not from the Little children are sacred report by Pat Anderson and Rex Wild but rather from the ideological agenda of the former government, expressed in a discussion paper—one has to do a bit of detective work on this—published in October 2006 by the former minister. That discussion paper is a very thin document. It falsely claimed:

The permit system is a vestige of the former protectionist system of Aboriginal reserves ...

It was not, as I hope the little excursion into the history of this matter that I have just made makes clear. The discussion paper called for responses, but the responses to that discussion paper of the former minister for Aboriginal affairs were never made public. One would have to say that that is typical of the dictatorial and secretive approach that the Howard government took to its approach to Aboriginal affairs in the Northern Territory.

As it happens, the inquiry by the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs called for submissions on the legislation and many of the submissions that had been made to the discussion paper of the former minister for Aboriginal affairs in 2006 were resubmitted to the Senate inquiry. It is apparent, if one examines those submissions, that that is what happened, because submitters often said, ‘We submitted this to the former minister on his October 2006 discussion paper and we are resubmitting it to you, the Senate standing committee, because it will be of assistance.’ I am going to quote from a couple of those submissions. This is the Police Federation of Australia expressing its view to the Senate about why the permit system should not be scrapped:

In relation to the long-standing permit system for access to Aboriginal communities, the PFA is of the view that the Australian Government—

and it is speaking there of the former government—

has failed to make the case that there is any connection between the permit system and child sexual abuse in Aboriginal communities. Therefore, changes to the permit system are unwarranted.

The Senate committee received a whole range of submissions from Aboriginal communities opposing the plan. In view of the time, I will not read out too many of them, but this was the Central Land Council’s comment:

Aboriginal people are totally against forced changes to the permit system because the permit system complements their responsibility for country under Aboriginal law and custom and is consistent with the land title they hold under Australian law.

I will read out what the Milingimbi Community Council said, because of the affection I feel for the Milingimbi community, on the central Arnhem Land coast. I worked with the community in 1980. The Milingimbi Community Council said:

The removal of the Permit System is a cause of great concern. The system allows the community to monitor those who live in or visit the community. Milingimbi is very much an ‘open’ community and legitimate requests to visit are almost always granted. Will the Federal Government guarantee that it will provide the appropriate level of law enforcement to ensure that the removal of the Permit System does not lead to ‘rivers of grog’ flowing into this community?

Of course, no such guarantee was ever forthcoming from the former government. In another of the submissions, ANTaR said:

No evidence has been provided to support the Minister’s claims that scrapping the permit system will help overcome child abuse. In fact, Australia’s leading expert on child abuse in Aboriginal communities, Professor Judy Atkinson, considers that scrapping the permit system may actually increase the risk of child abuse by restricting the ability of communities to remove suspected paedophiles from Aboriginal land. Fears have also been expressed that removing the permit system will make communities more vulnerable to grog running.

Those opposite, in the pursuit of their ideological agenda, ignore the evidence about the incidence of this problem. One can say very quickly that there are many Aboriginal communities in other parts of Australia and particularly in Northern Australia—not in the Northern Territory—where, regrettably and shamefully, child sexual abuse has occurred. They are communities in Queensland and Western Australia, where there is no permit system. The permit system as has existed should be properly viewed as an invitation to visit Aboriginal land. As I said, it is not anything other than a mechanism to allow people who wish to visit to seek permission. The existing permit system cannot be linked to the instance of child abuse and, indeed, it is very likely that if it were to have remained scrapped, as those opposite would wish, that would have led to an increase in child abuse.

It is regrettable that those opposite have persisted in conducting the debate in relation to this matter by spreading misinformation. There was a notice of motion in this House on Monday night spreading misinformation about what we are debating. The member for Warringah and the member for Murray engaged in that this morning. It is becoming a hallmark of the opposition. This morning the member for Warringah claimed that journalists will require express ministerial permits to cover events in communities. This is simply incorrect. The proposed authorisation will be a standing authorisation for a class of persons—namely, journalists—to access Aboriginal communities and to report on events. It is going to be a standing authorisation which will be a once-only authorisation to cover all journalists. The particular piece of misinformation from this morning is something that needs to be put directly and immediately to rest.