NT Government should appeal against
the "no penalty" ruling on breach of permit laws
Statement by ATSIC Chairman Geoff Clark
The Northern Territory Government should give urgent consideration to an appeal against a Darwin Magistrate's decision which has effectively given carte blanche to anyone wanting to breach Aboriginal permit laws in the Northern Territory. The failure of a Darwin-based magistrate to impose a conviction or penalty for a clear breach of Territory permit laws is a threat to the effective future operation of these laws. Up until recently Indigenous people were being sent to jail under NT mandatory sentencing laws for offences as trivial as stealing a can of drink. Yet when NT laws designed to protect the interests of Indigenous people are tested before the court a non-Indigenous person who has blatantly and wilfully breached them is given what amounts, in legal terms, to a slap on the wrist. Earlier this week I had given endorsement to the fact that the Magistrate had found a journalist from The Australian guilty of entering Aboriginal land without a permit. I later became aware the journalist was discharged without conviction or penalty despite the guilty verdict. This ruling has prompted expressions of outrage to me by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people and rightly so. There have also been media reports suggesting the Magistrate drew parallels with the former apartheid system in South Africa and Nazi Germany when considering the breach of permit laws. While one has to be cautious about relying on media reports for accuracy I would say it is utterly repugnant to make any comparisons between apartheid and the NT permits system. Apartheid was a morally evil system used by a non-Indigenous minority to suppress the will of an Indigenous majority. Permit laws operating in the NT, however, are designed to protect an Indigenous minority from interference in their lives by a non-Indigenous majority. The facts of the matter are this journalist knowingly and deliberately breached the permit laws to gate-crash a funeral after his request to enter Aboriginal land was rejected by traditional owners. The traditional owners specifically wanted him to stay away because of the community's grief over the loss of one of their youths, allegedly at the hands of police. The journalist demonstrated absolute contempt for the wishes of a community in mourning as well as the law but as his own newspaper reported he "escaped conviction".