The Guardian November 27, 2002


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".

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