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The battle for Cape York: whose vision will win out?

From its stunning wetlands in the west, across a dry central spine, to the coastal heathlands and rainforests in the east, Cape York Peninsula is deservedly world-famous for its rugged beauty. For many…

Remote beauty: Twin Falls in Cape York. www.shutterstock.com/John Carnemolla

From its stunning wetlands in the west, across a dry central spine, to the coastal heathlands and rainforests in the east, Cape York Peninsula is deservedly world-famous for its rugged beauty.

For many Australians, memories or dreams of making a “once in a lifetime” trip north to the tip of Cape York evoke deep passions. These passionate responses can range from those seeking greater protection of this biologically-rich region, to those who see only the potential for unlimited development.

Unfortunately, too often those deeply divided approaches have meant that the Peninsula’s 15,000 people have been overlooked in outsiders' visions for the region.

With the Queensland Government set to release its new draft Cape York Regional Plan within the next few weeks, now is a good time to rethink the foundations needed to deliver real progress for the people of the Peninsula, as well as to the benefit of the nation.

Too many grand plans, not enough action

The Cape is unquestionably an Indigenous domain, with sub-regions such as the Aurukun local government area covering some 13 Wik-related language groups and 26 clan groupings.

Dotted around the Peninsula’s massive coastline are some 12 indigenous communities, plagued by the poverty faced by many post-colonial societies.

Parts of the wider Peninsula landscape are heavily industrialised, such as the Weipa mining precinct. Elsewhere, extensive pastoral leases and conservation areas cover significant territory.

In the late 1980s, the Queensland Government’s grand vision for the region included major tourism, agricultural and mining developments and even an international spaceport.

The “open for development” approach drew speculators from across the globe and the Cape saw a decade of crazy ideas, unfathomable land price hikes and declining returns on capital in the pastoral industry.

By the early 1990s, the federal Labor government and a new state Labor government led by Wayne Goss were heading in the opposite direction over proposals for major wilderness declarations. This created huge levels of uncertainty about how regional development could occur into the future.

But in the mid 1990s, the Cape York Land Use Planning process slowly began to build real local consensus about the future. That led to the Cape York Heads of Agreement, a sound agreement between pastoralists, traditional owners and conservationists about progressive and balanced land use and tenure reform.

A decade on and by the mid 2000s there was a hardening of the line taken by some of the nation’s conservation organisations. That saw the return of government-led central control of the region, with the then state government pushing through legislation for a series of divisive Wild Rivers declarations.

Amid this three decade tug-of-war between external governments, developers, environmentalists and others, the principles of strong regional ownership and the need to deliver social, economic and environmental outcomes have often been lost.

The result? Indigenous communities left to live with entrenched poverty; the weakening of a once iconic pastoral industry; and an area of outstanding conservation value largely beset by the ravages of poaching, pigs, weeds and wildfire.

While local efforts to tackle those problems are underway, they remain under-resourced.

The next steps for Cape York

In mid-September this year, Queensland’s Deputy Premier Jeff Seeney met with Cape York mayors, industry and community leaders to discuss the new draft regional plan. Public consultation on it will start soon, with the draft plan due for release by early November.

At last month’s meeting, Mr Seeney said “there’s no question Cape York will be opened up for development”, with plans for greatly increased agriculture, mining and tourism. But he also added that local communities and “areas of high-value conservation” would be protected, suggesting a hope for a more balanced outcome for the future.

This new plan presents opportunities for a new start. But if it is to succeed where others have failed in the past, it needs solid foundations.

First and foremost among those foundations is strong regional ownership of the process, built on having the right local players around the table. There are positive signs on this front.

There also needs to be a genuine consensus, built between not only the federal and state governments but also with communities within the region. That kind of consensus is the only way that the region can move beyond the historical tug-of-war of competing external agendas.

Striking a balance on land use and tenure reform is essential. That means ensuring the protection of people’s rights and those critically important heritage, cultural and tourism values for the future. But it also means recognising that there is significant scope for well-managed, strategic mining and agricultural development with the highest environmental standards, delivering real economic opportunities for Cape York’s communities.

With greater land use and tenure certainty, investment capital for business and infrastructure can then be better organised. Both state and federal governments working with developers and regional communities can then get world-class environment standards in place for development.

Among the big challenges ahead will be the process of securing enough water and energy to feed increased development, while still looking after the environment.

Not just another southern power grab

Most important of all, the new plan needs to be about building long-term partnerships for genuine and ongoing regional development – and not just become another southern bid for short-term control over land use.

People in the Peninsula are understandably wary about being brought around the table by external powers to discuss hastily-developed plans, having often in the past been left with planning documents that are never implemented or, worse, seeing implementation occur without any regional agreement. By my count, this has happened to the Cape York community at least seven times in the past 20 years.

It’s not enough to bring people together to agree on a plan, no matter how good it may be. What will matter most is keeping people around the table, to monitor progress and to check that governments, investors and community groups alike deliver on the plan promises.

The people of Cape York Peninsula have heard enough of other people’s grand plans for their future.

The new regional planning process shows some promise, but after more than a generation of lost opportunities, the key thing for all governments to remember is that it’s time to get moving, and to turn plans for this unique part of Australia into action.

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27 Comments sorted by

  1. Robert McDougall

    Small Business Owner

    guess that means they will have to amend their mining act to introduce some balance, otherwise communities, environment and existing industry are likely to be road kill as per the CSG model in southern Queensland.

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  2. Dale Bloom

    Analyst

    Most of QLD was like Cape York once, before most of QLD was cleared.

    I read in the local rag today that the QLD Premier wants QLD to increase its population by 4 million extra people outside of the SE corner by 2043.

    No one else has agreed to that.

    But what it means is total annihilation of what is left of any undisturbed natural areas in QLD.

    It will also mean high levels of social problems, housing subdivision being built on flood plains and wetland areas for house blocks that are so small there is no backyard for children to play, high levels of unemployment, as well as high levels of private, council and state debt.

    All done to make ponzi demographers and real estate merchants richer.

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  3. Nicolas Bertin

    Physicist

    The biggest problem Cape York has is being a part of Queensland, with the worst government conservation-wise of all the Australian states (and historically it's always been the case). Put Cape York in the US, and it would have been a National Park long ago, with a strong Unesco World Heritage status. I fear I will never see this region in its pristine condition...

    I'm also interested in the poaching you mentionned in your article. Do you have any sources for this ? I'm curious as to what the hell they're poaching... Cockatoos ? Snakes ? When you think about poaching you always think about Africa and Asia, and the insane demand from China and Viet-nam. I'm dreading the poaching in Cape York also goes to the Asian market, for some rubbish traditional medecine properties of snake bile or tree kangaroo testicles...

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  4. James Hill

    Industrial Designer

    That hard line taken by some environment groups surely led to the very existence of the present Qld government.
    Perhaps those conservationists who pushed for government control, should have gone along, instead, with the consultative, grass roots democracy process, and not ditched the economic and social justice principle that were in place previously.
    Now all their achievements are to be overturned, because of plain political ineptitude.
    Locals will remember how the Murdoch Press' Brisbane Courier-Mail was at the forefront of this conservationist campaign, selling lots of newspapers promoting the city-country divide.
    What will they do now?

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  5. David Arthur

    resistance gnome

    Noting that the Queensland State Capital is geographically in the southern half of Australia, one hopes that local interests come to the fore, that any development includes local vocational education and training culminating in sustainable jobs.

    A commitment to managing natural resources including feral pest management would also be good to see - eg a bush pig-meat export industry?

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    1. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to David Arthur

      Local interests are meaningless, and locals in the area may not even get a job.

      What is becoming apparent is the number of FIFO from Brisbane travelling to work in remote areas of QLD.

      And what an unimpressive bunch they normally are.

      Covered in tattoos, their favourite topic of conversation is football and cars and how much money they can make.

      They have no interest in the bush, no connection with nature, and no connection with the local people who live in that area.

      They are urbanised, meaningless, consumerist trash who now earn their money working in the bush, and I sometimes wonder if it is somehow worthwhile breeding such people.

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    2. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      Perhaps you're describing a sort of 'development' that Allan Dale is hoping will not occur on Cape York?

      Your description of FIFO mine workers includes "... who now earn their money working in the bush ..."; perhaps this should read "... who now earn their money working the bush over ..."?

      But then, working the bush over is modus operandi of the LNP and their backers generally, isn't it?

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    3. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to David Arthur

      No just miners, but road workers, railway workers, power line workers and also builders.

      All pouring out from the abomination of Brisbane to carry out FIFO work in other areas of QLD.

      What I believe will be built eventually is a road travelling along the coastline north of Cairns to the top of Cape York, and then down the other side and around to Darwin.

      That will allow considerable areas of coastline to be subdivided into housing blocks and tourist resorts.

      Much of that real estate will not be purchased by Australians, but purchased by rich Asians, who may want to live or retire here.

      It will be called “creating jobs”, but I would question destroying our natural environment to create jobs for FIFO workers from Brisbane, (and the land will be sold to foreigners eventually).

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    4. Greg North

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      " It will be called “creating jobs”, but I would question destroying our natural environment to create jobs for FIFO workers from Brisbane, "
      You might indeed see such a road as you describe Dale but then again most likely not unless you are re-incarnated in a few centuries time or longer ahead.
      Then if peak oil and everything else occurs, it could just be a horse and cart track.
      One way or another to do such work, there will of course be jobs and peak everything could see people migrating to…

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    5. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Greg North

      All of QLD coastline was wilderness once.

      In fact, not far from Brisbane, I used to camp in sand dunes that are now rows of multistorey condominiums.

      And I used to fish in a river that is now a stagnant polluted pool due to canal development.

      I have not yet meet one FIFO worker from Brisbane or Sydney or Melbourne who has any interest in nature.

      If they ever go on a boat or go fishing it is to get drunk.

      And most of the money they earn is eventually given to real estate agents, retailers who import most of what they sell, car salesmen who import most of what they sell, and family law solicitors.

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    6. Greg North

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      " All of QLD coastline was wilderness once. "
      All of Australia was wilderness once too Dale, in fact you could say all of the planet.
      FIFO workers are likely much like most people who unfortunately have to work for a living and probably have minimal time to be a nature lover, obviously the interests of all people varying dramatically.
      And yep, most money people earn goes back into the economy in one form or another, it being part of what keeps the economy and all our lives ticking over.

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    7. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Greg North

      The majority of FIFO workers fly stright back to Brisbane or Sydney or Melbourne or Auckland whenever they get their days off.

      They were born and bred in an environment of concrete, cars, shopping malls, Americanised TV programs and suburban jungle.

      And their first impulse is to go straight back to that environment whenever they can.

      A problem occurs when they want to turn the whole of QLD into that environment as well.

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    8. Greg North

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      " A problem occurs when they want to turn the whole of QLD into that environment as well. "
      Dale, your problem is really non existent and so the FIFO workers have somewhere they call home, that being the whole deal with FIFO.

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    9. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Greg North

      An interesting thing is that many of these FIFO workers from Brisbane and the Gold Coast say there is no work for them in Brisbane and the Gold Coast.

      The money extracted from the natural environments in Brisbane and the Gold Coast has been extracted, leaving no work for the increasing population.

      So they travel outwards, to plunder and pillage the natural environments in other areas of the state, or they try and make other areas of the state into …. guess what?

      A replica of Brisbane and the Gold Coast.

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    10. Greg North

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      Dale, there has never been too much by way of extraction industries of any sorts other than dentists down in Brisbane and the Gold Coast, the next closest activity perhaps being some sand mining on islands and then of course like any capital city there will be quarrying about.

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    11. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Greg North

      There is nothing of any environmental value left in Brisbane.

      The Gold Coast used to advertise its beaches once, but the beaches are now mostly manmade.

      I see most advertisements for the Gold Coast are now for “attractions” which are basically manmade attractions such as night clubs, instead of natural attractions such as beaches.

      As the environment and natural resources are used up or destroyed, employment tends to decline also.

      Sunshine Coast workers are now doing FIFO to Papua New Guinea to get work.

      http://asopa.typepad.com/asopa_people/2013/08/sunshine-coast-neighbours-share-job-on-isolated-island.html

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    12. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      There are reasons why mining companies prefer FIFO workers to locals.

      1) No need to relocate families.
      2) If you want to sack a worker, it's easy - just give notice at the end of the worker's hitch.
      3) Workers don't have personal stake in maintaining local environment - their families aren't affected, and they've got no emotional ties to the area eg they didn't grow up there.

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    13. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to David Arthur

      There are now FIFO workers in many industries, and not just in mining.

      But mostly they are the same regardless of industry.

      Covered in tattoos, their favourite topic of conversation is football and cars and how much money they can make.

      They have no interest in the bush, no connection with nature, and no connection with the local people who live in that area.

      It is interesting that one of the most pristine areas in QLD is actually the Shoalwater Bay military training area.

      http://www.natureaustralia.org.au/cs/groups/webcontent/@web/@australia/documents/document/prd_062385.pdf

      It has had a few bombs dropped on it, but real estate developers and tourist operators have been kept out of that area.

      If they were allowed in, it would be total devastation of the natural environment of that area.

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    14. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      "There are now FIFO workers in many industries, and not just in mining." True: during the occupation of Iraq, they were described as "contractors" - the thugs aid to do the work that no government was willing to have its army do.

      "It is interesting that one of the most pristine areas in QLD is actually the Shoalwater Bay military training area." Well, after all the DU munitions testing done in that Area, they'll be wanting to keep civilians out.

      Film-maker David Bradbury (NOT the ALP ex-MP) looks at the consequences of the secret treaty between Howard and US governments in "Blowin' in the Wind" (http://www.frontlinefilms.com.au/videos/blowin.htm).

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  6. Matt Stevens

    Senior Research Fellow/Statistician/PhD

    Great article, though would be nice to see an Aboriginal name on the author list! So many challenges all competing. Furrther than the NT still in more people engaging with the process. Balancing the necessity of mining and ensuring the locals are looked after should not that be that hard. Electio Policy Options coming

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  7. James Hill

    Industrial Designer

    Perhaps that New State of Capricornia should be hastened, including The Northern Territory, The Kimberleys and Cape York.
    And give the local indigenous people their own armed "naval" presence to ensure good communications along the shoreline of their "country".
    It is still their country, isn't it Tony?
    All those thousands of kilometres beautiful ocean just going to "waste".
    Why not subdivide it and flog it off so that a few Outback McMansions can be built on what is left?
    "Dispossession through Debt", Melanesian Style, coming up for the First Peoples of the North, through LNP "Land Reform"?
    Gee, you just know that not being able to get a mortgage on their "Communal" land is just holding them back.

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    1. Matt Stevens

      Senior Research Fellow/Statistician/PhD

      In reply to James Hill

      James, have you ever lived in the NT? Your comment suggests not. Or maybe you came up here with rose coloured glasses and forgot to take them off?

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    2. James Hill

      Industrial Designer

      In reply to Matt Stevens

      Yep, worked there in the early seventies.
      So what is your point?

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    3. Greg North

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to James Hill

      I think the point James is much the same as always on how you come up with some very strange comments and perhaps do not even realise just how ridiculous what you say is.

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    4. James Hill

      Industrial Designer

      In reply to Greg North

      I come up with "strange" comments?
      Coming from that master of strange comments, I'll take that as compliment.
      Doesn't stop us from posting, now, does it, Greg?
      Those who who lack the imagination to realise that when the First Peoples of The "Capricornia" region call themselves, in some instances the "Salt Water People", then it follows that maritime transport around the coastline of Capricornia might be the best form of Development.
      A close relative was part of the RAN crew who mapped the Gulf…

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    5. Matt Stevens

      Senior Research Fellow/Statistician/PhD

      In reply to James Hill

      James, well I can assure you things have changed in Aboriginal NT, since the early days of self-determination. In communities there was far less assimilation and education in western values and concepts, and we see much cultural maladaptation. It is tragic to see. But alas the culture must evolve, which is not somethibg that comes easy to the inherently conservative.

      I occaisionally meet people who live/work in remote communities who are somehow blind to the suffering of so many women and children…

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  8. Greg North

    Retired Engineer

    There will always be promotion of planning activities by various levels of government just as not all planning will amount to too much for various reasons as more detailed investigations are made by those that will be expected to put up investment funds.
    It is not so much governments that will cause planning to become activities but the $$$$ involved and the various practicalities needed and they become more onerous with the remoteness of projects, weather also likely to be a huge factor as much of the cape can be inaccessible by road during wet seasons.
    Any discussions should be wide ranging enough to address such practical issues as the lives of many people can only but be improved with better all weather access whilst at the same time governments will need to consider the financial returns for development costs involved.

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