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Overturn, axe and bury: the LNP and Queensland’s Wild Rivers Act

Those who follow the Wild Rivers debates in Queensland probably know better than to trust the headlines. When, in January 2010, Tony Abbott announced a federal intervention into the state’s environmental…

Beware the hyperbole: Campbell Newman has vowed to axe the Wild Rivers legislation, but what’s the reality beneath the rhetoric? AAP/Alan Porritt

Those who follow the Wild Rivers debates in Queensland probably know better than to trust the headlines. When, in January 2010, Tony Abbott announced a federal intervention into the state’s environmental legislation to “overturn” Wild Rivers, what he produced was in fact a consent-driven Bill. This Bill essentially provided a wide range of Aboriginal landholders with an ability to provide consent to this one piece of regulation and was broadly criticised as unworkable. Whatever its flaws, the Bill nonetheless provided for Wild Rivers areas to be redeclared.

Then in October 2011 it was LNP-candidate Campbell Newman’s turn. Headlines proclaimed he had taken a “vow to axe” the Act, though Newman was elsewhere claiming he would increase the number of Wild Rivers rangers employed by the state and “replace” the current regulation with a new “Bioregion Management Plan” (BMP) in Cape York, home to four of the thirteen Wild River areas in Queensland. Wild Rivers areas would still exist in Carpentaria and the Lake Eyre basin. These were but two of many grand claims corrected within the fine print. From 2006 onwards Tony Koch in The Australian had helped disseminate the idea that there had been no consultation in the Wild Rivers process, a claim later corrected by Noel Pearson who instead claimed that there had been no consent from traditional owners.

Now the laws are to be, in the words of The Australian, “buried” and the Cape will be “carved up”. The move to replace the Wild Rivers with BMPs was actually announced more than a month ago in a press release announcing that “consultation” was commencing via a scoping paper. Consultations on a draft plan are to begin in early 2013. If the BMPs consultation process was to follow anything resembling the timeline of a Wild Rivers declaration, this means it could be early 2014 before Wild Rivers is “revoked” or “buried”. Even then, on current plans it will only be in Cape York Peninsula and the ranger program may well survive.

This is not to say that behind the drama there are not important changes at work. Caught between pre-election hype and post-election policy, Deputy Premier and Minister for State Development, Infrastructure and Planning Jeff Seeney has taken to dispersing concerns about investment in the region by announcing there will be “go and no-go zones” for resource developers. Seeney seems happy to position himself as supportive of mining, supported by Noel and Gerhardt Pearson as thereby “reflecting the needs and aspirations of local people”. But, as the Wild Rivers controversy showed, some of these needs and aspirations have included tourism ventures and environmental management programs that will necessarily be affected by the ramping up of industrial development.

As I wrote in early June, there have been signs of life from the allegedly “unfeasible” Cape Alumina project near Mapoon and within the Wenlock River area. Employment relating to this project has been variously touted as between 300 “permanent” jobs and 1000 to 1500 “jobs”, though a final investment decision is still a long way off. Elsewhere, Monax Mining has been continuing to investigate its bauxite leases on the Holroyd River, and Seeney has fast-tracked the assessment process for Aus-Pac Capital Wongai coal mine, the first in Cape York, near Princess Charlotte Bay. In this context it remains to be seen if a tourism project of 2000 kilometres of walkways up the east coast of the Cape York planned by Gerhardt Pearson and the Labor administration, called The Dreaming Track, will be affected. Also, Premier Newman has indicated he will continue the existing process to nominate areas of the peninsula for World Heritage.

The most ambiguous factor at play here, though, is the way in which Seeney and others posit a straightforward relationship between economic investment by resource companies and the improvement of indigenous social health and economic measures in the region. The history of bauxite mining in Cape York has often been one of dispossession and interminable waiting, though the west Cape is also the site of what many hold to be one of the most successful agreements between a mining company and traditional owners. Nonetheless, Australia governments, miners and regional representatives consistently pressure each other to see resource extraction as a “panacea for regional and Indigenous development”, a naive approach that leads to mining companies being broadly receiver as unique providers of “hope”. Regional disadvantage provides their social license to operate.

While perhaps the west Cape will be “go” while the east Cape will be “no-go,” there is little reason to assume a necessary relationship between projects going online and locals working for or with the mining company. What is clear is that amidst this dramatic policy talk, the expansion of mining and the retraction of the Wild Rivers areas, programs and code will take years and that any mention of indigenous consent has virtually disappeared. When it comes to Wild Rivers policy beware of the hyperbole.

Comments welcome below.