The Wild Rivers Act controversy

There’s more to this Act than environmental protection. Cam Pervan/Flickr

The debates and controversy around the Wild Rivers legislation can be perplexing. As John Holmes has argued, the Act’s significance stems from “the durability and intractability” of pre-existing contests over the future of Cape York Peninsula.

What is the Act?

Strictly in terms of legislative impact, the Wild Rivers Act (Qld) is relatively minor within the web of environmental legislation regulating Cape York Peninsula. This is not to say that the Act is not extremely important; rather, within the state’s regulatory regime the provisions of the Act are less prohibitive than others.

The Act itself does not regulate development proposals but is instead implemented through the Sustainable Planning Act (Qld). In the words of the government materials, in a declared Wild River area “[n]ew developments that do not impact the health of the river can still occur”. As such, the prohibitive restrictions pertain to a 1km High Preservation Area that acts as a buffer around nominated waterways.

The Act itself resulted from studies begun after the Federal Government committed, in 1992, to produce a survey of Australia’s “near-pristine rivers”. By 1998, the project had transformed into a program to identify and collect information on “wild rivers” and their catchments.

Little was made of this program publically until January 2004, when Premier Beattie pledged to provide legislative protection for 19 “wild rivers” across Queensland.

Key stakeholders have since identified various issues with the Act, leading to concessions from the state. These include training and funding 100 Indigenous Wild Rivers Rangers (presently 40 are employed), explicitly excepting native title rights from the Act, and buying back pastoral leases and Crown lands for traditional owners.

There are currently twelve declared Wild Rivers areas in Queensland, four of which are in Cape York. Arguably the most controversial declaration is the Wenlock Basin area, declared on June 4 2010.

Waves of opposition

There have been two waves of opposition to the Act. The first began in June 2006. It was led by Indigenous public intellectual Noel Pearson and supported by AgForce, the Cape York Land Council and others. This led to the State’s commitment to Wild Rivers Rangers and Cape York Peninsula Heritage Act in June 2007.

Noel Pearson has led the opposition to the Act. AAP

The following year the first three of the Cape York Peninsula Wild Rivers catchments were nominated and – after ten months of consultations that have since been heavily criticised by Indigenous stakeholders – the Archer, Stewart and Lockhart were declared Wild Rivers on April 3 2009.

The most concerted opposition followed these declarations. This was again led by Pearson and supported by several regional bodies, gaining significant national attention through intensive coverage from The Australian. This opposition is as yet unabated but it has been less successful at gaining concessions from Queensland’s ALP administrations.

Outside parties

Key to opposition is a widespread belief that the Act and declarations were payment for Green preferences in state elections since 2004 brokered by the Wilderness Society. But there is a less dramatic explanation than this “conspiracy” identified by stakeholders.

Instead the Act could be the result of growing concern over conservation arrangements throughout Queensland, particularly from voters in urban electorates. The ALP’s ‘green’ policy commitments have been broadly popular in the urban south, and it is worth noting that the Cook electorate has repeatedly re-elected an ALP candidate during this period.

Another significant player has been the mining company Cape Alumina whose Pisolite Hills project near Mapoon has been potentially rendered “unfeasible” by the Wenlock declaration. At federal inquiries, some Indigenous traditional owners have since argued that in this case the Act is demonstrably stopping a development from which they might benefit. The bauxite project has a lifespan of 15 years.

The Abbott Bill

In January 2010, with significant support from Pearson and The Australian, Opposition-leader Tony Abbott promised that were he to be elected he would “overturn” the legislation.

Conspiracy theorists point to The Wilderness Society’s support of the Act. AAP

The proposed Bill – the Wild Rivers (Environmental Management) Bill – does not overturn the Wild Rivers Act. Rather, it inserts a consent provision requiring that any declaration relies on the written consent of traditional owners. In lieu of a consensual re-declaration, the existing declarations will lapse after six months.

Later versions of the Bill have since added six other significant forms of Aboriginal land other than native title to those involved in the consent process. Detractors such as Murandoo Yanner have called the Bill a “dog’s breakfast” and legal critics have pointed out substantial legal problems exist with the Bill. These include the fact it would provide consent over regulation by only one Act that itself, legally, does not directly regulate development proposals.

Several stakeholders have pointed out that whether the Bill fails or not, it provides opportune publicity for Abbott’s Indigenous policy profile.

Since early 2010 there have been three federal inquiries into the Bill and related issues, none of which have recommended its passage. During these inquiries, in March 2011, the Minister for Environment Kate Jones announced important new initiatives, including a program to consult directly with traditional owners rather than through regional bodies. It is too early to judge the effectiveness of these initiatives.

2012 and Beyond

In the past few weeks both the LNP’s Campbell Newman and ALP Premier Anna Bligh have mentioned the Wild Rivers legislation in their bids for election.

Newman has wavered on whether he would replace the legislation throughout Queensland or, given broad support for the legislation in the Lake Eyre and Gulf regions, simply excise Cape York from the Act’s provisions.

Bligh last week announced plans to gazette five more Cape York river catchments listed in the original 2004 policy. Initial consultation with relevant Indigenous Reference Groups has begun and, in the unlikely event that Bligh is re-elected, a more extensive consultation process would take place before any listing. Nonetheless, it is significant that Bligh chose the Gulf town of Pormpurraw to make this statement.

Beyond the heightened rhetoric of the Wild Rivers controversy, the debates are about far more than a piece of environmental legislation. As such, while the Act may be repealed in Cape York and replaced by something more befitting its opponents, the underlying issues concerning the future and politics of Cape York Peninsula will persist.