Canberra fails to slow Wild Rivers


 Originally published in Tracker Magazine. 

Wik Projects General Manager Gina Castelain, Chuulangun Aboriginal Corporation chair David Claudie and Ewamian Aboriginal Corporation’s Jimmy Richards made the trip to Canberra last year to lobby in support of the Wild Rivers laws. (AAP IMAGE/ALAN PORRITT)

QUEENSLAND: Family First Senator Steve Fielding has sided with the Greens in a debate as wild as the rivers it seeks to protect, writes AMY MCQUIRE.

It was a surprising farewell from a man not usually associated with Aboriginal or Green issues, when Family First Senator Steve Fielding used a casting vote to jettison the Coalition’s anti-wild rivers bill last month.

It reversed his support for an almost identical bill which had been introduced the previous year by Federal Opposition leader Tony Abbott.

Senator Fielding’s term in office will expire in July, meaning this could be one of his last deciding votes as a senator.

But while this current saga has ended with him, its origins lay back in 2005, when Queensland passed its contentious Wild Rivers Act.

Over the past six years, ten Wild Rivers have since been declared, all in the midst of a cloud of controversy. The legislation is designed to protect the state’s pristine waterways by placing restrictions on certain types of development.

But it has been the subject of a sustained protest campaign by Cape York lawyer Noel Pearson, the Balkanu Cape York Development Corporation and the Cape York Land Council.

They claim it was introduced without proper consultation with Cape York traditional owners and that it stifles Indigenous economic development.

The Wilderness Society, the Carpentaria Land Council and a large number of traditional owners support the legislation.

They believe it protects the environment and meets local Indigenous aspirations for economic growth.

The Wild Rivers (Environment Management Bill) 2011 scuttled by Senator Fielding’s vote was introduced by Northern Territory Senator Nigel Scullion.

Independent Senator Nick Xenophon voted in support of the Bill. The Greens and the Australian Labor Party opposed it.This left Senator Fielding with the casting vote.

The Victorian Senator visited the Cape with Labor Senator Mark Furner before the vote.

He told the Senate during debate “the more you look at the issues, the more you realise that there are two valid and opposing arguments.” He said that some areas of Australia did need to be protected.

While he was “not in the camp of locking things up for the sake of it” he was “equally… not in the camp of bastardising the environment”.

“Under this bill, a wild rivers declaration can only take effect if it has the written consent of all the interested parties of the land,” he said.

“The practical result of this will make it extremely difficult for any wild rivers declarations to ever be made. This, I think is a problem in itself.”

Senator Fielding said the definition of “owner” in the bill meant that “every single person or group that falls under the definition of ‘owner’ gets an automatic right of veto on a wild rivers declaration”.

“As an example, even if eight parties affected by a wild river declaration agree to give their consent, the declaration can be nullified because of the opposition of just one party.

“This hardly sounds reasonable.”

He said there was confusion over whether any new development was allowed in a wild rivers area but several forms of development, from tourism to grazing and pastoral enterprises, could still thrive.

The Greens will assume the balance of power in the Senate in July, effectively killing off any chance the Federal Coalition had of legislative change to the Wild Rivers regime.

And it wasn’t long before Mr Pearson responded, describing Senator Fielding as a “Judas” following the vote.

“We’ve only heard in the last 24 hours that he made this thief in the night visit to Cape York,” Mr Pearson said.

“They talked to no Aboriginal councils on Cape York, visited no Aboriginal community, and spoke with none of the regional organisations here in Cairns who have been seeking an audience with him.”

His outburst was rejected by David Claudie, a Northern Kaanju traditional owner and chair of the Chuulangun Aboriginal Corporation.

“Senator Fielding came up and started to talk to people, and he saw with his own eyes what is really happening and what the reality is,” Mr Claudie told Tracker.

“He made up his mind himself, which is good for us.”

He described Senator Scullion’s bill as a “farce” which only gave power to these bodies with “no right to speak for country under Aboriginal law and custom, or to veto native title traditional owners”.

The Wilderness Society’s Wild Rivers campaigner, Glenn Walker, agreed.

He told Tracker that Senator Fielding had given a “reasoned and calm speech” about wild rivers.

Mr Walker said the wild rivers debate had been characterised by an underlying campaign of misinformation aired throughout the media.

The legislation provided positive benefits for traditional owners and Aboriginal communities.

“All wild rivers does is create a protective buffer of up to one kilometre around rivers within which industrial development is regulated. Strip mines, dams, polluting irrigation schemes cannot happen within this one kilometre buffer,” he said

“Grazing, building houses, building roads, building fences….all of these things can occur. Mining still occurs,” he added.

“It’s not the dramatic piece of legislation claimed by the Balkanu Development Corporation, Noel Pearson and Gerhardt Pearson.

“The stuff about you not being able to hunt and fish, or you won’t be able to clear a block of land to build a house in this buffer zone, is all deeply untrue.”

It was a sentiment backed by Wik Projects General Manager Gina Castelain.

“If properly implemented, in partnership with local Aboriginal people, the wild rivers legislation is good legislation,” Ms Castelain said in a statement to Tracker.

“The reality is that many traditional owners on Cape York support the declaration of their rivers under the wild rivers legislation.

“Wild rivers declarations can help Aboriginal people preserve and manage critical cultural and environmental resources, and enhance their connection to country – while also allowing and, in fact, encouraging the kind of sustainable economic development like eco-tourism that traditional owners want to happen,” she said

“There is misinformation being circulated about what the wild rivers legislation means for Aboriginal people and their country.”

Ewamian traditional owner, Jimmy Richards, who, with Mr Claudie, was part of a delegation of traditional owners to Canberra last year to protest the Abbott bill, told Tracker a ranger program established under the wild rivers legislation was creating role models within his community.

The Staaten river, which sits to the west of Cairns and flows through the Gulf of Carpentaria, was one of the first waterways to be declared a wild river.

Forty Indigenous rangers are currently employed throughout Queensland under the program.

The Coalition argued throughout the debate that their legislation reinforced the right of traditional owners to free, prior and informed consent.

Mr Richards said he believed if the Coalition was true to its position then it would move to enshrine this right into the Native Title Act.

“I support the principle of consent, but the bill they introduced three times wasn’t going to deliver for traditional owners,” Mr Richards said.

“… We can get a greater outcome out of a bad situation in terms of native title reform.”

It’s a sentiment backed by the Wilderness Society.

“Tony Abbott from the very outset said his goal is to overturn wild rivers, that rhetoric that it is all about consent is not true at all,” Mr Walker said.

“The objective is to overturn wild rivers and he’s found a way to use this statement of consent as a deceptive way to push forward this agenda.

“We’re very supportive of enhancing Indigenous rights across the board including a wholesale reform of the Native Title Act.”

This would provide this fundamental right to traditional owners around the country – not just to Cape York.

TIMELINE: The Wild Rivers debate

• September 2005: The Wild Rivers Act 2005 passes Parliament, with the support of the Queensland Liberal Party.

• December 2005: The first six wild river basins are nominated for protection under the legislation, as formal community consultation in the Gulf of Carpentaria begins.

• 2006: Cape York lawyer Noel Pearson escalates his campaign against Wild Rivers, and after further pressure from the Queensland Resources Council, AgForce and Mr Pearson, the state Water Minister Henry Palaszuk signals a back down on the legislation. The Wilderness Society and Carpentaria Land Council issue a statement in support of Wild Rivers.

• July 2006: Premier Peter Beattie announces a raft of amendments to the legislation.

• February 2007: The first six Wild Rivers declarations are made after 14 months of consultation and negotiations, and made effective by the tabling of the Wild Rivers and Other Legislation Bill 2007, which is passed two weeks later.

• April 2007: Noel and Gerhardt Pearson set up the Indigenous Environment Foundation, to protest the Wild Rivers issue.

• July 2008: The Queensland government formally nominates the Archer, Stewart and Lockhart River Basins under the Wild Rivers Act. The Balkanu Development Corporation is contracted by the state government to help in the consultation process.

• December 2008: Queensland government nominates the Wenlock River Basin for Wild River protection.

• April 2009: Premier Bligh announces the formal declaration of the Archer, Stewart and Lockhart River Basins. Noel Pearson states Premier Bligh has “urinated on the rights” of Indigenous people.

• February 2010: Opposition leader Tony Abbott introduces the Wild Rivers (Environment Management) Bill 2010 into the lower house. An identical bill is also later introduced to the Senate, and referred to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee.

• June 2010: After conducting hearings in Queensland and Canberra, the committee releases its majority report concluding Wild Rivers would not stop economic development and recommended Abbott’s bill should not be supported.

• June 2010: The Senate passes the bill with the support of Senator Steve Fielding and Xenophon, but the bill expires in the House of Representatives with the federal election is called.

• October 2010: Cape Alumina announces it will not go ahead with its bauxite mine on the Steve Irwin Wildlife Reserve because of the Wild Rivers declaration on the Wenlock River Basin.

• November 2010: Tony Abbott tables his Wild Rivers (Environmental Management) Bill 2010 in the federal Parliament. The House of Representatives Economics Committee conducts hearings into the wild rivers inquiry in far north Queensland.

• February 2011: Senator Nigel Scullion introduces the Wild Rivers (Environment Management) Bill 2011 to the Senate. It is referred to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Committees in March, which recommends the Senate does not pass the bill.

• May 2011: Senator Fielding votes against Senator Scullion’s bill, joining the Labor and Greens in blocking it. With the Senate changeover in July ensuring the Greens hold the balance of power, it is unlikely the Coalition will be able to overturn Wild Rivers.

* Information compiled from the Wilderness Society’s submission to the Economics Committee’s Inquiry.

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