Newman cruises to victory… but what next for wild rivers?


Originally published in Tracker Magazine.

Queensland Premier Campbell Newman.

QUEENSLAND: Queenslanders may have given the Liberal National Party (LNP) an overwhelming mandate to form government, but for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities on Cape York, opinion was much more divided.

This is where the battle over the controversial Wild Rivers legislation has been staged.

It was one of the only issues in Aboriginal affairs to emerge during the state elections, with Campbell Newman promising to axe the laws, and state Labor continuing its support.

The ALP narrowly lost the seat of Cook, which takes in much of Cape York and the Torres Strait, suffering a 13 percent swing against it.

But the level of support for the ALP and LNP is less clear-cut when you look at the results of individual communities.

In the community of Aurukun, which sits on the Archer and Watson Rivers, which have Wild Rivers declaration, the ALP’s incumbent Member for Cook Jason O’Brien attracted 70 percent of the vote.

In Coen, situated near the Archer Basin, the results were more even, with Mr O’Brien attracting 38 percent, while the LNP’s David Kempton attracted 35 percent.

In Lockhart, the LNP received 63 percent of the vote to Mr O’Brien’s 33 percent. The Lockhart Basin also has a Wild Rivers declaration.

In Hope Vale, the home community of the Cape York Institute’s Noel Pearson, the ALP attracted 41 percent to the LNP’s 29 percent.

There is currently an ongoing debate over the level of support for Wild Rivers amongst traditional owners on the Cape.

The legislation first passed in 2005 and 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, stating it is essential to protect vulnerable and pristine waterways.

Wild Rivers has been subject to two unsuccessful attempts by the federal Opposition to water it down.

But with the election of an LNP government, it’s likely Wild Rivers will be scrapped.

Premier Campbell Newman vowed to axe the laws in the lead up to the election, instead promising to implement a ‘Bio-region Management Plan’.

“We want to do that through a proper partnership with the traditional owners, with those Aboriginal communities and pastoralists and other people that have legitimate interests on the Cape,” he said.

“What we want to do is create an opportunity for an economic future, rather than just pander to those green groups down in south-east Queensland.”

But whether that will extend to other areas outside of Cape York, has not been confirmed.

The Wilderness Society used the Cape York election results to call on Mr Newman to re-consider his position on Wild Rivers.

“Premier Campbell Newman should listen closely to the Traditional Owners across the state rather than those of pro-mining groups such as Balkanu Cape York Development Corporation or self-appointed leaders like Noel Pearson,” the society said in a media release.

“We believe the vast majority of Traditional Owners on the Cape and elsewhere are strong supporters of environmental protection for their rivers and landscapes, and we urge the Newman government to maintain full protection of Queensland’s pristine wild rivers.”

But Balkanu Cape York Development Company Chief Operating Officer Terry Piper told Tracker the results from booths like Aurukun did not mean traditional owners were supportive of Wild Rivers.

“I think (wild rivers) was a significant factor… but it’s hard to interpret what people voted for and why they voted a particular way,” Mr Piper told Tracker.

“There are range of issues people are considering. There were a number of big issues being pushed at the same time.”
Mr Piper claims there is little support for Wild Rivers in Cape York, even in Aurukun.

“I’d count about two traditional owners who support Wild Rivers in Aurukun.. and probably two on the Wenlock river.

“The overwhelming majority of people on Cape York and Traditional owners felt that there was an injustice with Wild Rivers on Cape York, where people’s rights weren’t respected.

“I think it was an affront the way the consultation was done, how the minister didn’t consider the issues raised by traditional owners, about how large areas were declared high preservation areas without notifying traditional owners.

“Its basically the view of most people on Cape York that it was driven by the Wilderness Society in Brisbane and absolutely rode roughshod over rights of Indigenous people on Cape York.”

Mr Piper said he hoped Mr Newman would begin the process on the Bio-regional plan, in true consultation with traditional owners.

He says there are other alternatives to Wild Rivers that can be explored.

But Balkanu’s claims about the level of opposition to Wild Rivers are not supported by all traditional owners.

Don de Busch is a Southern Kaanju Traditional Owner and involved in the Wild Rivers Indigenous Reference Groups (IRG).

The Bligh government amended by the Wild Rivers Act to ensure future Wild Rivers declarations have Indigenous Reference Groups, in a bid to qualm concerns over the original consultation process.

Mr de Busch says Cape York is divided 50-50 about Wild Rivers, but there was originally a lot of confusion about what the laws meant.

He says Wild Rivers definitely played a factor in the election.

“People have been confused about the legislation. The work we are doing with Indigenous reference groups really developed a lot of traction amongst community.

“… With the Indigenous reference groups, people were starting to feel that we have an opportunity to have a voice from the grassroots level and I think that contributed to Labor’s support amongst Cape York communities.”

Mr de Busch believes Wild Rivers is important legislation that guarantees protection of ecosystems, and says mechanisms like the IRGs ensured Aboriginal control over the process.

“The IRGs are a part of the wild rivers legislation. The particular model has proven to be very useful and are valuable to the community, in the sense that they are finally giving people a voice.

“That’s what we really should be looking for with the new government, allowing people to participate in future management plans for Cape York.”

Currently there has been no public statement about whether the Newman government will keep the IRGs, and they have been instructed to cease their current work.

Mr de Busch says the IRGs provide an alternative from the traditional “gatekeepers” of Cape York.

He believes their work should extend past the Wild Rivers legislation, to areas like the proposed World Heritage bid for Cape York.

“The view I have is that it’s taking away the alternative voice of the people in Cape York who are supportive of this legislation.

“It enables the new government to wind back the wild rivers legislation without too many other people voicing their concerns.”

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