Tuesday 28 September 2010

Wild Rivers Unplugged. Part 2 - The Process

The Wild Rivers debate will emerge as a hot potato as the new Federal Parliament sits this week for the first time. In a three-part series, Bryan Law reviews where we are at with this important legislation, poised to have dramatic effect on the northern Cape York Aboriginal communities.

The Coalition

Warren Entsch made Wild Rivers an issue in his campaign, and now he has to keep his promises. He’s off to a flying start with the Opposition Leader Tony Abbott announcing on 21 September that dealing with Wild Rivers was his “first priority” in the new Parliament.

The easiest path will be a private members bill passed in the Senate before July 1 2011. Such a bill can be passed in the House at any time. The Bill must render the present Queensland Act null and void, and make compulsory a round of genuine negotiation between the crown and native title holders re conservation regimes.
The opposition put up a private members Bill last year which passed in the Senate (the same Senate we have until July). He can put up another one now.

The Independents

Senator Xenophon has said he still supports overturning the Queensland legislation, but he wants another round of consultation with stake-holders before voting on another private members bill. Senator Fielding voted for last year’s Bill, but has made no comment on the issue recently.

Let’s assume that a well-crafted and productive Bill can pass the Senate before 1 July 2011.
Such a Bill needs 76 votes to also pass in the House. That’s 72 Coalition, 1 Country Oldthinker, and three more votes between Andrew Wilkie, BobKatt, Oakeshot, and Windsor. That should be achievable, provided the legislation is positive and effective.

BobKat has already declared a desire to overturn the Queensland legislation. Tony Windsor has said he’s “sympathetic with Aboriginal people” and open to being convinced by Tony Abbott of the merits of his legislation. Rob Oakeshot has said he needs to carefully consider all the issues involved, and that he has sympathy for both Aborigines and environmentalists. I haven’t found any recent comment from Andrew Wilkie.

It’s pretty clear from their comments that Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshot will consider the Wild Rivers issue carefully, and in the context of parliamentary reform and Constitutional propriety.

The legislation put up by Tony Abbott last year was a pretty shameless piece of politicking. It was duly noted as such in the Senate inquiry that the Bill would have had at best a temporary effect if the Queensland government was determined (stubborn even) to proceed along its course.

The current situation requires better quality drafting of a Bill, and a context in which a short-term Wild Rivers Bill is matched with a long-term commitment to reform of the Native Title Act to better empower remote Aboriginal communities, throughout northern Australia.

The Labor Party

The Federal Party will support their state “colleagues”, even though the Bligh government was largely responsible for Labor losing 9 seats in the federal parliament. Wild Rivers was a part of that swing, with privatisation having a larger impact. Arrogant Anna Bligh and her government appear completely determined to drive their bus off the cliff. The most they’ll change is a new paint-job on the way down.

The Wilderness Society is an appendage of the ALP, and seems to prefer internecine gun battles to bus-driving.

The Greens

During the election, Greens Senate candidate Larissa Waters (now Senator elect for Queensland) claimed at a meeting in Cairns that Wild Rivers was a state issue, and that nationally the Greens supported reforms to native Title.

Now the election’s over Greens Leader Bob Brown told The Drum that Greens supported the Queensland Wild Rivers legislation, and that many Aboriginal people in Cape York did too, although he wouldn’t name any of them when asked (HINT to Bob, Murrandoo Yanner and David Claudie are strong supporters).

After July 2011, we’ll need Greens’ support for any Commonwealth resolution of the Wild Rivers conflict in Queensland. That would require a strong effort to educate the Queensland Greens about the issues. Via good old fashioned public debate. Via problem-solving built into the legislation proposed.

This is a big ask because most Queensland Greens have been persuaded by the dishonest campaign from TWS. Decision-making has been confined to Brisbane, where Greens professionals like Ronan Lee and Larissa Waters have helped shape the Queensland legislation from the beginning, without consulting Aboriginal people.

I haven’t given up on the Greens. It will require a substantial effort to change the Party dynamics, but I believe there are ways of doing this in the longer term. Of course the Queensland government is likely to fall before this work can be accomplished.

The Aborigines

Aboriginal politics is complicated. A recent story (23 September) talks about the Wild Rivers issue “turning ugly”, as if deep and bitter disputes were a new thing.

The personalities and splits mentioned in this story have been engaging in conflict and rhetoric for many years now, and not just about Wild Rivers.

David Claudie would like to create a new Land Council for Cape York, and is a strong advocate of The Wilderness Society. Murrandoo Yanner has an entrenched dislike of the Pearson brothers, but always declares he is speaking for different country. Noel and Gerhard Pearson aren’t noted for their shy and retiring approach to politics, and their push for family responsibilities and mutual obligation gets mixed reviews across Cape York Peninsula.

I’m not going to try and resolve any of those arguments here (I don’t have the heritage, knowledge, or skill). All four Aborigines above (and many others) gave testimony to the Senate Committee on Wild Rivers earlier this year, and I encourage you to read their testimony and submissions.

Then ask yourself “What is so urgent that time cannot be taken for a fair and meaningful process of consultation and negotiation to resolve conflict and produce legislation that accommodates all indigenous interests, and all conservation interests?”


We need a Queensland “Caring for Country” Act that sets out a framework for most of Cape York getting managed as a high value conservation area.

Local people/traditional owners ought be primarily responsible for shaping land-use decisions, and their thinking ought be supported with adequate professional resources. The “Land Management Industry” in Cape York ought be built in consultation with, and using the knowledge of Cape York traditional owners/locals.

The cost of land management of high-conservation value lands can be paid out of the mining tax, or the carbon tax, ‘cos it’s an integral part of a carbon neutral future for our country: a modern future that still contains and reverences the oldest human culture on planet earth.

Call me naive, but I think such a solution would win support from fair-minded Greens, the Country Free thinkers, the Coalition and, I suspect, five or six Labor members of conscience. We could move away from the brutal knife-edge politics presently operating.

Imagine if we could use the present political situation to have Parliament acting in a more consultative manner, genuinely aspiring to inclusion and problem-solving. Somewhere. Over the Rainbow. With Wild Rivers.

1 comment:

MaryO said...

The Wild Rivers debate, arguably, ultimately comes down to how to enhance participatory governance processes rights - from the ground and upwards.

And lack of effective participatory processes present a challenge everywhere in relation to all issues of special concern to local communities. While proving to be especially complex in relation to local aboriginal communities for many reasons.

So learning how to enhance participatory governance processes per se will not only help resolve the Wild Rivers conflict, but assist all local communities to have a say in their own modes of local development.

With significant potential ecological benefits.

Personally, I believe that free prior informed consent is the key, on an ethical and practical basis. Andrew Bartlett provided a reasonable summation of the ethical basis here and here.

Yet if, on principle, FPIC was wholly accepted by all, I still can't visualise how it would be practically implemented in Cape York. At least in the immediate future.

So for me, the notion does have a distinct “over the rainbow” quality. Nonetheless, I remain an avid believer.