Wild rivers run deep
From the beginning of 2010 onwards, the Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has committed himself to “overturning Queensland’s Wild Rivers laws” as a key personal objective.
Immediately post-election, he nominated this issue as his number one legislative priority.
Last week he introduced a private member’s bill into Parliament to deliver on his pledge, with the hope of winning support from the lower house independents.
Abbott obviously assumes he is onto a political winner on this state-based issue, and in the process has relegated a series of fundamental national issues.
However, the last two months have not been an easy ride for the Liberal Party on the Wild Rivers front, and serious questions are arising about just how sound a political strategy this really is.
The trouble began in the first sitting week of Parliament, when a grassroots delegation of Traditional Owners landed in Canberra to make it known to the national media and key politicians that they strongly support Queensland’s Wild Rivers laws, and oppose Abbott’s bill. And they made it clear that vocal Wild Rivers opponent Noel Pearson doesn’t speak for all Aboriginal interests in North Queensland.
This undermined the premise that overturning Wild Rivers was all about Indigenous advancement – here was a group of Indigenous leaders explaining that they liked having their rivers protected, and that the supposed economic impacts of the legislation were being grossly overstated.
What’s more, they explained, there were jobs being created as part of the Wild Rivers initiative.
Until this point, the media dominance of Noel Pearson was the driving force in the campaign against Wild Rivers. Pearson had argued that Wild Rivers was grinding economic development on Cape York to a halt.
But as the Traditional Owners pointed out in Canberra, this campaign has been based on a string of entirely false claims about Wild Rivers, including that it stops the construction of tourism lodges or will lead to the banning of traditional hunting and fishing.
A couple of weeks ago, Abbott and Pearson were even inferring that Wild Rivers has stopped the construction of a public dunny in Hopevale – a claim that simply has no basis in reality.
In fact over 100 development applications have been approved in Wild River areas, as pointed out by Gulf of Carpentaria Indigenous leader Murrandoo Yanner, another strong supporter of the Wild Rivers legislation.
The Wild Rivers laws simply provide a protective buffer around sensitive waterways and wetlands from strip-mining, dams and intensive irrigated agriculture, while supporting sustainable economic development in the entire river basin and guaranteeing Native Title rights.
The only proposal halted to date has been the destructive Cape Alumina bauxite mine, planned on the Steve Irwin Wildlife Reserve, due to the 500m protective buffers now placed around sensitive rainforest springs as part of the Wild River declaration for the Wenlock River.
This means that Terri Irwin and her Australia Zoo have joined with conservation groups, prominent Indigenous leaders, tourism operators, and some Queensland graziers, in opposing attempts to overturn the Wild Rivers laws.
The great irony in this case is that the Steve Irwin Wildlife Reserve was created after the death of the Crocodile Hunter with a $6 million grant from then Prime Minister John Howard and Environment Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
So in effect, removing Wild River protection would destroy one of the Liberal Party’s prominent environmental legacies.
The Wilderness Society is aware of key, environmentally progressive Liberal MPs who are very concerned about the impact that winding back Wild Rivers would have on places like the Irwin Reserve.
When combined with the Party’s stance of inaction on climate change and frustrating the restoration of the Murray-Darling Basin, one wonders whether the more savvy Liberals will soon feel compelled to urge their leader to tone down the anti-environmental crusade.
Indeed with environmentally-minded voters playing an increasingly crucial role in Australian politics, and Gen Y overwhelming nominating the environment as their number one issue of concern, the Liberal Party is taking a significant long-term risk here.
There is a strong indication that Abbott himself knows that attacking Wild Rivers isn’t the political winner he originally thought – his rhetoric has suddenly changed from “overturning” Wild Rivers, to “improving” Queensland’s laws. None-the-less what he is proposing is still a veto over Wild River declarations for the interests aligned with Pearson.
The Liberal Party have been very vocal on the issue of parliamentary scrutiny of policy and legislation, such as the NBN and the BER scheme. Abbott’s anti Wild Rivers push is about to receive such scrutiny, with the issue now referred to an inquiry to be conducted by the House of Representatives Economics Committee.
It will be fascinating to finally watch the outrageous claims made against the sensible river conservation regime finally put through the mill. I’m very confident they will simply not stand up to this level of forensic scrutiny.
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