Backroom deals bless their wildest dreams

Opinion Article

2011 March, 19

The Labor chairman brazenly winks at environmentalists turning up at a federal parliamentary committee  hearing in Brisbane.  

Queensland bureaucrats and the Wilderness Society work like a tag team, dumping forests of submissions  before a second federal inquiry into Tony Abbott’s wild rivers bill by the House of Representatives economics committee, announced late last year as a stalling tactic by the government.  

Strange decisions are taken about which submissions are accepted and allowed to be posted on the committee’s  website, and which are not. Private hearings are held in remote locations, taking evidence only from witnesses  sympathetic to the Queensland laws, without other traditional owners present.  

From their opening submissions in Canberra, it becomes clear that the commonwealth bureaucrats are with the  environmentalists and against Aboriginal landowners. They make outrageous assertions about how properly the  Queensland government conducted itself in relation to its wild rivers scheme, knowledge that the  commonwealth is simply not in a position to have.  

I ask one senior bureaucrat: “Why is the commonwealth making assertions about facts that only the Queensland  government can attest to?”  

He blithely answers that if I disagree with anything, then we have every opportunity to point it out. I respond  that while we understand it is up to us to refute misinformation that might be peddled by our opponents before  the inquiry, surely when public servants make submissions, these should be relied on as impartial and factual.  

I ask whether he understands the difference between staffers who work for politicians and the duties of members  of the Australian Public Service. Despite these being pointed out, the commonwealth still has not corrected its  misleading evidence. Needless to say, this inquiry is a pig circus.  

Last week, at the other end of the continent, people such as former ABC Gardening Australia presenter Peter  Cundall were getting a taste of the same shaft that TWS has stuck into the hapless natives in Cape York Peninsula.

Except this time it was green v green, when federal Environment Minister Tony Burke approved the contentious  Gunns paper mill with the connivance of key TWS operatives.  

Sue Neales was left nauseous, writing in Hobart’s The Mercury last weekend: “But what was so sickening and  saddening to observe this week was the slick and calculated feel of almost every public utterance, media release  and altered nuance issued in relation to the [Bill] Kelty forest peace talks, forest protection plans and the Tamar  Valley pulp mill.  

“It was impossible not to watch all the dominoes magically line up within three days of each other, the linkages  being made between the issues and positions critically shifted at the last minute, and not feel a sense of done deals sealed behind closed doors.”  

Yes, Aboriginal landowners in Cape York know too well about done deals sealed behind closed doors. Neales  writes: “The effect, yet again, was to make the majority of Tasmanians feel that they had been excluded from a cunningly manipulated decision-making process.”  

Neales is scathing about the roles played by TWS national campaign director Lyndon Schneiders and  Environment Tasmania’s Phill Pullinger: “That was exactly the trade-off or in-bed-with-the-devil deal that so  many Tasmanians, especially those agitating against the loathed pulp mill, had feared was in train.”  

When supporters on the ground see they’re being sold out, Neales writes of the dissembling from the leaders:  “The back-pedalling that followed from the environmental groups this week, as their phone lines clogged with  diatribes from enraged members, was both masterful and, it must be said, hardly honest.  

“On Wednesday, a press release signed by the three environmental groups involved in the Kelty statement of  principles negotiations came out with a statement that suddenly seemed to withdraw their backing of the previous week for the proposed Tamar Valley pulp mill.  

“They called for federal Environment Minister Tony Burke to reject its approval, claiming it was now ‘totally  unacceptable’.”

Neales points out that Gunns made its plantation-timber-only concession last year: “So for the Wilderness  Society et al to claim in a press release on Wednesday that they were ‘rejecting’ the ‘current’ pulp mill proposal because it used native timber was disingenuous in the extreme, deceitful at best.”  

Welcome to our world.  

This is what happens when some green leaders adopt a by-whatever-means-necessary approach to protecting the  environment. They end up treating communities with contempt and using genuine local and regional environmental patriots as fodder in their big-picture campaigns.  

Schneiders is the embodiment of this new phase in environmental activism: the environmentalist as apparatchik  rather than the old model of environmentalist as campaigner.  

The influence and power of these green apparatchiks is impressive, and has delivered large wins. In Queensland,  state Labor is beholden to groups such as TWS for delivering green preferences. In return, they have all but  outsourced their environmental portfolios to these groups.  

But these green apparatchiks are trashing community relationships in the countryside. They ride roughshod over  rural people, landowners who were pioneers in the Landcare movement, Aboriginal communities that share  conservation goals, and industries that are genuine about sustainability. Indeed, in a moment of hubris  Schneiders once revealed to academic researchers he considered public consultation “a long suicide note”.  

Green apparatchiks sit down with Labor hardheads in state secretariats and play a giant game of chess, trading  pawns across a chessboard the size of Queensland. Public consultation is a sham while deals are cut by the big  boys.  

This chessboard trade-off was evident when the water management deals cut between Queensland Labor under  Peter Beattie and TWS came to grief with the Traveston Dam.  

When the Greens and TWS went soft against the dam before the state election in March 2009, it was apparent  that this did not just involve Labor preferences to Greens candidate Ronan Lee in the seat of Indooroopilly.

It pointed to the earlier below-the-radar deal to trade support for a dam in the southeast in return for wild rivers  up north and out west. But then Peter Garrett, as environment minister, torpedoed Traveston. I wonder how many people in the Bligh government ponder the double game played by TWS: running dead in Brisbane but  going by the back door to Canberra.  

In any case, the Queenslanders lost $500 million on Traveston, proving how dangerous it is for governments to  play environmental games with taxpayers’ money.  

The Queensland Wild Rivers Act is truly draconian. It provides no appeal rights and no parliamentary review.  

The minister has virtually unfettered powers, providing fertile opportunity for organisations such as TWS to  become silent partners in government. Processes that conservation groups normally hold sacred - appeal rights, natural justice and procedural fairness - have been denied to indigenous people in respect of wild rivers  legislation.  

Protection must be afforded indigenous people from powerful single-issue interest groups intent on removing  their rights.  

The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People is intended to lay the foundations for these protections.  The right of free, prior and informed consent to policies and regulatory actions is at the heart of this protection.  

State Labor has turned a blind eye to that principle, endorsed by its federal counterparts, and has focused instead  on repaying political debts. Federal Labor’s principles in this area are to be tested.

Backroom deals bless their wildest dreams