Decision is in Wild Rivers laws stink

Opinion Article

2010 October, 2

A report says Queensland laws have an adverse effect on indigenous needs.

This week at St John’s Cathedral, Dean Peter Catt of the Anglican Diocese of Brisbane launched the  Social Justice Committee’s report on the Queensland Wild Rivers laws, repeating their call for the declarations made in Cape York Peninsula to be revoked and for the “free, prior and informed consent” of Aboriginal landowners to be obtained before any Wild River declarations are made over Aboriginal land.  

The Anglican report represents the most comprehensive, objective and rigorous analysis of the Wild Rivers legislation and its effect on Aboriginal communities and landowners.  

For two years the public has heard two sides of the Wild Rivers debate. On one side they have heard  me and other Aboriginal people argue the Queensland laws severely prohibit development on  Aboriginal lands, and will take away the ability of Aboriginal communities to have an economic base  in the future.  

On the other side they have heard Queensland Premier Anna Bligh, her Natural Resources Minister  Stephen Robertson, and the Wilderness Society argue that this is not true. They say the Wild River  laws allow development.  

The public does not know who to believe. What is the truth? Well this Anglican report tells the truth. They have looked thoroughly at the legislation and they have concluded that it is unjust and will have a detrimental effect on Aboriginal development needs.  

The research concludes: “The effect of the legislation is to stifle legitimate indigenous economic opportunities.  

“The [Wild Rivers] Act effectively impedes sustainable economic development opportunities in proclaimed areas, an outcome that deprives affected indigenous communities of opportunities for engagement in the real economy on traditional lands.

“The cost of the Wild Rivers legislation in human terms is its likely impact on future job opportunities  on Cape York, and the consequent loss of dignity; loss of hope; loss of wellbeing and potential  embedded future suffering.  

“The legislation simply prohibits most, if not all, commercial development activities, even sustainable  development activities, within areas of high preservation; areas which by their very nature are the most  productive and therefore viable land.”  

The comprehensive report exposes the Queensland government’s position as untruthful spin. They and  the Wilderness Society have been misleading the public in their defence of the laws.  

I say to every member of the federal parliament who will consider commonwealth legislation that requires free, prior and informed consent of Aboriginal landowners before Wild River declarations are put in place: read the Anglican report. Don’t take it from me, take it from the independent study.  

To those Aboriginal people who are in favour of Wild River declarations, I say to them: the legislation  proposed by Opposition Leader Tony Abbott says that Wild River declarations can continue in force  and new declarations can be made if there is consent of Aboriginal landowners. The bill won’t repeal  the state law, but it will restore the rights of indigenous Queenslanders.  

What is wrong with the principle of consent by Aboriginal landowners? How can this principle be opposed by anyone who believes in land rights and social justice?  

If the traditional owners in the Gulf of Carpentaria or wherever in Cape York want Wild River declarations, then Abbott’s proposed legislation will allow them to make an agreement with the Queensland government.  

It is not up to individual Aboriginal people like me or those poor people who were led around by the  nose by the Wilderness Society through Parliament House this week, to give or withhold consent. It is a  right of the community of landowners to give the consent.

The best way to make sure that the consent of the community of landowners is given is for an indigenous land use agreement to be made under the provisions of the Native Title Act.  

In response to Abbott’s proposed bill, the Gillard government proposes to refer the matter to the House of Representatives economics committee. Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin phoned me on  Thursday and advised me of the government’s intentions. I told her it sounded as if the government  was putting a response to Wild Rivers off to the never-never.  

She assured me that that was not the intention. Now that I have seen the terms of reference my view is confirmed. This is just a cynical charade. 

This proposed inquiry repeats in large part an inquiry that was undertaken by the Senate committee on  constitutional and legal affairs earlier this year.  

The Senate committee published its report. The government’s proposal repeats the exercise, doubling  the cost, doubling the delay, doubling the energy of all of the parties that have already put an effort into  the first inquiry.  

Both supporters and opponents in this debate made submissions and appeared before the Senate  committee. Representatives of Aboriginal organisations that were lobbying with the Wilderness Society in Canberra this week had the opportunity and took the opportunity to make their views known  to the Senate committee.  

The people being led around by the nose by the Wilderness Society complain that their voices have not  been heard. But read the Senate report: they all attended, they all made submissions, they were all  given an equal opportunity to be heard.

It is a complete waste of time to repeat the exercise undertaken earlier this year. If this committee  proceeds, then they can read the transcripts of the Senate inquiry and read the submissions that have  already been made. Why should we waste our breath repeating our views to another bunch of  politicians on another committee inquiring into the same subject matter?  

Macklin and members of her government were aware of the Wild Rivers issue in 2007, and we have  been seeking their assistance for most of the time since then. If they thought there needed to be policy  review by parliament, then why was not this undertaken by Labor during its first three years?  

The Wild Rivers Bill passed by the Senate, and which now forms the substance of the bill that Abbott  has foreshadowed, is a small piece of legislation containing fewer than seven sections. How can you  have two parliamentary committee inquiries and spend so much money and time on what really is a  minor item on the federal parliament’s agenda?  

They have thousands of other matters they have to get through in the next three years and they want to  waste time and resources on what is essentially a cynical tactical manoeuvre?  

The time for policy analysis, review and inquiry is over. What we need from the parliament and the  federal government is policy decisions. Prime Minister, let’s have an honest vote and make a decision  rather than a dishonest tactical manoeuvre.

Decision is in Wild Rivers laws stink