Wild Rivers legislation and the cost shifting by environmentalists to those who can least afford it

Australian Pipeline Industry Association Convention

2009 October, 1

Wild Rivers legislation and the cost shifting by environmentalists to those who can least afford it

Thank you very much to the Australian Pipeline Industry Association for this really kind invitation for me to address this conference. I'd also like to acknowledge the traditional owners and the indigenous people of Cairns and this region. And can I acknowledge our Parliamentary Secretary Michael Choi for his gracious comments.


The Cape York agenda is our attempt to think through what is needed for our indigenous people to close the tragic gap between our people and other Australians. That gap is so well known that we're almost none with the statistics. Perhaps the headline indicator of that gap is the life expectancy gap of around 20 years and in places like Cape York Peninsula the gap is in fact wider.


You'd have to go to some parts of the former Soviet Union or sub-Saharan Africa to find such a life expectancy deficit. The life expectancy rates in India and in China are significantly higher than the life expectancy of this country's indigenous peoples. Underpinning that life expectancy gap are a whole range of other miserable indicators; education, health, involvement in the criminal justice system and so on. Three percent of the population are contributing between 20% and 40% of the country's prison populations. Three percent of the country are contributing up to 60% of youth in juvenile detention. Three percent of the country are contributing between 30% and 60% percent of children in foster care. Only in the National Rugby League and the Australian Football League are indigenous people positively over-represented. On every other indicator we have a huge challenge ahead of us if the original peoples of the country are to share in the benefits of being an Australian.


We've all known this, there's been lots of consternation by political leaders about this going back many decades. Australia has been struggling with the “Aboriginal problem” for most of the 20th century and there have been large measures of goodwill and anxiety about the problem. We made many commitments at various junctures to try and close the gap and find solutions.


In relation to the criminal justice system, perhaps the most significant attempt to solve the problems was the Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody. A massive national exercise that investigated every death in custody during a certain period of time, came up with 339 recommendations and hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of programs and responses were devised by territory, state, and Commonwealth governments. Twenty years later the number of indigenous people in custody had gone from, in 1991, around 2,000 people, to today over 5,000 people in custody. All of our concerted intentions came to naught.


In this state we made a commitment between indigenous leaders and the Beattie government to halve the number of Aboriginal people involved in the criminal justice system within 10 years. That was the goal we set eight years ago. We are now tracking at 17% above the rate at the time we made the commitment.


On most of the policy fronts affecting the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, we're not making progress. And the progress we are making in some areas is marginal and frankly, not the consequence of deliberate policy. Yes, we are having greater year 12 completions and university participation in states such as South Australia, but from all of the research it appears that this progress is being made quite notwithstanding government policy.


So, when we came to confront our problems 10 years ago - after we delegated to our colleagues the task for continuing the fight for justice, for land, and the proper implementation of the Wik and Mabo decisions - when we came to confront our parlous social predicament, we thought that we first had to get out thinking straight. We first thought that if our policies are failing our thinking must be wrong. And my first look in detail at the Royal Commission's report into Aboriginal deaths in custody; it was plain to me the Royal Commission had plainly failed to deal with the nose on your face problem of substance abuse.


Instead, the Royal Commission had listed a long list of parameters; housing, employment, training, education, infrastructure, and so on. And substance abuse was said to be just one of a number of so-called underlying issues.  But there are issues and then there are issues. There are factors and then there are other factors. And the plain nose on your face factor seemed to us to be that we needed to confront the grog. Why were we having horrendous rates of magistrate court appearances? When a cursory look over the lists would tell you that 90% of them involved grog. So, we had to wrench governmental and community attention away from that traditional list of social justice to the patent fact that we needed to confront the grog problem.


Now the Cape York agenda therefore, we undertook an inquiry into why certain peoples have managed to rise up out of poverty, out of the mud of misery. And we learn from the International Development literature that places like Singapore and elsewhere throughout Asia, they'd hammered out a formula for development and there was a great deal of consensus about what the ingredients were for development to take place.


And so we gleaned from that literature a set of truths about policy that we needed to learn from. The need for good governance, the need for good infrastructure, the need for incentives for better health, and better education, the need for social order, for law and order in communities. And of course, very challengingly for us, the need for private property rights. For a regime of secure property rights if people are to prosper and develop.


And so the Cape York agenda was and is based around an insight into what the development story internationally tells us as to how it is that people of Singapore, people in some states in India and elsewhere throughout the world have begun the process of walking out of the mud.


So, when we talk about welfare reform in public discussion, we don't just mean tweaking the conditions for welfare payments. We say welfare reform has got to be a transition from dependency to development.


The public must understand that our agenda is a development agenda for our people to get out of a mud hole we’re in, we need development. It's just not a matter of putting conditions on welfare payments. Conditions on welfare payments mandating personal responsibility for parents to send their children to school, to protect their children, and so on, are but a minor part of our agenda, as fundamental as those parts are. It is a starting point to mandate personal responsibility. So, parents send their kids to school, fed, clothed, with a good night's sleep. That is part of our welfare reform agenda and we're making progress on that. One of the worst things about passive welfare was that it places no obligation upon people for the receipt of it. And we know now four decades later what a bitter harvest we are reaping as a consequence of providing income to people for no obligation in return. This is not a racial thing, this is not an indigenous thing. This is the same condition you will find white people in cities like Kent and Newcastle with the same social problems and the same collapsed families. If you place them in a condition of intergenerational dependency.


So, when we talk about welfare reform it is about placing obligations on individuals for the receipt of state support but more than that, there has to be a movement towards development and creating the conditions for people to create their own livelihoods. To work in industries that enable them to earn their own livelihoods.


We were very much guided by the thoughts of Amartya Sen, the Nobel Laureate who said; ‘the point of public policy is this: public policy should be about enabling people to have the capabilities to choose lives they have reason to value’. For people to have the capabilities to choose lives they have reason to value. Empower people to take choices to better their lives and to pursue the kind of life that they desire.


So, central to Amartya Sen’s formula, was the power of liberal choice. But I suppose what struck me about Amartya Sen’s formula was that in order for people to have genuine choice it's not just a ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ operation. It's not just a question of the wise choices individuals make, or their parents, and grandparents have made on their behalf. It's not just a question of choice was Amartya Sen’s exposure of the liberal conceit. Rather, Sen said that in order for people to have true choice they have to have capabilities. You need good health, good education, you need access to infrastructure, and opportunity, in order to exercise genuine choice.


And so the whole problematic paradigm of the 1970s in indigenous policy, which proposed the idea of choice in the orientation of Aboriginal life, you could choose either to integrate into the economy or choose a more traditional lifestyle. The problem with that paradigm was that a young Aboriginal girl, unhealthy and uneducated, can hardly be said to be armed with the means to make real choices. An uneducated, unhealthy, young Aboriginal child does not have the true capabilities to choose and to employ the power of choice in making progress for herself.


Let me recapitulate the basic model that we have in our minds about the ingredients that must be put in place for our development agenda to ensue. Our model is that of the staircase. We think that the staircase model explains how it is that people across the world rise up in the liberal capitalist economy. In a stratified world, in the pyramid of global capitalism, how do people rise up to better lives? And it seemed to us that the rules of rising up conform with our model of the staircase.

The staircase has three dimensions.


Firstly, foundations. If a people have strong foundations under their stairs, they arm their members with very strong capabilities. If people take personal responsibility and respect for themselves and for their neighbors, we have order in a community. These very conservative ideas serve people well if a people are to rise up in the world. Staircases need strong foundations of norms. And Asian-Australians and Asian-Americans prosper in large part because their social and cultural norms serve them well, particularly in informing the growth of their youth in their formative years.


You know, we give our children complete latitude to choose. Asian-Australians and Asian-Americans are highly prescribed in the latitude they give their children. And yet when they're age 21, after they've developed their capabilities, the choices open to them after that are extremely wide. When they're armed with a university education all of a sudden, they go from having choices like this to choices like that. And those of us who give our 11-year-olds latitude like this in their development find that when they're 21 their choices are like this. Strong social and cultural norms within a community, support individuals and the group as a whole to make good.


The second part of our metaphor concerned the infrastructure underpinning the stairs. The investments in opportunities that society makes to support members. Access to health, education, infrastructure, and so on. Access to opportunity. That hidden infrastructure that enables people to climb stairs, is an important part of progress. And you know, when we considered this metaphor, we found a lot of common ground with the views of conservatives when it came to the foundations. But of course, when it came to the infrastructure underpinning the stairs, the social democrats had a strong resonance with what we were saying. I suppose where we differed with the social democrats was in relation to the relationship between that hidden infrastructure and the third dimension of the stairs.


That third dimension involves the alignment of the stairs. The rational alignment of the stairs. People climb stairs for good reasons. They can see incentives further up the stairs. And people choose to improve their lives because they are animated by incentives. And this is where liberal philosophy came in. That the power of choice and individual self-interest was ultimately the power for good.


The other thing that our metaphor told us is that individuals climb stairs. Real human beings are at the end of the day the ones who climb the stairs of social progress. There's no such thing as entire communities climbing together for a better life. It doesn't work like that. Social progress is in fact the sum total of a whole lot of individual progress. Individuals are animated to clutch their children to them and start improving their lives. And when you add up all of those individuals then individual progress makes social progress, and when you have social progress, you have social justice. That's the meaning of social justice. And the social democrats have it wrong when they harbor some kind of vague notion that social justice is about the government inventing a giant forklift to stick into entire populations and lift them to a better life.


And it struck me how it was that I myself harbored that vague notion. The idea that there was a diesel engine sitting at the back of the warehouse and all we needed was a suitably sympathetic political leader to fire up that engine and stick that forklift under our people and lift us to a better life. I harbored that vague notion and I was all for social justice. Not entirely understanding what it might mean, and how it might work. Social democrats still harbor this vague notion that somehow the vehicles of the state can be mobilised to secure social advancement, when in fact the liberals are correct when they say that people climbing in their own self-interest ultimately adds up to social progress, and ultimately equals social justice.


So, if we want progress we have to motivate and mobilise and animate the self-interest of the most powerless people. We've got to find the spark within the breast of the most poverty-stricken mother and say to he:  if you want a better life for your child then you have to climb a few modest steps on their behalf. And here, there are opportunities on this stair if you do so.


The problem with advantaged people in Australia is that we think that by empathy and compassion alone, through our altruism, we can mandate a fairer prospect for the disadvantaged. So, we think that the salvation of the disadvantaged lies in our altruism. Lies in our other regard - to use prime minister Kevin Rudd's analysis of Adam Smith's original treatise.


Yes, we are more than self-regarding creatures. We do have other regard for other members of our community, the environment, and so on, but the problem about thinking about the disadvantaged and how they might gain a fairer place in the world is that we end up assuming that they're going to be saved by our other regard rather than being saved by those things that saved us. It is our self-interest that has secured a future for our children. It is in our pursuit of our own self-interest that we've secured our own futures. And quite frankly, the interests of the disadvantaged will only be served by the same means. The disadvantaged have got to act in their own self-interest and when it comes to indigenous peoples this is almost heresy to say that aboriginal people should be self-interested. That we should animate the desire for a better life in individuals. We assume that somehow Aboriginal peoples are unique examples of humans bereft of any self-interest and it would be immoral for us to urge in them the same passions for themselves and their children that we clearly harbor.


Self-interest, according to the liberals, is the driving engine of progress. And to be self-interested is not to be greedy. It is not to say that there is no such thing as altruism and other regard, but it is to point to the honest truth as David Hume once said many centuries ago; ‘in truth, we never abandon our self-interest at any time. Every morning we wake up we act in our own self-interest - that’s the first act’. Yes, we are capable of higher motivations and we're capable of higher aspirations, but never for a minute can we switch off our own self-interest. Which brings me to our struggle with environmentalists.


I accept that in a developed community the way in which the struggle between man and nature is conducted through a necessary dialectical struggle, and without it we would be a poorer world. It is necessary for environmentalists to struggle with development. This tension between development advocates and environmental advocates is a necessary tension. It produces better outcomes when we have that tension. So, I accept the role of environmentalists in lobbying for, and campaigning for, and arguing for, and diligently defending the need for proper regard for the environment. And we will strike a good balance between environment and man through that process.


However, the problem with mainstream environmentalism is when you have underdeveloped regions and undeveloped peoples. In Cape York Peninsula there is not an equal struggle between those who argue the

case for man and those who argue the case for nature. There is not an equality of tension in an undeveloped region such as Cape York. In Cape York, those who argue the case for nature absolutely hold the day. They win the day. And there is no mature economy, there is no development that can defend the importance and necessity of development. People say that the wet tropics World Heritage listing and the World Heritage listing of the Great Barrier Reef has been nothing but a boom for tourism in Cairns and in northern Queensland. And so it has, and so it has. But they forget that Cairns was a mature economy at the time those regimes were put in place. We had a development interest that could hold its own. And of course, the more keen the tension, the better the outcomes. But in an undeveloped region such as Cape York Peninsula there is no development and therefore the Wilderness Society has been able to secure a prospect for the future that basically will mean a no-go zone for even minor development.


The second problem with Western environmentalism is that it shifts costs onto powerless people. People who can't hold their own will end up bearing the costs of Environmental Protection and that is what is being played out in Cape York Peninsula today. The people who can least afford dampening any economic development prospects are the people who are being asked by Australians to bear the costs of Environmental Protection. People who can least afford it.


And this principle is not just a local principle, it’s worldwide. The shifting of costs to those who can least bear it and who have no means of resisting the cost is how this whole game will play out. In relation to global warming, it is a fact that the Western world would like to shift the cost to India and China. We would love to shift the cost of environmental responsibility to the 2 billion in Asia. But the truth is that they’re not going to let us do it. They’re insisting on their right to development as well.


But you see the position of indigenous peoples trapped within Australia is that we don’t have the bargaining power of India and China. We can't say no. So we are the first victims of cost shifting by the environmentalists to those who can least afford it.


Let me tell you this: 99% of the vegetation at Cape York Peninsula is still pristine. The legislation for wild rivers and vegetation management in Queensland was directed between bulldozers and ball and chain clearing, in central and western Queensland. That was what the Beattie legislation was directed against. Ball and chain clearing in central and western Queensland. There was no tree clearing problem in Cape York Peninsula. The aboriginal reserve lands had hardly been cleared. There was no crisis of tree clearing and vegetation destruction in the Cape, but the Beattie Government in 2001 handed the aboriginal reserve lands of northern Queensland over to the Wilderness Society. No tree clearing on Aboriginal land. And we hardly made a murmur about it. We were so surprised. That was in 2001. And then in 2004, Wild Rivers was introduced in the middle of the campaign as a concept. And yet most of the wild rivers that were still pristine were on Aboriginal land. And their pristine because they've been in these Aboriginal reserves for the last 150 years of European settlement.


And again, we were completely uninformed about the commitment that the Beattie government had made to the green organisations. To just hand over massive swathes of Aboriginal land to a quasi-National Park regime. Not a sustainable development planning regime, a lock-up planning regime. And we see in these examples the fact that indigenous peoples will be coerced into paying the environmental debts of the wider community.


And the perverse situation is this: the state government provided a 200-plus million-dollar compensation package for those affected by vegetation clearing. Aboriginal land owners were not given one red cent out of those two hundred million dollars. Not one aboriginal land owner that I know of received any compensation under the established scheme.


But more than that, the carbon economy that we face in the future is one in which the pastoralists or the farmers in western Queensland who ball-and-chained their property, in the old economy, will have a place in the new carbon economy through forestry replantation and so on. They had a foothold in the old destructive economy and they've got a foothold in the new carbon economy. Take the position of indigenous land owners. They engaged in no destructive impact in the old economy, but they have no hold whatsoever in the new carbon economy because the green groups and state governments have locked up the land. They can't even be given credit for the vegetation that is now locked up.


Cape York is contributing a massive contribution to Australia's greenhouse targets by the preservation of vegetation, and yet our people get no credit for that. We will not achieve the aims we've set ourselves with the Cape York agenda unless there's a restoration of sanity. And you know, when I talk about self-interest, I mean that Wilderness Society members have no ability whatsoever to reduce the carbon footprint of their fathers and their mothers and their siblings and their cousins. They have no ability whatsoever to affect other people in their social world, but they have a terrible ability to reduce the prospects of entire communities. It's not as if these people are not self-interested, they prosper through the machinery of the state. Many of them have good jobs in the bureaucracy. All of them have futures. And yet they want to deny to people who earn on average twelve and a half thousand dollars a year, they want to deny a future to those people. And the hypocrisy of it is absolutely astounding.


I went to talk to the person in charge of Wild Rivers in the Queensland Government in the Premier's Department and I said; ‘mate, Adrian, last time I saw you, you were the president of the Queensland Wildlife Preservation Society, but you've discovered that rather being the lobby group like me outside in the cold, you've discovered a more efficient way of getting your agenda up. You are now a deputy secretary in the department. And how are we supposed to trust the idea that the submissions we make to you on behalf of Aboriginal people are going to be given the same credence as submissions from your old organisation’? And throughout the bureaucracy, the bureaucracy is no longer an impartial public service, it is now riddled with people with agendas. And so when we do make the application for the biodiesel project, what kind of shrift will we get from Adrian? And all of the other Adrian's dotted throughout the bureaucracy? Perhaps, if you guys propose something, your ability to participate in this tension will make it harder for Adrian to resist. But if our mob wants to open up a new paddock for cattle or for biodiesel planting, see how much shrift we get.


Let me say one last thing about the Wild Rivers legislation which points to the utterly undemocratic nature of it. The Wild Rivers legislation says that the minister proposes an area for declaration and he goes out to a public consultation, and if he doesn't proceed to implement that declaration, he has to give reasons. He has to publish reasons under the Wild Rivers Act if he doesn't go ahead with it. This gives green groups and other concerned members of the public the ability to judicially review the minister's refusal to proceed with the declaration. But what if the minister does decide to proceed with the declaration? Well, cleverly, the legislation says that he doesn't have to publish any reasons. Therefore, precluding the possibilities that aggrieved members of the public, not the least indigenous land owners, have no ability to challenge the minister's decision.


So, had the minister made a fair judgment and said ‘well, actually, after we've received all these public submissions, we shouldn't proceed with that’. In that case, the green groups will have an immediate ability to go to court. But the reverse situation democracy and proper representation is denied. And this egregious legislation, the reason it is like this is because the green bureaucrats have designed it thus.


And what I would say to Michael is that the message that he must take to the premier is that this is an absolute outrage. This is an injustice that will never go away. You can’t preclude the opportunity for development on behalf of the most vulnerable people in our community. And I care not, personally, about this. My children will do well. I’m middle-class like you guys. My children will get educated, they have a future. But the ones I care about are still back in Aurukun, back in the Lockhart River. It's their children that we’ve got to secure a future for. And I can't see that future being achieved unless there are rights guaranteed for indigenous people to undertake sensible development on their land. And the fact of the matter is that no one can point to anything that the indigenous communities have done to destroy the environment. 99% of the vegetation in the region is still intact.


I want to say in closing, it's been a long time since I had the opportunity, a very good opportunity, to speak with the association and I've been very pleased to receive this invitation. I first worked with a proposal for the PNG to Gladstone gas pipeline. Michael, I was in fact one of the protagonists behind the original proposal. A small company called IPC first came to us in 1993 with a proposal to get gas out of the Gulf of Papua down into North Queensland. And we worked with them to assure that there would be land access through the peninsula, and IPC then sold their interest to Chevron and we negotiated an agreement with fifty traditional owners from the tip of Cape York, hoping that the PNG gas pipeline project might come to fruition. We still harbor those hopes.  There is today a live easement that exists under ILUA at the tip of Cape down to the bottom of Cape York. And the owners of that easement, the traditional owner groups, hold that asset, the easement, in the hope that one day the economics of bringing gas down from the north might work. But that is an example of how it is that traditional owners’ groups in places like Cape York are keen for sustainable development and will actually be proactive in trying to get major projects happening.


So, I wish all of your members all the best for your gathering here this week.


Thank you.