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Monday, 12 September 2011
Page: 9549

Mr ABBOTT (WarringahLeader of the Opposition) (10:30): I present the Wild Rivers (Environmental Management) Bill 2011. This is the third time that I have presented to the House what is substantially the same bill. The first occasion was prior to the election last year. Then, late last year, after the election, I presented this bill to the House. Unfortunately, because the House did not deal with the bill, it lapsed, so I am presenting it to the House for a third time. Because I have presented this bill twice before, in effect, I do not propose long to detain the House on this matter. Nevertheless I do want to stress just how seriously I take this issue and how seriously the opposition takes this issue.

This bill is about ensuring that the Aboriginal people of Cape York have more control over their land and more control over their economic destiny. This bill provides, in short, that a Queensland declaration that the relevant river is a wild river can only take effect if the traditional owners of the land consent to that declaration taking effect. We are not saying that wild rivers declarations cannot operate; we are just saying that wild rivers declarations can only operate with the consent of the relevant traditional owners. We are not saying that the environmental protections which the Queensland act purports to provide cannot operate; we are just saying that the environmental protections under the Queensland act can only apply with the consent of the traditional owners. This bill is about asserting the rights of the relevant traditional owners over their land—surely, you would think, a good thing. It is about allowing the relevant traditional owners, if they choose not to have economic development on that land, not to have that decision further complicated by a wild rivers declaration.

At the heart of this bill is my confidence that the relevant traditional owners want to protect the land in question. The idea that the Aboriginal people of Cape York would wish to despoil their own land in some reckless commercial venture is dead wrong. They have been the stewards of this land since time immemorial. The fact that we have this land in reasonably pristine condition is a function of the Indigenous stewardship of this land for tens of thousands of years. The only possible objection to this bill rests on the assumption that the Aboriginal people of Cape York cannot be trusted to know what is good for their own environment. Every day in this parliament we acknowledge Indigenous stewardship, and that expresses a confidence in the capacity of Aboriginal people to do the right thing by their land. I have that confidence. I particularly have that confidence in the Aboriginal people of Cape York. That is what this bill embodies.

I think the government should support this bill. I am extremely disappointed, and I know many of the Aboriginal people of Cape York are extremely disappointed, that the government have done everything they can to frustrate this bill, including sending it off to a committee which took rather a long time to report. The government should support this bill. I remind the House that, back in 2008, in what was perhaps his finest moment as Prime Minister, Mr Rudd, the member for Griffith, said in his national apology in this parliament that:

… unless the great symbolism of reconciliation is accompanied by an even greater substance, it is little more than a clanging gong.

This is the substance which must be supplied if reconciliation is to be meaningful. Here is the substance—I am giving the government the opportunity to provide some muscle and sinew to the words that they are so good at uttering. That is why the government should support this bill.

I also remind members opposite that this parliament has subscribed to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples which provides for, amongst other things, the right of Indigenous people to 'own, use, develop and control' their lands. It was paradoxical that on the same day that the parliament subscribed to that UN instrument, the Queensland government was making a wild rivers declaration that would take away from Aboriginal people in Cape York their right to do precisely this. I say to members opposite: you have the opportunity to give substance to your declarations of fine sentiment. I say to members opposite: you have the opportunity to make the international instrument that you have subscribed to a reality in this great country of ours, and you would do so by supporting this bill. I commend the bill to the House.

Bill read a first time.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Hon. BC Scott ): In accordance with standing order 41(c), the second reading will be made an order of the day for the next sitting.