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Thursday, 24 March 2011
Page: 1701

Senator BOSWELL (9:55 AM) —The incorporated speech read as follows:

The Senate is debating the Wild Rivers (Environmental Management) Bill 2011 introduced by my colleague Senator Scullion.

The essence of this bill is that it restores consent to Indigenous people about what happens on their land and to their people. This consent or agreement was taken away from them by the Qld wild river declarations.

In the Qld act, there is no requirement for notification and agreement with native title holders, claimants and bodies corporate. There is no compensation for impact on native title rights and interests.

The majority of the Indigenous people on Cape York do not want the wild rivers regime foisted on them by the Qld government. They feel that their future is forfeit to the demands of green groups, particularly the Wilderness Society.

If the Prime Minister was serious about empowering Indigenous Australians she would support the coalition’s legislation—legislation that would provide Cape York Indigenous communities with the right to an economic future on their own land.

Native title means nothing to Labor now the Greens hold crucial preferences. There is no such thing as a future act in the Qld wild rivers land lock up.

If you lock up their land, you lock up their future. And when some leaders, of undoubted integrity like Noel Pearson, speak up, he is subject to attack and contempt.

When Qld turned its back on native title in wild rivers, they also turned back the clock to before Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen gave Indigenous communities land in deeds of grant in trust, or DOGITs as they were called. I well remember them being put in place. Land was given to Aborigines so they could manage it themselves and do what they wanted with it. With wild rivers, that self determination on DOGIT land has been forfeited.

The state government has locked up this land, not with a key, but with a web of sticky regulation.

Some people think that voting green and being part of groups like the Wilderness Society is a mainstream activity. I would say to those people, go up to Cape York and see how the Indigenous people live and how they want to live—as well as how they look after their own land.

And tell them straight that you are against them, that you are against Indigenous jobs, business and a future.

The Wilderness Society is only interested in Indigenous people if they are as frozen in time as wild rivers themselves.

The Bligh government initially talked about how the impact would be only along a handful of pristine rivers. It turns out that they actually meant that entire river catchments and basins would be caught in the net, such that 80% of Cape York would be subject to yet another layer of regulation, effectively frustrating future opportunities for Indigenous people.

The Qld Labor government has been scandalous in its approach to consultation and scientific research to support wild rivers declarations. Neither has been done anywhere near properly.

More offensive is their glass beads approach to winning over the limited Indigenous support that they have. The scarcity of jobs is so acute on the cape that the offer of a few ranger positions was all that was necessary to win some limited support. But that offers very little to very few.

Evidence was provided to the Senate committee that the Qld wild rivers declarations are inconsistent with or invalid under the Commonwealth Native Title Act. That means the Commonwealth should act.

Noel Pearson said that the coalition’s bill ‘enhances the land rights of the native title holders of Cape York peninsula and will enable them to negotiate with the Qld government so that they provide free and informed consent to any arrangements to protect the rivers of Cape York peninsula, and it is consistent with the Keating Labor government’s commitment to the Mabo decision. Secondly, this bill is consistent with the Commonwealth government’s commitments as a signatory to the international Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Thirdly, the Queensland Wild Rivers Act has derailed our Indigenous reform agenda in Cape York peninsula, and this bill will put our work back on track.’

I urge the Senate to see that the development agenda that the Indigenous people have for Cape York by definition means that they have got to have economic development. As Pearson noted, ‘The exercise of traditional rights and traditional activities is important but that will never lift our people out of poverty and misery. We have to be able to undertake land use that generates economic return for the people who live there. We are not going to be serious about closing the gap as to Indigenous disadvantage if we have this view that all that Aboriginal people should be happy with and all that they should be entitled to is to stand on one leg in the sunset picking berries. Fundamentally this is a racist expectation on the part of governments and other stakeholders to expect Aboriginal people to live in some frozen past.’

Earlier this February, the Prime Minister commented on ‘closing the gap’. She called on Indigenous people to “take a job when you find one; to create a safe environment; to send your kids to school, pay your rent, save up for a home; to respect good social norms and to respect the law; and to reach out to other Australians”. But in Cape York, the state Labor government is shutting down avenues for jobs and reaching out to the Greens via the wild rivers regime.

This is the very opposite of what should be occurring if we as a nation are serious about closing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

It is feared by many in the cape that wild rivers is the stalking horse for World Heritage listing. The Commonwealth has been forced to clarify that they will not proceed with a World Heritage listing without Indigenous consent. If it is good enough for the federal government to insist on consent why not the state government as well when it comes to wild rivers?

The federal minister was asked by the Nationals’ leader Warren Truss whether the government would proceed with tentative listing of Cape York on the World Heritage register without local Indigenous support.

The minister gave a clear answer, saying ‘any negotiations going forward on tentative listing are dependent upon full consent and participation of Indigenous people on Cape York’.

Why is the state government not following this path also?

The answer is because Labor wins seats and elections on green preferences and so rewards them, in the process tearing up Indigenous property rights.

Ninety-nine point nine per cent of the freehold land that is affected by wild rivers is Aboriginal land. Millions of hectares were granted by the Bjelke-Petersen government so that they could use the land as they determined. Large tracts have exclusive native title right, unextinguished. As Pearson noted: ‘In those areas the Wik people have a right of property. It is not just the right to hunt or gather; it is the right to construct a farm, construct a house, live a modern life … A full, exclusive possession native title is a title that affords every act of ownership that can enter into the human imagination.’

Pearson said that ‘what the Bligh and Beattie governments have done here has taken the state of Qld as far as land rights is concerned back to a pre-1984 position, because they have arbitrarily taken jurisdiction over Aboriginal land without obtaining the consent of the landowners.’

‘The Queensland Wild Rivers Act has derailed our Indigenous reform agenda in Cape York peninsula, and this bill will put our work back on track’.

Federal Labor is not lifting a finger to stop Queensland Labor derailing Indigenous development. There is a new form of property title in Queensland and it’s green. Whether it’s closing down fishing or locking up wild rivers, you can call it far north greensland.

In this exciting green armband view of the future, Noel Pearson is only allowed to be black if he goes fishing. How many times does he have to be dispossessed?

I was there when Joh gave all that land over in the early 80’s. And now I see Labor taking it back for the Greens.

The bill before us rose directly from the time spent by the opposition leader in Indigenous communities. Did the wild rivers declarations come about as a result of Qld’s leaders sitting down with Indigenous communities? Definitely not.

Australia cannot afford to alienate leaders of Noel Pearson’s calibre. He came in from the cold ‘rights only’ dialogue to seek economic and education empowerment as a way forward. Mr Pearson’s reaction to the punitive wild rivers legislation has been a ratcheting up of expressions of frustration. He describes this as the torment of powerlessness. It will be the political classes’ fault if Pearson and his followers become more radical. The Left’s sell-out of Indigenous interests to capture the green lobby is wrong on so many levels and exposes the falseness of their years of claiming to be the champions of Indigenous Australians. It was all political expediency in the end. Indigenous interests have been ditched unceremoniously in favour of the more powerful green movement. No wonder there is torment amongst Indigenous leaders and a push to radicalism. Noel Pearson addressed my grandson’s school last year. I attended and was impressed with how the boys were inspired and enlightened. We cannot afford to lose to radicalism such powerful ambassadors for improving Indigenous lives. I would also like to reassure Noel that his efforts did cut through—to the young lads who will be future leaders and professionals and to politicians like me from the Right. The opposition leader is listening and acting..

The Cape York Land Council is now taking the Bligh government to court over the wild rivers declarations of the Lockhart, Stewart and Archer rivers, alleging breaches of the native title and racial discrimination acts and that the legislative process was incorrectly followed. A great crime is being done to people who are too familiar with great crimes to survive without perhaps turning radical. We have been warned.

Balkanu, the Indigenous group from Cape York, explain their plight in their submission to the current inquiry: “The Wild Rivers Act and wild river declarations have gone well beyond the intention of the election commitment to prohibit and over regulate a wide range of lower level activities such as aquaculture, small scale commercial horticulture and small scale ecotourism ventures and Indigenous housing.”

“The declarations of the Stewart, Archer and Lockhart basins in April 2009 involved the declaration of thirteen separate wild rivers rather than three. The 2004 election commitment did not refer to basins. The Wild Rivers Act does not refer to “basins”. The Premier, ministers and conservation groups have on many occasions stated that the election commitment was for 19 rivers—not basins.”

Balkanu points out that the Wild Rivers Act and declarations are inconsistent with several provisions of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples such as article 19 which states that “states shall consult and cooperate in good faith with the indigenous peoples concerned through their own representative institutions in order to obtain their free, prior and informed consent before adopting and implementing legislative or administrative measures that may affect them.”

Article 23 states that “indigenous peoples have the right to determine and develop priorities and strategies for exercising their right to development.”

The other house’s inquiry into issues affecting Indigenous economic development in Queensland held a public hearing in November 2010 in Cairns. Gerhardt Pearson, the head of the Balkanu Cape York development told the committee that: “There are more than 13 pieces of state and Commonwealth legislation that an Aboriginal entrepreneur, no matter how humble his or her aspirations, needs to navigate before any development can proceed.”

We have heard that there is not so much opposition to wild rivers from the gulf area. Mr Pearson pointed out that the declarations of wild rivers in the gulf has an impact vastly different from those on Cape York. Less than two per cent of the area covered under wild rivers declarations in the Gulf of Carpentaria is Aboriginal land whereas more than 90 per cent of the land in the Lockhart Basin and Stewart Basin wild rivers declarations is Aboriginal land and large areas of the Archer River Basin are Aboriginal land. Further declarations will result in much greater areas of Aboriginal land being included in declarations. There is no land where native title has been determined included in the declarations in the gulf. No Indigenous communities were included in the gulf declarations whereas Lockhart River’s and smaller communities such as Port Stewart’s were included in cape declarations. There is no threat of World Heritage being laid over the top of wild rivers declarations in the gulf, whereas there is that possibility on the cape.”

Balkanu representatives also allege that senior officers of the department of natural resources and Minister Stephen Robertson misled the earlier Senate inquiry in relation to development approvals. An analysis of the applications by Balkanu Cape York Development Corporation has shown that of the 113 alleged development applications approved, 79 were for exploration permits, of the 35 remaining “development approvals”:

  • 17 were issued to government entities for activities such as fencing and gravel extraction
  • 8 riverine protection permits and one environmentally relevant activity permit appear to relate to the Century Mine project, which is an existing development
  • three riverine protection permits are for Stanbroke pastoral company, possibly for a fence
  • two vegetation clearing applications (Strathmore and Barr Creek holding) are presumably for clearing for a fence or similar within an HPA
  • one approval was for Adels Grove camping park which is an existing development; and
  • three approvals may relate to mining leases, one of which had not been issued.

Nine of the so-called “development approvals” were actually riverine protection permits issued to the Department of Environment and Resource Management to construct one fence. As Noel Pearson stated, “If this is indeed the case, it is a casebook example of the ridiculous level of red tape and burdensome over-regulation that confronts even the most minor project in a wild river area … also claims that no development application had been turned down were misleading, as the Premier knows that applications that would be refused in a wild river areas are in fact “taken not to have been made” under the legislation … they are deemed not to exist and therefore cannot be refused.”

I said at the beginning that the coalition’s bill is all about consent. This is what Indigenous people want in Cape York. As Gerhardt Pearson told the current inquiry: “A consent mechanism is essential to protect Indigenous people from circumstances such as the wild rivers legislation, where a powerful, narrowly focused interest group, the Wilderness Society, is able to use its political might to override the rights of poorly resourced and disadvantaged Indigenous people. The Abbott bill seeks only to give the legitimate right of consent back to Indigenous communities. That right is at the heart of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Might I remind Labor members of this committee that the federal Labor government gave its support to that declaration on 3 April 2009 in a historic move that had been decades in the making … it is a bitter irony that on that very same day Anna Bligh declared the Archer, the Stewart and the Lockhart rivers as wild without the consent or support of Indigenous cape communities—no equality, no partnership, no good faith and no mutual benefit. Cape York Aboriginal leadership has presented a conservation and land management solution to the state government, to Ms Macklin, to former Environment Minister Peter Garrett and, most recently, to Indigenous Employment and Economic Development Minister Mark Arbib. Our solution ticks all the boxes in terms of the state’s environmental aspirations—no new dams, no in-stream mining, no excessive water pumping—and ticks all of the boxes on restoring our rights, through an Indigenous land use agreement, to achieve conservation by a respectful consent. After a year of approaches to all of these politicians, we are still waiting for action. You have to ask yourself why.”

Should the Senate stand by and be silent while this happens? No, we shouldn’t just watch. We should pass the legislation before us that saves the hopes and visions of a future for Indigenous Cape York Queenslanders.