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Thursday, 24 March 2011
Page: 1708

Senator FURNER (10:01 AM) —As a Queensland senator I rise today to defend the Queensland government’s Wild Rivers Act 2005, which was implemented to preserve the natural values of rivers that have been significantly affected by development—that is, rivers that have all or almost all of their natural values intact—and in doing so oppose this private member’s bill of Senator Scullion, the Wild Rivers (Environmental Management) Bill 2011. As someone who has personally witnessed the wonder and beauty of the Wenlock River, one of the declared wild rivers, I am bewildered as to why anyone would not want to protect these natural waterways.

I am disappointed in Senator Scullion’s bill to overturn the Queensland legislation. It is a backward step in protecting and preserving our environment for our future generations and it is typical of a backward party. Unlike the coalition, the Australian Labor Party is a party of reform and wholeheartedly supports Indigenous Australian rights and fosters and encourages Indigenous economic development. This is evident in our implementation of the Native Title Act 1993. Those opposite refused to support that bill, and many of them are still members of the Senate today. Senator Minchin described the native title bill in 1993 as:

… a bad law; it is a racist law; it is centralist; it is highly divisive; and it is complex.

And let us not forget what else the opposition refused to do in their 12-year reign. When the Labor Party came to office we set out to say sorry to our Indigenous Australians. On 13 February 2008 Kevin Rudd, as Prime Minister, delivered the apology. For many years no-one spoke about the ill-treatment of our Indigenous Australians; it was pushed under the rug. After years of silence it was time to end this denial and to acknowledge the treatment received by our Indigenous Australians.

A fortnight ago the House of Representative Standing Committee on Economics went to Brisbane for a public hearing for their inquiry into Indigenous economic development in Queensland and review of the Wild Rivers (Environmental Management) Bill 2010. Nigel Parratt, from the Queensland Conservation Council, represented 70 organisations, and its members are fully supportive of protecting our pristine rivers. He said Queensland had the last remaining free-flowing rivers in the world which were of ecological value and that they deserved protection, like other areas in Australia such as the Tasmanian forests and the Great Barrier Reef.

He is exactly right. These areas, which are protected by the Wild Rivers Act 2005, are home to rare and endangered species. On two occasions I have had the privilege to visit the Steve Irwin Wildlife Reserve on the banks of the Wenlock River and have experienced firsthand the beauty and wonder of this preserved area. On my first visit, the Australia Zoo ranger Barry Lyon showed me three of the eight perennial springs on the reserve which are located on a bauxite plateau. These springs are of great ecological value and they act as a refuge and water source for wildlife through the dry season. Bauxite does not absorb water but instead acts as a giant sponge and releases the water during the dry.

Research conducted in the area found an abundance of wildlife which relied on the existence of these beautiful springs. In 2008 a survey found 151 different vertebrae species, including 75 birds, 26 reptiles, 16 native amphibians, eight native mammals and 16 freshwater fish. This wildlife is of great ecological value, with many of these species taking refuge on the reserve due to declining populations and loss of habitat from strip mining across the Weipa plateau. According to the rainforest botanist David Fell, the bauxite plateaus provide a safe haven for flora which is of conservation significance, as some species have been recorded as found only in Eastern Cape York and the wet tropics of New Guinea. This area, too, was under threat from strip mining but, thanks to the Queensland government’s declaration of the Wenlock basin as a wild river under state legislation, the perennial springs on the Steve Irwin Wildlife Reserve are now protected by a 500-metre buffer zone, and there is now a one-kilometre exclusion zone around the Wenlock River.

One of the biggest concerns of this issue is the misinformation travelling around the communities—and we have heard a bit of misinformation being delivered and advocated by those opposite this morning. The Director of the Cape York Institute, Noel Pearson, believes that the wild rivers legislation will impede Indigenous economic development and has referred to the law as colonialism. This is simply not true. The Queensland government’s Department of Environment and Resource Management states:

A wild river declaration means extra protection for the river system, but in practice that means no change for most people who live or work around the river system, or who use the river.

It continues to allow grazing and fishing. In fact when I was up there I caught a barramundi for the first time in my life. That is an example of what you can do in these areas. However, you have the likes of Noel Pearson and others claiming that you cannot fish in these areas. That is just not true. The legislation allows tourism and camping. I actually saw pig hunters in the region when I was up there. You could hear the guns firing of an evening. So it is just another fallacy being peddled that you cannot do these activities in the areas which they claim are locked up. The department states also:

Indigenous cultural activities, ceremonies and harvesting of bush food and medicines is permitted, and the enjoyment of native title unaffected.

Outstation development can continue.

Recreational boat users can continue to use the rivers and creeks.

Mining, grazing and irrigation continues today throughout declared wild river areas.

New developments that do not impact the health of the river can still occur.

That is the framework. Those are the bound-aries on what you can do on these wild rivers, as opposed to what is being suggested by others. As you can see, the legislation does not prevent Indigenous people using their land. In fact, it states that cultural activities are permitted. Mr Pearson also believes that the legislation prevents Indigenous people developing the land and therefore eliminates any avenue for escaping the poverty cycle. This, too, is incorrect. Mr Pearson’s view is not shared by all Indigenous Australians in Cape York. Northern Kaanju traditional owner David Claudie came to Canberra last year, along with a number of other traditional owners, to voice his opinion on this very subject of the importance of wild rivers. In the Age of 30 September 2010 he said:

Noel Pearson doesn’t speak for us. He’s not our leader.

In fairness, that is a statement that I have heard from a number of traditional owners up in the cape.

Australia Zoo’s submission to the committee discusses the budding ecotourism industry in the cape with Cook Shire tourism officer David Barker, claiming 60,000 to 80,000 visitors each year. It states:

The region tends to attract more adventurous-type visitors who enjoy camping, photography, natural history (even in a general sense), fishing and learning about the area’s Indigenous culture, and its Indigenous and non Indigenous history.

Along with ecotourism comes employment. Australia Zoo indicates that Indigenous Australians:

… have become successfully engaged in cultural and wildlife guiding, fishing charter operations and developing camp grounds.

As you can see, we have more to lose in this situation than to gain. If the Queensland government’s wild rivers legislation is overturned we could see mining companies stripping the land to obtain bauxite and lose all the natural flora and fauna which has been there for millions of years. We could see water being extracted from our pristine rivers, affecting the flow, and we would see a change in water quality. We would lose the natural environment that tourists visit Cape York to see. In the long run, wouldn’t it be better to protect these rivers now rather than try to fix them up later? I reiterate that I have been up there on two occasions. I know some of the senators opposite have made visits to the cape, and we heard from Senator Macdonald earlier about Mr Tony Abbott going to the cape, but I would suggest that I am the only senator in this chamber who has had the opportunity and been willing to actually go on a wild river to see the effects this legislation would have in overturning the Queensland legislation.

It is fine to fly around in a light aircraft, land on air strips and talk to people on the ground. But actually going and talking to traditional owners and seeing what the effects would be on the beauty of these particular areas is certainly something different. That is something that disappoints me—that those who travelled up to the cape never took the opportunity to do it. They went and spoke to a wide range of people who certainly had different points of view, but unless you experience the nature and what the effects of particular mining would be, like what Cape Alumina would have done to the Wenlock River, you will not have an appreciation or understanding of the effects of this bill if it overturned the Queensland legislation for wild rivers. I urge everyone in this chamber to protect our natural environment and leave these pristine areas for our future generations to enjoy. This is why we in government emphatically oppose this bill. (Time expired)