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LEGAL AND CONSTITUTIONAL AFFAIRS LEGISLATION COMMITTEE
13/04/2010
Wild Rivers (Environmental Management) Bill 2010 [No. 2]

ACTING CHAIR (Senator Barnett) —I welcome representatives of the Cape York Sustainable Futures. Do you have any comments to make on the capacity in which you appear?

Mr Elu —I am also Mayor of Northern Peninsula Area Regional Council.

ACTING CHAIR —Thank you very much for that. The Cape York Sustainable Futures lodged submission No. 19 with the committee. Do you wish to make any amendments or alterations to that submission?

Mrs Butler —Only that we received some information late yesterday that may be of assistance. It is some old information that we would like to table.

ACTING CHAIR —That is fine. You are happy to table that?

Mrs Butler —Yes.

ACTING CHAIR —The committee accepts that and the secretariat will obtain that; thank you. I now invite you to make a short opening statement, after which we will have questions from the senators.

Mr Elu —The Cape York Sustainable Futures represents people on the cape: businesspeople, pastoralists and other people besides traditional owners and Indigenous people—but, of course, Indigenous people are part of CYSF. I think, Senators, there is a point that we keep missing. I have been here only a couple of times and I think I have broken the record: I fronted your other Senate committee in Bamaga this morning and then flew down to front this one.

ACTING CHAIR —Well done; two in one day. Congratulations—or commiserations.

Senator TROOD —You have our sympathy.

Mr Elu —After Senator What’s-his-name up there from the Northern Territory—

ACTING CHAIR —Scullion?

Mr Elu —Scullion and Senator Boswell, I think I will have a beer tonight, which I have not had for a while. Anyway, what I was about to say is that this is another risk on top of risks that are already apparent on Cape York and for Indigenous communities. For example, among some of the rivers that are going to come up for declarations, they are talking about Jacky Jacky Creek up our way and the Jardine River. We also have other legislation. I think the Mayor of Hope Vale has said that already there are 17 pieces of legislation impacting on Indigenous councils and communities on the cape; this is going to be another one, if rivers are declared in the area. We also have DOGIT and other environmental acts that impact on what we do. I think the point that is being missed here is that this is an impediment to the flow of capital into these communities; that is a major problem we find. The only capital we seem to attract is government capital. Indigenous communities and other members of ours come up with either 70 per cent or 60 per cent before going to the banks. On the cape, we have people who run roadhouses and, if they want to further develop one of those roadhouses, they have to come up with 60 or 70 per cent of the money before asking for a loan from financial institutions.

Another thing I would like to put to this committee is that, over the years, we have found that consultation has come after major or crucial decisions have been made already. So, with this legislation, the decision was made for the act to pass through parliament even before the rivers were declared; the act itself went through before consultations were even had. Then they come here afterwards and say, ‘This act has already been through parliament; we’re going to declare X, Y and Z rivers.’ When we say, ‘But let’s talk about what this is going to mean,’ they say, ‘Sorry, the act is already there and this is what it will mean. We just want the river declared.’ From the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority Act, we found that they declared certain things up front. In the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, there were spaces that we as Indigenous people could use for our own use and there were parts of the coast that we could still utilise. But, once the act was passed, they did not need to come back and consult when they changed the tenure of those areas. So, in the past, they consulted on where we could go; but, once the act was in place, the regulations gave them the authority to come and change the tenure of those spaces without consulting. We are now shy of any act that goes through, because it is not the act that really controls these things afterwards; it is what they can do through regulations and other means of parliamentary processes to change certain aspects of land tenure, about which we were told differently when the act was being pushed through.

CHAIR —Thank you, Mr Elu. Ms Butler, do you have anything to add to that?

Mrs Butler —I would just like to read a little bit here. Any consultation that did take place was rushed, the legislation was poorly drafted—I am talking back in time to 2006—and communication was non-existent. As Mr Elu says, we were just told that this was going to happen as a result of what the legislation was. At no time did any government official take any notice of any objection that was put forward. The aspirations of traditional owners, pastoralists, local governments and the community have been generally ignored right throughout time. That is about it.

Senator BOSWELL —Mr Elu, another hat that you wear or you used to wear—I do not know whether you still wear it—is that of chairman of the Aboriginal business—what is the term?

Mr Elu —I resigned from that. It is Indigenous Business Australia.

Senator BOSWELL —But you would have some idea of the business—

Mr Elu —That is why my first point was that the flow of capital is being stymied by things like this.

Senator BOSWELL —I had a list of questions—which I think Senator Siewert has stolen, because I cannot find them.

Senator SIEWERT —I would like to deny that on the record.

CHAIR —That is all right, Senator Siewert. You would devise your own questions.

Senator BOSWELL —Can you tell us about the Archer River Roadhouse? You say that the roadhouse will be put on hold or will not be able to survive.

Mr Elu —I have alleged, I think, that it is the northern-most freehold property on the cape and, when the Archer River is declared—

Mrs Butler —It has been declared.

Mr Elu —It has been declared?

Mrs Butler —Yes.

Mr Elu —They cannot ever hope, like I said, to get capital to do anything there, like extensions. But the only thing is that, if they come up with their own capital, that place will not appreciate now. Australia is a capitalist country. We put money into things that we hope will appreciate. People buy houses hoping that those properties will appreciate. On the cape, that is stymied. So, in the future, whatever money they put in they might as well put a light under and burn it, because it will not appreciate that property.

Senator BOSWELL —We have heard a lot about Aboriginals; you are probably the people to ask about the cattle industry and you would speak for them. What is their view on this wild river legislation?

Mr Elu —As I say, we have cattlemen as members of CYSF and most of them, as Trish said, were not consulted.

Senator BOSWELL —What about the white cattle-guys?

Mr Elu —The white cattle-guys and the black cattle-guys were not consulted properly. I do not know why this consultation really only went to traditional owners. Other Indigenous people and non-Indigenous people on the cape were seen as ‘not to be consulted’.

Senator SIEWERT —Can I just clarify here? Are we talking about the original legislation?

Mr Elu —Yes.

Mrs Butler —Yes.

Mr Elu —Even now, the consultation process seems to be going to traditional owner organisations only and not to all traditional owners.

Mrs Butler —Currently the Wenlock declaration is up in front of them.

Senator SIEWERT —That is why I was trying to clarify.

Mrs Butler —It has been the same all the way through.

Senator SIEWERT —The government earlier this afternoon said that they had been consulting a whole range of stakeholders around the original legislation.

Mrs Butler —That is news to us.

Mr Elu —Our members say that they have not been.

Senator SIEWERT —I just wanted to check that because that is what the government representatives told us.

Senator BOSWELL —The wild river ranger program: we have had witnesses coming forward and saying that it is terrific and I have no doubt that they do a great job. How do you react to the wild river ranger program? Wild rivers provides legislation and I believe that, in a letter to the Wilderness Society, there was the promise of 100 rangers for wild rivers. We have heard that 10 people got a job in the Doomadgee area, but from the previous witnesses we heard that probably 40 to 50 jobs could be provided to Indigenous people near where they live. I suppose I am saying that it is nice to have 10 rangers, but it would be nice to provide 50 or 60 meaningful jobs close to home that would get people off welfare. So I am suggesting that the ranger program should be able to stand on its own feet without having to rely on wild rivers to prop it up. Is the ranger program some sort of a sop to encourage the Aboriginal people to back the wild rivers program?

Mrs Butler —We believe that is the case, but we also do support the ranger program provided by wild rivers for the very reason that you have just stated: it has the potential to give, I would say, up to 100 people a real job over time. The work that they are carrying out is vital to land management right across Cape York. Without them, I do not know who would do it. It is beyond means of the landholders because it is a huge task.

Senator BOSWELL —But my point is: why do we need an obligation in order to support the wild rivers to get 100 rangers? If the rangers are doing a good job, why don’t we just have 100 of them? Certainly I would support them in that on the ghost nets; that is something that I know something about.

Mr Elu —I think the difference here is protection and lockup. We should still have this protection of rangers being on the ground. Whether they are wild rivers, quiet rivers, tame rivers or whatever, they still need protection. Wild rivers legislation is a lockup. Like I said here before, it puts another layer of risk on top of these communities on the cape where these rivers are going to be declared. It stymies investment; only government will invest. That is why I say that, in a capitalist country, we are a controlled economy with these pieces of legislation coming over the top.

Senator HEFFERNAN —You are right about that, brother.

Senator BOSWELL —Thank you, Joseph.

CHAIR —Senator Heffernan, we thought you had gone to the dentist and were in pain.

Senator HEFFERNAN —No.

CHAIR —Senator Heffernan, do you have any questions?

Senator HEFFERNAN —I have been trying to ask all day—

Senator SIEWERT —You have not been there all day.

CHAIR —You have not been here all day. We thought you had gone to the dentist.

Senator HEFFERNAN —I know. The average annual wildfire is five million hectares; this is uncontrolled wildfire. The big fire that they have had was 11 million hectares. I mean: goodo for the wild rivers legislation, but that is not going to be good for or help both whitefella and blackfella pastoral areas with such serious things as wildfire. Would I like to hear some commentary on what people think about some of the wildfires they have up there.

CHAIR —I think he is asking you about wildfires.

Mr Elu —There are fires on the cape and we deliberately light them every year. So there has never been a loss of life on the cape because of fires, as there has been down in New South Wales and Victoria.

Senator HEFFERNAN —But my point is that a lot of these fires are not controlled. According to the authorities up there, the annual average wildfire amounts to five million hectares. At certain times of the year it is the right thing to do, but at other times of the year it is the wrong thing to do. I just wonder, under the wild rivers legislation of the Queensland government, what they are doing to improve the control of controlled burns. It is all very well to say that we want to preserve the environment and keep things pristine and not produce any commercial food—because Woolies and Coles will provide the tucker, but God knows where they will get it from—but, under the wild rivers legislation, what are we doing to preserve the landscape with such things as the control of wildfires?

Mrs Butler —Senator Heffernan, I do not believe that there is anything in the wild rivers legislation that will control wildfires on Cape York. Wildfires on Cape York are an integral part of the landscape and they are very much misunderstood by a lot of people in the south.

Senator HEFFERNAN —No. I appreciate that they are a requirement and a very good thing for the environment at the right time of the year, but at the wrong time of the year they do a lot of harm to pastoral stations.

Mrs Butler —Cape York Sustainable Futures is currently undertaking a fire management program on Cape York and we are currently in discussion with both the state government and the Australian government on a future program to get exactly what you are just suggesting. Wildfires at the wrong time of the year are very destructive, as we saw late last year—

Senator HEFFERNAN —That is right.

Mrs Butler —and I think we can safely say that far more than five million hectares are being burned; I think it is something like 7.5 or up around seven anyhow.

Senator HEFFERNAN —I think the fire that we have had is 11 million hectares.

Mrs Butler —Yes, okay.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Could I also address the problem—under what we are saying is being done to protect the environment and the path towards World Heritage, despite the global food task—of the feral pig population? There are an estimated 800,000 feral pigs as well as an estimated 20,000 untagged feral cattle, which is a soft entry point into Australia for foot-and-mouth disease. What is proposed to be done about that?

Mrs Butler —I actually think that is outside of this inquiry. Certainly we are very concerned about your concerns as well and that is certainly something that we are working on as an organisation on the ground.

Senator HEFFERNAN —But my concern is that, if we are going to have this so-called lockup of wild rivers to protect the environment and we are going to do nothing about feral pigs, feral cattle et cetera because it is locked up and it is World Heritage and, like down south, your country becomes full of noxious weeds et cetera, are we thinking about how up there—and I am sure that the Indigenous people who want economic opportunity are thinking this—we protect the environment from those sorts of invasive species?

Mr Elu —My comment is that the government has to invest in the eradication of those feral animals; nobody else will.

Senator HEFFERNAN —I am sure that the wild rivers legislation will not do that for them, which is sort of allegedly the magic formula. Anyhow, Madam Chair, thank you very much; it is lovely to be back and I will just listen.

CHAIR —Ms Butler, did you have anything you wanted to add there?

Mrs Butler —I actually think the ranger program that is currently in place under the wild rivers legislation could take some of that on board.

CHAIR —We did hear from rangers of the Carpentaria Land Council Aboriginal Corporation how they had culled 9,000 feral pigs last year, so obviously some action appears to be taking place under that program.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Certainly 10,000 are estimated to go. I have to say that I have had some experience in this area with helicopter shoots and 1080 baiting—and I am sure that would probably put dents in what is up there—but you have 790,000 to go

CHAIR —Senator Heffernan, I think we have some witnesses that actually want to talk to us rather than hear your views.

Mrs Butler —Cape York Sustainable Futures actually does have a feral pig control program under a turtle conservation project that we are doing through the Australian government and I believe that, over the last four years, about 18,000 pigs have been destroyed in Cape York—and I am talking not about Carpentaria now but about in Cape York. That program is continuing. Aerial 1080 baiting just started this current financial year and that will be continuing. So I do think that some of Senator Heffernan’s concerns will be addressed.

Senator McLUCAS —Ms Butler and Mr Elu, today we have heard very different points of view about what the impact of this legislation will be on the economic development of the cape, whether it be for Indigenous people or non-Indigenous people. It is hard for our committee—it is certainly hard for me—to come down on one side or the other because there is no evidence that supports either position; they are simply assertions. In terms of actual applications in declared areas, we have some evidence from the state government that various applications have been approved; by and large, they seem to be from local government authorities. Are you aware of applications that are in the offing—please do not identify the applicant or the place—and can you give us any understanding of why those applications are being delayed or what is happening?

Mrs Butler —There is one application that we can speak of and we are led to believe that it is not wild rivers legislation that is holding it up but the regrowth vegetation moratorium. We are not aware of any proposals or applications that have been put forward. However, we are aware that people wish to put them forward but are hesitant to do so because of the cost that goes with doing it. They see their going ahead with any investment as not being a viable proposition down the track, because of the added expense that the wild rivers legislation imposes.

Senator McLUCAS —What are those expenses? We heard very clearly from the state government this morning that there is no additional application process. It is simply that the assessing entity, which will be a local government in the first instance, has to be mindful of the regulations under wild rivers.

Mrs Butler —I am aware of one, but I would like to get some more information before I answer that question.

Senator McLUCAS —Yes. I understand that there are commercial sensitivities that you would want to respect.

Mrs Butler —Certainly we have been told that it is something that they do not wish to pursue at this point in time, because they have legal advice that the actual building that they wish to put up will cost three, four or five times the price that it would have without wild rivers legislation. But I would like to get some more information and come back to you on that one.

Senator McLUCAS —Mr Elu, you mentioned Archer River Roadhouse earlier in answer to Senator Boswell’s questions. You might want to have a look at what the state government said about development within the highly protected areas, because the state government was not indicating that development of that type would be stopped from proceeding. I suppose that we are working amongst a lot of rumour up on the cape, and I think it is troubling that people are making decisions that potentially will affect their livelihood on the basis of rumour rather than fact. This must concern your organisation as well.

Mr Elu —That is right. As I said here before, the thing is: in a capitalist country you invest money hoping that, when you sell that property in the future, it will have appreciated.

Senator HEFFERNAN —That is right.

Mr Elu —Those properties on the cape have not appreciated because of other legislation, and this wild rivers legislation is now another layer. I am referring to the perception of banks and financial institutions. If I were to go to a bank down here and say, ‘I’m from Bamaga’—or Seisia—and I want to build a motel at the airport there,’ firstly, there is DOGIT; secondly, there is native title involvement; thirdly, there is vegetation that has to be cleared; and, fourthly, it is going to be under the catchment of the Jacky Jacky River, which is going to be declared wild rivers, which is another layer. But those first three layers will probably knock me out.

Senator McLUCAS —Mr Elu, if you were to put a motel on the Jacky Jacky River, the people who would come and stay there would be wanting to look at the environment; don’t you agree?

Mr Elu —Yes. But there is the cost of my doing that in the first instance and then all people could come and stay there.

Senator McLUCAS —Yes. You would do a business plan; I know you would.

Mr Elu —That is right.

Senator BOSWELL —Put a mine there!

CHAIR —Senator Trood has a question, then Senator Feeney and then Senator Siewert has a question.

Senator TROOD —First of all, how many members do you represent or have?

Mrs Butler —About 130 and growing. That includes Indigenous, non-Indigenous, pastoralists, local governments.

Senator TROOD —So you have 130 members and you are growing. How would you characterise their response or attitude to this wild rivers legislation?

Mr Elu —Some hate it and some say, ‘Let’s have a look at it.’ But most of them are saying, like I say, ‘It’s just another layer of protection that we don’t really need.’

Senator BARNETT —Are you speaking of the Queensland legislation, Senator Trood?

Senator TROOD —Yes, the Queensland legislation.

Mr Elu —It is something that we do not really need on the cape right now. In my area we have the Jardine River declared as a national park, and I do not know what this will do.

Senator TROOD —Do I understand your evidence essentially to be that the Queensland legislation sets up a framework of legislation with a series of complex legislative requirements that businesses would have to go through if they chose to try to undertake development—

Mr Elu —That is right.

Senator TROOD —and that the costs of doing so commercially are greater than elsewhere because of the uncertainties—

Mr Elu —Yes.

Senator TROOD —and that all of this creates a level of deterrence; in other words, essentially it deters entrepreneurial activity in the region. Is that right?

Mr Elu —That is right. You can convince us and the people of the cape. But I hope this committee then goes and talks to the bankers and the financial institutions about this and convinces them that it is all right to do business on the cape, because we cannot convince them—and that is the problem.

Senator TROOD —No. But the sum total of the legislation and the requirements is that it creates a measure of commercial uncertainty so that no-one is prepared to undertake the risks involved in development. Is that right?

Mr Elu —What I am saying is that probably we will take a punt, but I think the bankers will have another view on this. Like I say, if we go there with 60 or 70 per cent of the money already in our pocket, they might have a look at it.

Senator TROOD —Yes, I see. Good; thank you.

Senator BARNETT —Firstly, Mr Elu, I want to congratulate you in terms of your pro-business approach. You make a lot of common sense and, with that small business background, it is fantastic. Well done for your advocacy of that.

Senator BOSWELL —He has a very successful caravan park.

Senator BARNETT —I am sure he has and I have stayed at quite a few, particularly in the last few days on the national pollie pedal with Mr Abbott. I just have some questions about the declarations for the Archer, Stewart and Lockhart rivers. You have mentioned this in your submission in terms of concerns about the roadhouse, which is a business proposition; But, from your position, was the consultation in terms of the declarations last year of those three rivers—I just want it on the record—adequate or proper?

Mr Elu —I can only talk about where I come from, and we had no consultation. It was only late last year that they started wanting to consult with us because they had the plans for the Jacky Jacky and the Jardine. But, from talking to the Lockhart people—I think you are to hear from them later today—I think they were targeted for consultation. People went and talked to people that they already knew. As I said before, it was aimed at traditional owner organisations and sometimes other traditional owners were not involved. So I think we are saying that the consultation process has been targeted at certain people, knowing the outcomes, because we seem to find that people who are against legislation—

Senator Heffernan interjecting—

CHAIR —Senator Heffernan, it is really difficult to give the witnesses a fair go if you keep talking over the top of them. Thank you, Mr Elu.

Mr Elu —We have found that people who are against wild rivers and who argue against wild rivers are not consulted—or they are not consulted a second time, if there is a second round of consultation. That is what we have been told.

Senator BARNETT —That is very helpful; thank you.

Senator FEENEY —You have given some reasonably dramatic evidence, I suppose, about the fragile investment climate in the cape.

Mr Elu —It is not fragile; there is none.

Senator FEENEY —Yes. I guess I would be interested—please take this on notice—in any evidence you can give us to sustain that. A few moments ago you said that we should talk to the banking sector, but I wonder whether you might have some materials to hand. Please take that on notice, because it is obviously difficult for us to quantify the nature of that problem based simply on your evidence.

Mrs Butler —At the moment, Cape York Sustainable Futures is undertaking a project called the Cape York investment prospectus, funded by the state government. We are about halfway along in the progress of that and expect a document to be on hand by late June, and I think that will clearly show what issues there are on Cape York.

Senator FEENEY —The problem there, of course, is that the parliament may have dealt with this issue by that time.

Mrs Butler —We can give you what working document we have at this point in time.

Senator FEENEY —That would assist us. Another part of your evidence, I suppose, left me with the impression that you are working through so many regulatory barriers that collectively they are smothering entrepreneurialism in the cape and what we are offering is, to use your language, a fourth level of protection that you do not really need. It occurs to me that the bill we are considering here today does not offer you much salvation. It seems to me that you either have to live with the Queensland legislation, the existing legislation, and the declarations that flow from it or with a federal regime, which is still about wild rivers, declarations and agreement making processes. So I am interested in what comment you might have about the fact that, as it seems to me, this fourth level of protection—which you don’t really need, to use your phraseology—is coming, whether you like it or not.

Mr Elu —I think our main argument has been that there should be local solutions for local rivers, instead of somebody in Brisbane making decisions or, if this bill comes through, Canberra making decisions on which rivers are declared. We want the consultation process to occur before these rivers are declared. For instance, I have mentioned the Jardine River in our part of the world. The Jardine River is sort of split in half. The top half, if you like—the head waters—is national park; nobody goes there anyway and it is protected by national park legislation. The southern bit is so far from anywhere that nobody goes there any way, except that we do to go fishing and hunting and whatever. It is one of the most pristine rivers you will ever find on Cape York and does not need protection—unless somebody finds a mine there, I suppose. But, right now, it does not need protection; so we could let that river sit as it is now, currently protected by other regulatory processes of the state government. But, if Murrandoo Yanner down at the bottom end of the gulf wants some rivers to be declared wild rivers, that is up to him; they could be declared wild rivers, if the people there agree to it. That is the thing with the Lockhart; they are going to come here and talk later. But it all seems to be happening, as I think Senator Boswell said, with letters between the Wilderness Society and government. We believe I think that—

Senator HEFFERNAN —I think that is the World Heritage proposition.

CHAIR —Just keep going, Mr Elu.

Senator FEENEY —And strange voices from behind!

Mr Elu —Anna Bligh has declared that locking up Cape York was an election promise to the Greens.

CHAIR —Mr Elu and Ms Butler, thank you for your submission and for your time this afternoon. We certainly appreciate it, with it being particularly late. Thank you for being here.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Can I ask a question?

CHAIR —No. We are just going to press on. Senator Heffernan has had his time.

Senator HEFFERNAN —I will ring you later, Joseph.

Mr Elu —Okay, mate.

[5.56 pm]