Wild Rivers

Contention over Queensland’s  Wild Rivers legislation has been bubbling along for quite a while now. Unfortunately, as with many issues which become polarised, each “side” is focused on defending their position, which has meant that some important underlying issues are not getting the attention they deserve.

I’ve just had a piece on this topic published at The Drum on the ABC’s website.  It’s fairly long, so they published it in two parts – the first part is at this link and the second part is at this one.  I should emphasise that the article reflects my personal views, and is not a formal view of the Greens, nor of ANTaR Queensland, who I am also involved with.

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  1. The Wild Rivers legislation discriminates against aborigines. The aborigines have more common sense and experience with land stewardship than any of the Greens would ever have. Being raised in the cities and being ignorant of the bush, very few of the Greens gain the necessary experience. Besides, the Greens appear to delight in acting against community interests.

  2. I suggest you read my article Ray, rather than just run a few tired culture war cliches. The whole ‘city dwelling greenies who know nothing about the bush’ trope is rather tired. It’s not as though people in rural or regional areas have been any better at acknowledging and working with Aboriginal people.

  3. Nothing in the article rekindles in me the slightest confidence that Pearson and his cronies are even aware of let alone dinkum about ecology or the “rights” of Cape York indigenes.
    The model in play is a neolib one. It reduces funding in real terms to encourage ppp style agreements between folk like Pearson and outside interests.
    In order to get at what ever is profitable in a region, the developers have made common cause with certain leaders who have coopted a process away from their comunities, also the wider community.
    I’m happy that remote comunities should deal with localissues for theirown benfit, but any community needs to operate within a legal system based on scientific principles- without these you only get the sort of stuff up that has happened in the Gulf of Mexico.
    Where ecology is concerned, what’s important is that those with no concept of sustainabilty are not encouraged in environmental vandalism when it jeopardise also the wider community.
    On radio yesterday, I heard an aboriginal leader plead, as far as social breakdown is concerned, is that most Australian fail to identify aborigines as “Australian” rather than”aboriginal”- if white kids lived the way aboriginal kids in some places lived, scandal would echo to the rafters.
    Like wise, Pearson and his developer allies need to learn to regard the rest of us as Australian also and understand that we’ve seen too often big money allied with tame cat politicians against rather than for, a communities interests

  4. Hey Andrew, the first part of your article had some serious deficiencies in recounting the history of TWS in Cape York Peninsula. I see where Warren Entsch corrected some of them in his response on the Drum. I’d like to add my recollection of the 1995 Queensland election when TWS (having earlier ‘supported’ the CYHOG) was a fervent advocate of the Goss promised “East Coast Conservation Zone” – which really betrayed undertakings made to both Pastoralists and Traditional Owners in the CYHOG process.

    It should be of interest to you that in the 1995 election TWS distributed bogus How to Vote Green cards that directed preferences to the ALP even though the Greens weren’t doing that. 15 years later TWS and the ALP continue to try and influence urban Green preferences at the expense of Aboriginal sovereignty in Cape York.

    Please notice that Mike Winer, who was a TWS leader in the Starke station campaign, has continued with his cooperative association with Aboriginal people, now works for Balkanu, and is scathing in his condemnation of TWS deception.

    I was at the Senate Committee hearing in Cairns (we exchanged a few words), and I too noticed the wise words of Murrandoo Yanner. You don’t report them all, but a key part of his comments were that the situation with land tenure in the Gulf country is markedly different than in Cape York. Cape York is rich in Aboriginal freehold title, while the Gulf is covered by pastoral leases which leave only a residual and partial native title – so Wild Rivers there provides greater access to and authority over caring for country.

    I approve the broad thrust of what you say – the issue is complex, and prior informed consent is the standard by which land justice for traditional owners must be measured. It must be as obvious to you as it is to me that consent has not been achieved in Cape York re Wild Rivers. Why aren’t the Queensland Greens stating their position?

  5. Bryan

    While I was in Parliament I saw plenty of examples of Warren Entsch’s keenness to oppose a wide range of environmental measures in his region – for him to blame greenies for his own government not following through on environmental spending promises in his own electorate is a bit rich.

    I spent a fair bit of time meeting with Mike Winer (along with a TO) when I was last in Cairns – as you’ve noted, he and TWS were involved in the Starke campaign alongside Aboriginal people. One reason I mentioned Murandoo’s quote was to show that the same TWS people are still clearly able to work cooperatively with some Aboriginal people/groups.

    But I’m not especially interested in defending (or attacking) TWS – I’ve had my own disagreements with them in the past (although more so at the national rather than Qld level). I’m also aware of at least some of the past differences between TWS and the Greens in Qld, (which makes it all the more ironic that some wish to portray the two as being intertwined or sharing the same strategy on Wild Rivers).

    Focusing just on TWS runs the same risk as focusing just on Noel Pearson, Balkanu, etc. It ends up with people trying to ‘win’ the argument by focusing on what is bad/good or right/wrong, which means the consent principle just gets ignored.

    It’s true that land tenure through much of the Gulf is different to that on much of the Cape, but the Abbott Bill doesn’t address freehold tenure either. It only talks of Native Title holders (and even then does so without reference to any existing definition under the Native Title Act).

    As for the Queensland Greens, I can’t make official pronouncements of their position on this blog. At the moment, the Abbott Bill is before a Senate Committee, which has enabled some Greens Senators to engage more directly with the issue, and they will have to state a view on that when the Committee reports next months. I expect after that, the Greens at Qld level will give some further attention to it.

    Speaking personally, I would like the issue of prior and informed consent to be taken up on a far wider scale than Wild Rivers, otherwise it will do nothing to prevent the same disputes occurring again. Until now, governments and wider society – whether it be business, service delivery agencies or others – have (with a few exceptions) generally not paid much more than lip service to the idea of consent. If we hope to get it accepted and even implemented as an important principle or right, we need to look at how it should be applied across the board, not just with Wild Rivers and not just in respect of TWS (or other environment groups or measures).

  6. As Murrandoo Yanner’s statements show, the Wild Rivers law is not automatically in breach of the UN Declaration, so it is not a meaningless platitude to back Indigenous rights and Wild Rivers. Clearly they can co-exist and it is a perfectly reasonable goal to seek to support both. However, as with many other situations where two potentially desirable principles or policies end up coming into conflict, one has to either seek to resolve the conflict in a way which doesn’t compromise the fundamental integrity of each, or if that can’t be done, to decide which should have priority. And as Murrandoo’s statements also indicate, the Traditional Owners (and other Aboriginal people) on Cape York should have their own say over what they do and don’t agree with, and clearly a significant number of them do not support further Wild Rivers declarations at this time.

    What I am suggesting – amongst other things – is that an acceptable resolution may be possible, but the more vociferous the name calling, the less likely this is to occur.

    I am also suggesting that there are many Australian and Queensland laws that breach the UN Convention on that criterion of consent – a number of which have been implemented with much less effort at consultation and with far greater direct impacts on Aboriginal people. That does not negate such criticisms of Wild Rivers, but it does raise a question of why there is so much criticism being leveled at Wild Rivers on this ground, and virtually none being directed at any of the many other examples.

    Which again leads me to suggest that if that crucial principle of consent becomes synonymous only with Wild Rivers and even then only in the context of a very polarised and vitriolic dispute, then it is much less likely to get support for taking the consent principle in account in all activities and decisions of government and others.

    There’s not much point insisting on calling one spade a spade whilst ignoring the existence of 100 other spades all together (that spade analogy looks a bit clumsy there, but hopefully it’s clear what I mean).

  7. Andrew, I’m asking you to be consistent and principled in your attitude to consent and cooperation.

    John Tracey is right that your current attitude (the issues need to be dealt with more broadly than just on Cape York) in practice leads to the abandonment of those on Cape York who are pleading for justice now. In 2007 Christine Milne supported the notion of indigenous consent at a public meeting in Cairns about both World Heritage and Wild Rivers, but the Australian Greens have gone strangely silent since.

    With respect, Larissa Waters is simply wrong in her assessment that Wild Rivers won’t impede economic development on Aboriginal land (and I’ve read the consultation reports on all the Cape Wild Rivers declarations in coming to that view). YOU have to know the extent and quality of obstruction facing anyone forced to deal with Queensland bureaucrats. My wife and friends already complain about the difficulty of getting any movement out of Queensland Housing or Q-Build around indigenous housing on Cape York – and they have lawyers and institutions supporting that appeal for housing. Imagine a situation where development applications can’t even be made, let alone achieved.

    At the same time the “large scale development” that you say is the real issue is set to proceed at Pisolite Hills (Cape Aluminium), and the Mining Act provides for an exemption to any constraints that would otherwise be imposed by the Wild Rivers Act.

    Are you seriously suggesting that an Act which penalises Aboriginal people while allowing miners to proceed is somehow acceptable in terms of land justice?

    How can the Greens alienate Noel Pearson (who I think is one of Australia’s great public intellectuals) for some sleazy abdication of responsibility in the face of Anna Blight and the Queensland Lying Party?

  8. Oh yeah Andrew, when Noel Pearson talks about Aboriginal Freehold title he IS talking about native title in its full possessory form (where the underlying title has not been limited or ameliorated by the creation of other titles on top of it). Read his column in yesterday’s Weekend Australian.

    Pastoral leases limit, but do not extinguish, native title. DOGITS allow the survival of full possessory title. European created freehold title can be owned by Aboriginal people, but that is not native title.

    If I had my way, the Greens would establish themselves as partners with a broad range of Aboriginal leaders, and help both redefine and move forward on the promise of Native Title that Noel and others have been advocating for 15 years now.

  9. Bryan,

    I would like to think I’m being principled on every issue, but I’l leave that for others to come to their own conclusion. My desire to be consistent is why I believe it is important not to quarantine the issue of consent solely to Wild Rivers, or solely to something Noel Pearson is arguing for.

    Noel’s position on some other matters – most notably the NT Intervention – have been somewhat at odds with both the Greens and the Democrats positions. But regardless of that, I believe he plays an important role and makes many worthwhile contributions, and there are always likely to be areas of common ground where it would be better to be able to work together. So I am not interested in alienating him (or most other people for that matter), even though I am not automatically going to agree with all his views or the way he sometimes expresses them.

    But I think it is far better to focus on the UN Declaration – which Noel rightly does too – rather than put the focus on Noel Pearson. Regardless of whether it’s Noel Pearson or anyone else’s view on this, the Australian government has indicated it supports the Declaration (as of course have the Greens and previously the Democrats), and now the Liberal-Nationals are quoting from it with approval as well. I see that as providing a good opportunity to try to get meaningful movement on giving practical meaning to the principles in the Declaration, and that is what I am seeking to do. Wild Rivers provides a very current and immediate example, but perhaps it can also be a means for getting the Declaration principles – esp consent – accepted and explored in all other contexts too.

    I did see Noel’s piece on Native Title in the Weekend Oz – it would be good to get some positive movement on Native Title again, and perhaps Mr Abbott’s provides a small window there, given that it specifically seeks to empower Native Title holders (albeit only on the Cape and only re Wild Rivers).

    Anyway, I think there are ways to get from here to somewhere much closer to meaningful implementation of the UN Declaration, but it won’t happen overnight and I’d rather tailor my words in a way which I think increases the chances of making reasonably prompt progress. As stated above, I’m not in a position to make official pronouncements for the Greens on every specific of this issue. The Senate Committee report will come out next month, and while that is on Mr Abbott’s Bill specifically, I would expect it will address some of the wider issues at least to some extent.

  10. “As Murrandoo Yanner’s statements show, the Wild Rivers law is not automatically in breach of the UN Declaration”

    You (Andrew) have already explained why Wild Rivers may be an empowerment for Gulf communities but a dissempowerment for Cape Communities because of different land titles. Murrundoo has also been very clear in saying he supports the Cape T.O.s to make their own decisions about their own land.

    The test for the consent principle is not those who accept what is presented to them but those who do not.

    How does the Wild Rivers law deal with T.O’s who do not give consent? Do they require further negotiation in this case or do they get implemented against the will of the dissenting T.O.s?

    The Greens can have no credibility calling for the consent principle (or the broader frameworks of land rights and self determination) to be applied across the board – to mining, agribusiness and government -unless and until it is prepared to accept the principle for its own sacred cows.

    Saying consent at Cape York must wait until there is a universal consent paradigm is a political cop-out just like saying we cannot begin to tackle climate change until the rest of the world does.

  11. I don’t think it’s just the different land titles in the Gulf compared to the Cape which have led to the different responses to Wild Rivers from TOs. But to some extent that’s a side issue – whatever the reasons, consent appears to be close to universal in the Gulf, whereas there is clearly a significant number in the Cape who oppose it. (I should mention that there are certainly some TOs on the Cape who support Wild Rivers, and said so to the Senate inquiry, but that doesn’t negate the fact that some others oppose it)

    “The Greens can have no credibility calling for the consent principle (or the broader frameworks of land rights and self determination) to be applied across the board – to mining, agribusiness and government -unless and until it is prepared to accept the principle for its own sacred cows.”

    I agree completely. The same applies to the Liberal Nationals of course, but that doesn’t negate the correctness of your comment. I should emphasise again I am not (and cannot) speak on behalf of the Greens on this issue. But the Greens do support the UN Declaration, and that means ascertaining what that means in practice and supporting it.

    “Saying consent at Cape York must wait until there is a universal consent paradigm is a political cop-out just like saying we cannot begin to tackle climate change until the rest of the world does.”

    I haven’t said consent in Cape York re Wild Rivers must wait until there is a universal consent paradigm. I have said it mustn’t (or shouldn’t) be confined just to Cape York and just to Wild Rivers. If I didn’t think there should be movement in regards to Cape York, I wouldn’t have stuck my head up to comment on it. The Cape York situation can provide a good example to be followed through on elsewhere – but my view is that this is much less likely to happen if it is just seen and portrayed as a self-contained ‘Pearsons vs TWS’ or ‘black vs green’ stoush.

  12. My understanding of Pearson’s role in trying to null and void Wild Rivers is that he has a philosphical agenda that supercedes this issue. Having read of Peter d’ Abbs ‘Silence of the Sociologists’, it confirms to me that Noel Pearson’s critique of Wild rivers is not just about other people imposing on his community what they should be doing with their land, but it is:

    “a call for a political struggle for a new ‘social ideology’…For Pearson, the contemporary tragedy of Cape York is largely a product of the collapse of social controls (or ‘standards’ as he sometimes calls them) that has occurred in recent decades in most if not all commurities.” ( P. d’Abbs, 2001).

    Now he was talking about alcohol abuse here but it relates to this issue because he says that:

    ” Ultimately, the main determinants of our grog and drug problem are the passive welfare paradigm that has taken hold of our society and the liberal drug ideology in Australian society at large. The former creates (i) idle time and no sense of purpose and (ii) unconditional money supply. The latter provides (i) space for drug dealers to open and unconstricted alcohol availability and (ii) an impotent response from society (defence for abuse, facilitating abusive lifestyles, hesitant law enforcement and so on) (pearson 2001a: 18as quoted in d’Abbs, 2001: 43).”

    So he wants work- meaningful work for his people to be engaged in to counterpoint this collapse of values/social controls. Who is to blame for the bureaucratic controls on business/ farming/community activities in Doggitt communities if not the various state and federal governments of both sides of the political spectrum over the last 20 years? However it is the Greens whom Noel blames because Noel is philosphically opposed to the Greens per se because he believes we are too ‘liberal’ in our values.

  13. I understand that you are trying to rise above the entrenched conflict and address the issue on a broader level in order to progress it constructively, and perhaps you are in a position to do this because of your lack of history with the Greens. Maybe even the senators could follow your lead.

    However the Qld. Greens have been part of the conflict and cannot simply step out of it without undoing the damage that they have done.

    Despite all the denials over preference deals, the presentation of Ronan Lee as the Greens main candidate in the state election put the Greens 100% in bed with TWS. Lee, a member of TWS, was the champion of Wild Rivers laws in the Beattie/Bligh cabinet. The main reason he left the ALP was because they did not take environment policy seriously and he cited their inability to implement the wild rivers laws as the prime example.

    The Greens, with Lee at the Helm, went into the election with a strong pro-wild rivers policy – after T.O.s had raised concerns..

    The Queensland Greens need to confess their sins and repent, and admit that the legislation is flawed because it does not accommodate the basic principles in Green policy of land rights and self determination, as well as the UN declaration.

    There can never be any reconciliation with Aboriginal Australia without confession and repentance.

    Reconciliation will not be easy because there is a deep seated prejudice/ignorance in the Green movement which has been stirred up recently by TWS but has manifested previously around issues such as fire management and hunting, especially in national parks. There is a long running green/black stoush and it cannot be ignored. As long as it is ignored then the sort of football team barracking politics of wild rivers will continue.

    The Greens must accept and adopt land rights as a core element of environmental and land management policy development – at the starting point, not a legalistic add-on to colonial policy frameworks.

  14. And, as Jenny’s comment has reminded me, the North Qld. Greens have been very vocal, not just in their support for wild rivers law but also their opposition to and demonisation of Pearson.

    The Greens do not occupy the independent middle ground that you are used to operating in. They are a party to the conflict and this cannot be ignored.

    As a party in the conflict, the Greens are in a position to help end the conflict by pushing a policy of going back to the drawing board (on wild rivers). The TWS is having a few problems at present and the Greens are in a unique position to begin the reconcilation process, and maybe even return to the unity of the CY heads of agreement.

    But such reconciliatiion would require good-will. The demonisation of Pearson by members of the Greens, in particular by the North Queensland Greens who are the main contact that Cape York Murries have with the Greens, are at present a major obstacle to reconciliation. This obstacle will not just disappear by itself, it needs to be dealt with, to be resolved by the party.

    This is in essence an internal matter for the Greens, to continue as an active agent in the conflict and maintain the status-quo policy framework – or to provide leadership to the whole green movement in honestly and bravely exploring and creating new policy frameworks that incorporate land rights and tackling economic disadvantage.

    But as long as the Greens maintain the status-quo, its attempts to claim the middle ground, as you are and as the Greens policy of “Greens back indigenous rights and wild rivers” do, then it sounds a bit like politician speak. Trying to be relevant to a hot issue while avoiding taking sides, but behind the scenes really taking sides.

    Go on, be a public dissident. Say Wild Rivers laws breach the UN declaration on indigenous rights and further negotiations with traditional owners are needed. I dare you. The Democrats would have let you.

  15. I agree with Andrew that Noel Pearson is NOT the entirety of the Wild Rivers debate, and there are at least several scores of traditional owners on Cape York who are seeking a halt to the declarations and more effective consultation.

    I also agree with Jenny Stirling that Noel Pearson has a number of issues he addresses which are more encompassing than Wild Rivers, and he has developed a system of thinking around these issues that also drives his actions around Wild Rivers.

    John Tracey notes the vitriolic and false attacks made against Mr Pearson by TWS, and by the “greenies” TWS influences. In Cairns I’ve heard from young Greens that Noel “is a developer” himself, or a “friend of big developers”. Untrue. I’ve heard that “he’s not really a blackfella any more, because he has an expensive education”. Untrue and offensive. I’ve even heard that he’s “a bullying violent black man”. Untrue and offensive. It is an orchestrated whispering campaign. These lies and attacks are made by those who wish to avoid debating the issues, and responding to some of the thinking that Noel has put out in the public sphere through books, speeches and papers.

    The racism and disinformation of TWS can be seen in Tim Seelig’s (Queensland state campaigner for TWS) responding to Andrew’s article on the drum. He says “Native Title rights are explicitly protected in the legislation, ensuring cultural practices, including traditional hunting and fishing activities are not restricted”. Please notice how “cultural practices” become the whitefella’s idea of what traditional Aboriginal society used to be. Hunting, fishing, and probably standing on one leg with a didgeridoo.

    Native Title rights, and “cultural activities”, if they are to mean anything at all must include the right to say what happens on their own land, and the right to develop culture according to contemporary circumstance – otherwise it’s just a museum display.

  16. I’ll disagree with Jenny that Noel blames “the Greens” because he sees them as “too liberal’. One of Noel’s best public broadcasts can be found at http://www.abc.net.au/rn/bigideas/stories/2007/1955255.htm
    Where he talks about the 67 referendum, and how to achieve 90% public support for reconciliation in Australia. He describes three categories of European attitude to Aborigines; Denial (from the right), Moral Vanity (from the left) and Acknowledgement and Responsibility (his preferred strategy).

    Those Greens, TWS, and others who pay lip service only to Aboriginal rights, and who use their political correctness to beat up on their political opponents, fall into the category of morally vain. Even then Noel doesn’t condemn them, but rather calls attention to how useless they are as allies to Aborigines. Noel wants to bring more and more people from the first two categories into the third, based on an appeal to common decency. I find it a very useful way to think.

  17. John, as you noted, I am trying to advance the issue constructively. The ways one can do that can vary depending on the positions one holds. The Qld Greens have very similar rights and rules as the Democrats did when it comes to matters such as conscience votes and disagreeing with specific policy – if I was in the Democrats and was a candidate rather than an MP with specific responsibility for the portfolio area, I wouldn’t have any greater freedom to publicly dissent than I do know. And even if I did, it would not necessarily be the best way to effectively move things forward.

    I also don’t see my approach as trying to take or hold a middle ground position. I see it more as trying to create or point to some common ground – I realise that holding polarised positions is sometimes necessary, but an inevitable consequence of polarisation – especially once it gets heated – is the elimination of middle ground. Standing in the middle ground in such circumstances is like standing in No Man’s Land between opposing trenches in a war zone; you just cop it from both sides.

    And whilst I repeat that this debate should not be about Noel Pearson, he can be very vociferous in his criticisms too – as he was towards many people, including other Aboriginal people, who disagreed with his position on the NT Intervention. He of course has a right to adopt whatever approach he thinks is best, but it’s not as all the vitriol has come from just the one side.

    There may well be a need for one side to acknowledge some mistakes, but human nature is such that it is harder to do in a context where one’s basic integrity is being questioned.

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