Friday, 1 October 2010

On the weirdness that is Indigenous policy...Wild Rivers

The Government has referred the Opposition's bill to overturn Queensland's Wild Rivers legislation to a further review.  That's sensible outcome, Mr Noel Pearson's outrage (and the Anglican views) on the subject notwithstanding.

The debate over rivers: environmental vs Indigenous policy?

Mr Pearson's argument is that the legislation prevents the economic development that could help tackle Indigenous poverty.  The problem is that Mr Pearson's view doesn't seem to be shared by many of his fellow native landowners in the Cape York region, and they have been in Canberra lobbying the Independents and others in favour of retention of the Queensland legislation.

The ABC for example reports that "Gina Castelain is a Wik landowner from the Cape who has been in Canberra this week to oppose Mr Abbott's bill. "We're of the view that it will not stop economic development in Cape York," she said. "It assists our business in particular - we have a community-owned tourism operation that I run doing fishing and eco tourism on a wild river area. We have plans to expand. It actually helps the business become even more successful being a declared wild river area."

The legislation concerned was passed by the State to protect the environmental values of Queensland virtually pristine rivers by discouraging development in catchment areas. It doesn't prevent development - but it does regulate it. The Queensland government website point out that:

"The declaration of a wild river does not prevent new development – it simply ensures that development occurs in a way that does not impact on the health of the river system. Activities such as mining, aquaculture and animal husbandry can still occur, subject to meeting special conditions. Grazing, fishing, tourism, outstation development and indigenous cultural activities can all still occur. A wild river area does not affect activities such as camping, hunting, fishing, gathering, ceremonies and harvesting of bush food and medicines. Recreational boat users can continue to use the rivers and creeks in a wild river area. Section 44 of the Wild Rivers Act 2005 provides that a declaration cannot have a direct or indirect effect of limiting a person’s right to the exercise or enjoyment of native title."

On the face of it, not obviously problematic....

Neo-colonialism - or just power politics?
But Mr Pearson's secondary line of argument - supported by the Anglicans amongst others - is that Indigenous peoples shouldn't have to abide by the same laws as everyone else, and this interference in self-management constitutes neo-colonialism.  A curious argument given that it comes from one of the strongest Indigenous supporters of the Northern Territory Intervention!

Mr Pearson successfully lobbied Opposition leader Abbott to introduce legislation in the Federal Parliament to overturn the State Act.  The Labor Party initially supported the (Labor) State Government.

The other dimension to this debate is of course State rights. The Federal Government does have the power to override the State legislation. But it should surely be reluctant to exercise this power.

So is this really a debate about Indigenous poverty vs environmentalism or just cynical political manoeuvring on the Opposition's part?

If so, Messrs Pearson and Abbott would seen to have been outmanoeuvred, since even if the bill passes the House (which was always going to be at best a gamble, dependent on how the Independents vote, which on this subject is not clearcut) the review could well mean the Opposition bill doesn't get considered until the Greens have the numbers in the Senate. 

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