Abbott and Wild Rivers: It’s all about big business not Aboriginal rights

Tony Abbott’s efforts to pose as a defender of land rights through his attack on the Wild Rivers legislation is motivated by mining interests, writes Paddy Gibson

As Solidarity goes to print, the Gillard Labor government has referred Liberal leader Tony Abbott’s proposed private member’s bill to “overturn” the Queensland government’s “Wild Rivers” laws to a House of Representatives economics committee. The committee is expected to report in March 2011, but the controversy will continue as, incredibly, Abbott tries to portray himself as defender of Aboriginal rights.

Abbott’s bill is the culmination of a long campaign waged by The Australian newspaper, big business, Indigenous figurehead Noel Pearson and his network of pro-business Aboriginal organisations on Cape York.

This conservative alliance is using the battle over Wild Rivers laws to further entrench an ideology of pro-market assimilation in Aboriginal affairs.The Wenlock river in Cape York is one of those at the centre of Abbott\'s hypocritical posing as a defender of Aboriginal rights

The hysteria over Wild Rivers only makes sense when seen as part of the current neo-liberal assault on Aboriginal rights alongside the NT Intervention, the destruction of Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) and the Generation One employment scheme championed by mining magnate Andrew Forrest.

In each case, “alliances” with major corporations and the development of private enterprise are put forward as the answer to Indigenous poverty. Communities unable to attract significant private capital are written off as “unviable”. The idea that public money should be used to provide housing and services is derided as encouraging “passive welfare”.

These policies are also part of the concerted efforts to blame Aboriginal people themselves for ongoing poverty.

The conservative Anglican church, a high profile supporter of Tony Abbott’s bill, argues in a recent report that Wild Rivers would stifle the Aboriginal cultural transformation championed by Pearson as, “notions of general social progress, or indeed any kind of change, (are) deeply alien to those of a classical Aboriginal persuasion.”

Wild Rivers
The Queensland Wild Rivers legislation was introduced in 2005, providing a comprehensive, if flawed, series of regulations on development in and around pristine river systems.

Regulations kick in once a river system is declared “wild”. Development is strictly regulated within an area up to one kilometre from the bank of the major river and its tributaries—a “High Preservation Area” (HPA). High impact projects, namely dams, commercial irrigation and strip mining are prohibited in the HPA. Lower impact developments like housing, fishing and grazing are allowed.

In the much larger “Preservation Area” encompassing the remainder of the basin, there are very few restrictions on development, including mining, as long as requirements are met to minimise impact on the river system. In a “Designated Urban Area” surrounding a town or village, further exemptions apply.

The main problem with Wild Rivers are the exemptions that the Bligh government have granted to mining companies from the strict rules that are supposed to apply within an HPA. Existing mines such as Rio Tinto’s massive bauxite operations around Weipa will continue despite their destructive impact, and a bauxite mine proposed by Chinese company Chinalco has been granted an explicit exemption.

Nine Wild Rivers have been declared under the Act, including four in the Gulf of Carpentaria, aided by the advocacy of the Carpentaria Aboriginal Land Council.

It is the most recent declarations over the Archer, Stewart and Lockhart Rivers, along with a pending decision on the Wenlock River, all in Cape York, that have brought the issue to a head.

Abbott, Pearson and self-determination
Country Liberal Senator Nigel Scullion first introduced the Wild Rivers (Environmental Management) bill into the federal Senate in early February. Tony Abbott is now re-introducing the same bill.

Addressing Parliament in February, Tony Abbott argued that, “the Queensland Wild Rivers Act amounts to a smash-and-grab raid on the land rights of the Aboriginal people of Cape York”.  Abbott continued, “[Wild Rivers] adds a heavy burden of additional bureaucracy to any Aboriginal people seeking to turn their land from a spiritual into an economic asset”.

Last February, the Liberals’ attack on Wild Rivers went largely un-noticed. Not this time. The level of media coverage and controversy shows the Liberal Party is now better able to set the terms of political debate and how false is the idea is that the new parliament offers better terrain for the left.

The bill itself makes one simple change to the Wild Rivers Act. The Act would not be able to regulate any area of land over which Aboriginal people had Native Title, “unless the Aboriginal traditional owners of the land agree”.

The suggestion that the Liberal Party genuinely care about Aboriginal land rights is farcical. They opposed Native Title and then legislated “bucketloads of extinguishment” under Howard. They initiated and continue to support the NT Intervention which has compulsorily acquired Aboriginal township land across the NT—seeing millions of dollars worth of land, assets and property transferred from Aboriginal to state ownership. Currently in WA, Liberal Premier Colin Barnett has broken off negotiations with Native Title claimants and is pursuing the compulsory acquisition of land in the Kimberley for a gas plant (see p10).

Rather than offer traditional owners in Queensland more real control over their land, Abbott’s bill would entrench the idea that prospects for future development rest entirely on mining and agribusiness companies taking that land over.

Native Title is the lowest form of land tenure in Australia. Native Title holders have no right to block commercial development. They cannot veto mining operations. The Native Title Act only stipulates that potential commercial developers must, “negotiate in good faith” with Native Title holders, “with a view to forming an agreement”. There is no requirement to actually enter into an agreement or even to pay mining royalties.

Native Title lawyer Sarah Burnside recently reported a case concerning Fortescue Metals Group (FMG) and a mining lease on Pilbara Native Title land where, “The Court held that FMG had discharged its duty to negotiate in good faith despite the fact that there had been no substantive negotiation on the mining lease in question with either Native Title group”.

Of course, to gain quicker access to Native Title land, many mining companies do enter into agreements.

Cape Alumina, a fierce public critic of Wild Rivers, is using its “employment covenant” with Mapoon Native Title holders to coax local Aboriginal people into opposing Wild Rivers. Cape Alumina are threatening to pull out of a $1.2 billion bauxite mining operation in the Wenlock river basin if the Wild Rivers declaration goes ahead.

Paul Messenger, the Managing Director of Cape Alumina, said in June:

“Some 47 years after the Queensland government burned the houses [of people at Mapoon] to the ground and forced those people off the land at gunpoint, [with Wild Rivers] the government has today again sold those people down the river”.

He didn’t mention that Mapoon was originally burnt down to clear the way for bauxite miners.

Standing up to market assimilation
The Greens have rightly opposed Tony Abbott’s bill. They say if the Liberals really believed Aboriginal people should have a veto over what happens on their land, they would amend the Native Title Act to grant this veto to all Native Title holders across Australia, over all activities.
They also argue that Tony Abbott’s bill does not specify how the “traditional owners” will be determined under the Act, or what is meant by “agreement”.

As the recent struggles around the nuclear waste dump at Muckaty north of Tennant Creek show, it is very easy for government to hold handfuls of impoverished Aboriginal people to ransom, and coerce them to accept toxic developments by promising employment and basic services.

Even where the vast majority of local Aboriginal people oppose such development, as is the case at Muckaty, the government uses claims that “traditional owners have agreed” to give legitimacy to racist policy.

To seriously counter Abbott’s drive for more market assimilation requires going further than opposing his bill. Pearson’s entire project must be confronted. Pearson sneers at demands for government funding as welfare dependency. But no Indigenous project in the country receives as much government funding as the punitive Cape York Family Responsibilities Commission (FRC) he helped design.

Forty eight million dollars is being spent over four years on “welfare reform” in Cape York for a cluster of four communities with a combined population of about 3000 people. That’s about $20,000 per school age child per year to pay for bureaucrats to impose welfare quarantining or tie welfare payments to school attendance.

This sort of money is badly needed for community development. But as with the NT Intervention, the government is more concerned to fund programs which control Aboriginal people than to provide the jobs, housing and education facilities needed by the communities.
Pearson tries to portray himself as a defender of small scale Aboriginal enterprises. Shamefully, one leaflet distributed throughout late 2009 even claimed that the legislation would lead to bans on traditional fishing and hunting.

Pearson supported the closure of Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP), which cut around 1000 jobs at the Yarrabah Aboriginal community, south of Cairns. He stood by when a vegetable farm at Yarrabah was hit by the closure of CDEP.

Pearson’s real concerns are for the interests of big business. Pearson has formal alliances with the Queensland Minerals Council and the AgForce lobby group to fight Wild Rivers. Bauxite and sand mining companies on the Cape are the only planned projects claiming Wild Rivers will make them unviable.

In fact none of the 100 Wild Rivers development applications submitted to the Queensland government have been knocked back.

While opposing Tony Abbott’s bill, the left should feel not need to defend the Bligh government on environmental or Aboriginal rights issues. Bligh is planning new coal fired power stations. She is driving the FRC on Cape York and forcing long-term leases onto Aboriginal communities.

While Queensland Labor has made sure Wild Rivers legislation doesn’t override Native Title rights, it certainly isn’t funding services needed to support flourishing livelihoods on Aboriginal land.

But Tony Abbott’s bill must be defeated. It is not self-determination to rely on crumbs from a $1.2 billion bauxite mine that could have proceeded with or without Aboriginal approval.


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