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Issue #1476      13 October 2010

Australia’s wild rivers under threat from Liberals, Nationals

Two weeks ago, as part of a campaign by the conservative Coalition and conservative Aboriginal businessman Noel Pearson to overturn the Queensland Wild Rivers Act, Liberal leader Tony Abbott moved a private member’s bill to do so. The Gillard government rejected the bill and decided to refer the issue to the House of Representatives economics committee.

Gregory river.

A previous attempt to abolish the Act had been made prior to the recent federal elections, when a private member’s bill was passed in the Senate, but it was rejected in the Lower House.

The Act, which was passed in 2005, limits the extent of development in the State’s spectacular wild rivers, to ensure that they retain their free flow, that their wildlife is protected (unlike the polluted and desperately struggling Murray-Darling river system), and that their natural and cultural significance are thereby maintained.

The Act prohibits big developments like dams, strip mining and large-scale irrigation that would impact on the rivers, which support hundreds of Aboriginal communities. Under the Act Native Title rights are protected, and the hunting and fishing rights of Aboriginal people are preserved. The legislation also creates a special water reserve for the economic development of Indigenous Australians.

At the moment ten rivers are protected under the legislation, and the Queensland government is considering the addition of another twelve. The NSW government has entered into an agreement with the Queensland government to protect one of the rivers, the Paroo, which is a major cross-border contributor to the Murray Darling basin.

Wild rivers seen as commodities

The wild rivers have potential for economic developments that would offer huge profits, but at the cost of irreparable damage to the rivers’ environment. Pearson and Abbott want the rivers to be opened up for large scale agricultural irrigation projects, and for other major ventures such as the Lagoon Creek uranium mine at Westmoreland Station.

They argue that the Act as it stands deprives Indigenous people of the benefit of economic development, and that the only restraint on development should be the consent of Aboriginal communities. They have cited the employment opportunities that large scale development would offer. However, if the Act was overturned, conservative leaders would be free to cajole or threaten affected communities, or take whatever action is necessary to get their acceptance for big development projects, after which the existing employment opportunities offered, for example by tour guidance and land management, would disappear.

Pearson has petulantly refused to participate in the Senate enquiry. Abbott now aims to gain the support of the independents in the House of Representatives, prior to the entry of newly-elected Greens senators in July next year, who will resolutely oppose moves to overturn or weaken the Act.

Last week representatives of a number of Aboriginal communities declared that they disagreed with Pearson and that he had no right to speak on their behalf. In a letter to independent MP Rob Oakeshott two weeks ago, the Chuulangun Aboriginal Corporation’s representative David Claudie supported the Act, stating that “We’re all looking to care for the land and get up sustainable industries.”

He warned against the overturn of the Act and unrestrained development, declaring angrily: “Noel Pearson doesn’t speak for us. He’s not our leader.” Murrandoo Yanner of the Carpentaria Land council supported Claudie’s statement, and claimed that Pearson was “leading white fellas astray”.

Stark warning from the Murray-Darling

Last week the alarming Murray-Darling Report was released. The history of the Murray Darling system has demonstrated that large scale development would be a disaster for the Wild Rivers.

The report (which will be reviewed in The Guardian in detail next week) has verified claims that the river system is experiencing terrible difficulties. High irrigation agriculture and other large-scale practices have reduced flows, caused widespread pollution and eliminated previous farming practices and employment opportunities.

Vast areas of river red gums are now dead or dying, and fish stocks have been decimated (with some species facing extinction). Coal and gas mining in Queensland is threatening the health of the Channel Country Rivers. Reduced flows have resulted in the cessation of discharge at the Murray mouth in South Australia, threatening massive pollution from the exposure of acid-bearing riverbed soil. Recent rain has raised the possibility that discharge will recommence, but the evidence of climate change indicates that this will be at best a temporary reprieve.

The prospect of further climate change has raised the likelihood that the nation’s food bowl will have to be transferred to arable areas in the Northern Territory and Tasmania. The nation will have to be very careful to ensure that the damage done to the Murray Darling is not repeated in those states. We depend on the health of our rivers. The Wild Rivers Act is intended to ensure adequate protection for Queensland’s last wild rivers, and the attempts to overturn the Act by conservative forces led by Abbott and Pearson must be defeated.  

Next article – Editorial – Serco – feasting on social decay

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