The murky waters of Queensland's wild rivers
The murkiness of the wild rivers issue poses an ideological conundrum for many Queenslanders.
What's more important, indigenous self-determination or preserving a unique unspoilt environment?
Do you side with Noel Pearson or the Wilderness Society?
Greenies are usually the first on the political spectrum to sympathise with indigenous rights. But the Queensland Government's controversial law to protect pristine waterways has pitted these traditional political bedfellows against one another.
For years, erudite Cape York indigenous leader Noel Pearson has been a vehement campaigner against the legislation, which limits development around certain rivers including the Lockhart, Archer and Stewart on the Cape.
Yet it wasn't until Tony Abbott promised this week to quash the controversial law that the issue was pushed on to the national agenda. Of course, Abbott's private member's bill to get the Federal Parliament to overturn the Queensland law will sink like a stone - with both the Rudd Labor Government and the Greens implacably opposed.
To be perfectly clear, the wild rivers legislation does not ban Aborigines from trying to make a living out of their local environment.
Despite some indigenous claims to the contrary, grazing, ecotourism, fishing, mining, aquaculture, animal husbandry and extracting water for community use are all allowed, subject to certain conditions. There are no restrictions on indigenous cultural activities.
Introduced in response to a Howard government requirement that all states identify and protect valuable waterways, the Queensland law is aimed at keeping dams, intensive irrigation and mining out of rivers. But many Aborigines on the Cape don't understand the law and have been easy targets for all sorts of scare campaigns about its implications. You only had to watch the normally impressive former young Australian of the year, Tania Major, try and argue the issue with Anna Bligh on the ABC's Q&A program to realise she was hopelessly ill-informed.
In contrast, the declaration of four wild rivers on the Gulf of Carpentaria in 2007 met with no indigenous resistance, apparently because of assurances the law would stop mining companies polluting their water sources.
The Bligh Government claims its wild rivers legislation hasn't stymied one indigenous business proposal. That's a little too cute.
Cape York leaders say their improverished people don't have the money or the expertise to jump through all the bureaucratic hoops imposed by the law to even begin to try to get a business off the ground. To them it's just another form of whitefella discrimination.
"It's prohibition on development via layers and layers of regulation," Pearson says.
Natural Resources Minister Stephen Robertson rightly pointed out that the Cape's remoteness, not wild rivers, is a key factor in the lack of economic development in the area.
But Pearson argues the real impediments to indigenous participation in the economy are - as always - lack of education, poor health and chronic social dysfunction.
"My question is, why would you want to make it harder?" he explained to me. "I fear the community is eventually going to give up the ghost up here that there's any chance of [making their own living]."
This is why Pearson's wild rivers battle is more one over principle, rather than the everyday reality of life as it is in the Cape now. He's drawing a line in the sand, so when education, health and social outcomes do eventually improve on the Cape, there are opportunities for people to get off welfare and make a living from their land. It's about ensuring the custodians of the land are entrusted with its economic development in the future.
The Wilderness Society argues Pearson is prepared to sacrifice the environment in the pursuit of Aboriginal self-determination via economic development. Pearson says it's not a zero sum game, that he merely wants the State Government to consider business proposals on the Cape through the prism of ''sustainable development'', rather than the central premise of wild rivers, environmental preservation.
As always there is a political dimension to this battle. Federally, Abbott has chosen to back indigenous rights over the environment. Siding with Pearson's mob on wild rivers could win back the far north Queensland seat of Leichhardt for the Liberals at this year's federal election, even if it further erodes Abbott's green credentials.
As for the state Labor Government, in the twilight years of its stranglehold on power it is more reliant than ever on Green preferences to cling to power.
Pearson claims this gives the Wilderness Society powerful influence over the Government's wild rivers policy. "They've got a power that we don't have at election time and they exploit that to the full," Pearson says. "They know blackfellas are electoral poison. They know it is easier to sell wild rivers than blackfellas."