Today the federal government announced a comprehensive parliamentary inquiry into the Wild Rivers Act 2005 (Qld) and whether it should be overturned by the Commonwealth. The legislation states:
The purpose of this Act is to preserve the natural values of rivers that have all, or almost all, of their natural values intact.
[by] providing for the regulation of particular activities and taking of natural resources in a wild river and its catchment to preserve the wild river’s natural values; and having a precautionary approach to minimise adverse effects on known natural values and reduce the possibility of adversely affecting poorly understood ecological functions; and treating a wild river and its catchment as a single entity, linking the condition of the river to the health of the catchment; and considering the effect of individual activities and taking of natural resources on a wild river’s natural values.
The Act is controversial because despite the fact that it is an environmentally beneficial law, it detracts from the ability of aboriginal peoples to enjoy the use of their land. Opponents of the Queensland Act claim that aboriginal custodians have successfully maintained the rivers in the past and that the Act is an offense to the concept of native title. As Wilderness Society spokesman Tim Seelig points out, however –
“The Wild Rivers Act does not stop all development. We have to be absolutely clear about what it does. It stops large-scale development like mining, like damming, like intensive irrigation in and very close to some of the most pristine rivers in the country.”
Land rights activist Noel Pearson takes a different view. He believes it imperative that we preserve the ancient traditional rights of Aboriginal peoples to use intensive irrigation techniques for large-scale agriculture, construction of high-density houses and open cut mining that allows minerals to be exported to China. These activities have been practised uninterrupted for millennia before the colonial hegemony that is Peter Beattie arrived to deprive them of these important rights.
Some people might suggest that Abbot is seeking to remove the Act because he’s in bed with the business lobby. And that he is using the cover of aboriginal rights to allow mining companies such as Cape Alumina and Rio Tinto to establish a bauxite mine near the Wenlock River (below). But that’s just cynical.
The question of whether or not the federal government should feel entitled to overrule Queensland’s legislation is one that has received little attention. With some legislation, such as that concerning euthanasia, it is logical for the federal government to impose its will on the states given how easily people could move between states to subject themselves to euthanasia. With matters such as stationary rivers, which are of no importance outside Queensland, justification of any action at a federal level becomes a feeble exercise. A question of whether a decision by federal Parliament to overrule the Act would be constitutionally permissible was raised in the earlier Senate inquiry.
While Abbott is demanding the issue be addressed immediately, the completion of the report commissioned by Gillard is a lengthy process that serves as an ingenious political manoeuvre. If a vote on the issue can be delayed until after the Greens hold the balance of power in the Senate, the passage of the bill is granted a guaranteed impediment. The Wild Rivers Act certainly has a future, and this fact is a welcome blessing for the environment.