Family First Senator Steve Fielding’s decision to withdraw support from a bill which would have overturned Queensland’s controversial Wild Rivers laws has shocked and outraged indigenous leaders.
Mayors of four indigenous communities – Mapoon, Aurukun, Lockhart River and the Northern Peninsula Area – on Friday said the senator’s backflip had taken them by surprise.
Senator Fielding last year supported the bill introduced by the coalition.
It would have forced the Queensland government to obtain consent from traditional owners before making a Wild Rivers declaration, which restricts development around water courses in affected areas.
However, when the senate debated the issue again on Thursday Senator Fielding withdrew his support for the bill after securing concessions from the Queensland and federal governments.
Mapoon Mayor Peter Guivarra said traditional owners in the Cape were offended to find Senator Fielding had recently visited Wenlock River, in the northwest Cape, but failed to consult with traditional owners opposed to the Queensland legislation.
“He never came to Mapoon, we are the community that sits on the mouth of the Wenlock and we claim it as our own,” he said.
“If he’d come and met with us, maybe he would have seen the need for some more concessions.”
“We were fully supportive of his initial position on the bill but for him to do a backflip…we’re surprised and shocked I suppose.”
The mayors, along with indigenous leaders such as Noel Pearson, argue the legislation stifles economic development in already impoverished communities.
So far four Cape York river basins are covered by the controversial laws and the Queensland government is considering further declarations.
Cape York Land Council chairman Richie Ah Mat said a group of traditional owners who visited Canberra on Wednesday ahead of an expected vote on the bill were “deflated”.
“To not consult or inform the regional organisations or any of the local mayors that he was going up to the Cape and to only consult with a couple of traditional owners who we don’t believe speak for any other traditional owner groups is just a really big stab in the back,” he said.
Northern Peninsula Area Mayor Joseph Elu called on Senator Fielding to visit Cape York to justify his decision to the local communities.
“Senator Fielding has so many unanswered questions and we believe he has a responsibility to explain himself to us, and listen to us and our communities,” he said
However, Wilderness Society Wild Rivers campaigner Glenn Walker said, from his statements in the senate on Thursday, Senator Fielding appeared to have considered the matter carefully.
“Senator Fielding has gone up and experienced the Wenlock River, he’s looked at all the facts, he’s understood the misinformation campaign and he’s made the right decision,” he told AAP.
Senator Fielding did not respond directly to the mayors’ statements.
Instead he issued a statement which reinforced aspects of his senate speech including his belief that the requirement to obtain traditional owner consent would make it too difficult for a declaration to be made.