QUEENSLAND’S Wild Rivers legislation has been declared invalid in Cape York, ending a five-year struggle by indigenous groups to preserve the right to pursue economic opportunities in the region.
A Federal Court judge yesterday ruled that a Queensland minister erred in law five years ago in declaring three rivers on the cape as “wild”.
The main objection of indigenous groups was that the legislation stopped potential economic development of the region in far north Queensland by “locking up” the rivers and the areas around them. They claimed the previous state Labor government had undertaken the Wild Rivers plan to win green preferences in city seats it needed to retain power.
The Federal Court decision centred on the Bligh government’s action in declaring the Archer, Lockhart and Stewart rivers on Cape York as wild rivers on April 3, 2009, only weeks after the state election that saw the ALP government returned.
Federal Court judge Andrew Greenwood found yesterday that the decision was made too quickly and without enough consideration of the views of the traditional owners.
“The decision to make the declarations was a function of urgently delivering on an election promise … the declarations got ahead of the formulation of the material addressing the preconditions upon which the exercise of the power rested,” he wrote in his judgment.
The government had received 3062 submissions about the declarations, but 2577 of these were pro forma submissions made through the Wilderness Society’s website.
Indigenous leader Noel Pearson, who led the opposition to Wild Rivers by arguing that it deprived indigenous people of economic opportunities, said yesterday that the five-year legal struggle had diverted attention from key areas such as health and education on the cape.
He said new projects that could provide jobs for indigenous people in areas such as horticulture and tourism could now begin.
“Traditional owners should decide whether they want conservation or a mixture of both,’’ Mr Pearson said.
“We don’t want this unilaterally imposed on them by political deals in Brisbane.’’
“It’s a just process, but it really shouldn’t have taken five years to reach this point.”
The Archer, Lockhart and Stewart rivers were the most prominent of the 12 rivers gazetted under the legislation. Most of the others are in western Queensland such as Coopers Creek and the Georgina and Diamantina Basins, but some are on the east coast of Cape York, such as Hinchinbrook near Ingham.
While the Newman government has set in train a process of regional land plans on Cape York that would supersede Wild Rivers, the legislation still exists elsewhere in the state and is not due to be debated until August, when it is expected to be extinguished.
“So they have made promises, but after two years, it still hasn’t happened,” Mr Pearson said.
“At the end of the day, the court victory came before anything else.” Mr Pearson was scathing in his criticism of former Labor premier Anna Bligh and former natural resources minister Stephen Robertson, who made the Wild Rivers declarations.
The Cape York leader said yesterday: “They should hang their heads in shame having put our people through five years of struggle.’’
The action was brought forward by traditional owner Martha Koowarta, the widow of 1980s Cape York land rights campaigner John Koowartha who successfully challenged Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s government over a land rights claim in 1982.
Mrs Koowarta, who lives in the Cape York town of Aurukun but was in Brisbane for the judgment yesterday, was elated at the outcome.
“I’m so happy,’’ she said outside the court.
Deputy Premier Jeff Seeney said the court outcome vindicated the Liberal National Party’s opposition to the Wild Rivers scheme when it was in opposition. The court awarded costs against the government.
“I can’t say we’re happy about it, but otherwise it would be the indigenous groups who paid,” Mr Seeney said.
The main supporter of Wild Rivers was the Wilderness Society. It said that the river catchments on Cape York would now be exposed to “risky industrial development such as open-cut mining, in-stream dams and intense irrigated agriculture”.
“Queensland is blessed with some of the last remaining free-flowing rivers left on the planet and they need to be treasured,” said Queensland campaign manager Tim Seelig.