The Federal Government has commissioned a wide-ranging parliamentary inquiry into Queensland’s controversial Wild Rivers legislation.
The Government says it will wait until the inquiry releases its findings before deciding whether to support Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s private members bill to override the state laws, which place development limits near 10 Cape York river systems.
Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin says Mr Abbott’s bill will be considered as part of the House of Representatives inquiry.
“There is an acknowledgment that there are issues that have to be examined, and that just putting a piece of legislation into the parliament as Tony Abbott intends to do won’t resolve the matters,” Ms Macklin said.
“Really what we need is an opportunity to examine these issues carefully.”
Ms Macklin will not say what the Commonwealth’s position is.
“What we want to do is make sure we can have a proper inquiry to investigate these issues,” she said.
A delegation of Indigenous leaders and Cape York traditional owners has been in Canberra lobbying against Mr Abbott’s plan.
They have welcomed the federal inquiry, but they are at odds with Cape York Indigenous leader Noel Pearson, who has attacked the state law as heralding a “new wave of colonialism”.
He says with a Senate inquiry already completed, another one is unnecessary.
“Jenny Macklin rang me yesterday and told me of their intention and I said, ‘Jenny, this sounds to me that you are putting this off to the never-never’, and she tried to assure me that was not the Government’s intention,” Mr Pearson said.
“But now that I have looked at the terms of reference, this is just the Federal Government engaging in very cynical, tactical manoeuvring.
“There has never been such a small piece of legislation that is now going to be subjected to two parliamentary committee process.”
Wilderness Society spokesman Dr Tim Seelig says he is comfortable the act will stand up to any scrutiny.
He says it not only protects the environment but also allows sustainable development.
“The Wild Rivers Act does not stop all development,” he said.
“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.”
The inquiry is supposed to report in March, but that timeline is predicated on it being able to hold public hearings on Cape York in the wet season.
“The Senate hearings were held in Cairns in the dry season … and all of the people who have been led by the nose by the Wilderness Society through the corridors of Parliament House this week gave evidence to the Senate committee,” Mr Pearson said.
“Their point of view is as much reported as our point of view.”
Mr Pearson says it appears the Government may not end up voting on Mr Abbott’s bill to overturn the Queensland Act until after June 30 next year, when the Greens assume the balance of power in the Senate.
“This is such a small agenda item on the business of this new Parliament – one of thousands of matters that this Parliament has to deal with over the next three years – and you’re telling me that it is going to be subjected to another parliamentary inquiry. It is just absolutely ridiculous,” he said.
“I would rather go down with an honest vote now than the people of Australia be subjected to another parliamentary committee, another review.
“What are we going to have – another 20/20 summit over this issue? We need a decision.
“This kind of tactical manoeuvring and avoidance of responsibility is absolutely outrageous.”