Deputy Premier Jeff Seeney wants to ‘normalise the economy of Cape York Peninsula’. To this end he has approved a massive new bauxite mine, rolled back laws that prevent broad acre clearing and will remove the Wild River declarations of four of the Cape’s most pristine rivers.
Consistent with a nation-wide approach to deregulation by state governments, Queensland appears beholden to a frenzy of cutting so-called green tape; allegedly causing the economic woes across countless regions.
The primary barriers to economic prosperity in Cape York include distance and access to markets, climate, poor soil, lack of infrastructure, limited workforce, investment disincentives and the reality that better opportunities exist elsewhere. These well-recognised and often debated issues are up for discussion yet-again under the current regional planning process for Cape York.
Originally beginning with the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection, the Cape York planning process was quickly subsumed by the Deputy Premier’s Department of State Development, Infrastructure and Planning. The goal of the current process is to deliver economic development, establish state interests and investment opportunities and reduce land use conflicts.
There is nothing new in these aspirations.
However, we are concerned that Queensland Government’s vision for a ‘normalised economy’ is weasel words for a one-size-fits-all approach that will equate to an unacceptable roll back of environmental regulations. If it is a vision that means Cape York’s future will become beholden to the mining industry just to meet basic infrastructure needs, the region risks the loss of other crucial sectors including agriculture, tourism and emerging markets in conservation and land management.
Cape York is also an Indigenous domain with strong cultural ties and native title interests across the landscape.
As we’ve seen recently in the Kimberley, pinning Indigenous prosperity to market-based resource development projects is fraught with great risk and uncertainty. Under that model, as soon as a project ceases to be a corporate priority, communities are left without promised funding and infrastructure. This is clearly a flawed approach further exacerbated by the fact that Traditional Owners often do not have greater leverage from consent rights in the first place.
So far this process bears all the hallmarks of a state government development agenda that is set to repeat mistakes that have been consistently made not only in Cape York but across the country.
In delivering this plan, the Queensland Government is intent on defining where economic development can and can’t occur. But haven’t governments grappled with this for decades, both on Cape York and around the country and to no avail? We still see land use conflicts across the country from the Murray Darling Basin to the Kimberley.
All the evidence we have tells us that such an approach is incredibly simplistic and is unlikely to deliver any lasting change. Yet the current Queensland Government seems intent to follow this path – seemingly oblivious to the lessons of history.
We need to be considering alternative visions for the Cape right now that look beyond simply removing environmental regulations to the benefit of a small clique of mining interests.
The alternative vision would include things such as developing Indigenous capacity and skills in line with their aspirations for economic opportunity, addressing skills shortages in far northern Queensland, ensuring land tenure changes do not jeopardise Indigenous aspirations, attracting investments that will develop local economies (not just mining) and developing a sovereign or trust fund to back local and indigenous communities in the Cape.
Cape York Peninsula is a largely intact landscape rich in living cultures and traditions. The Cape needs to be considered in terms of its connectivity of people, place and culture in order to sustainably move forward in the long term.
This article was originally published in the Courier Mail on 26 April 2013.