There have been countless attempts by successive Queensland Governments to find the best approach to look after our Nation’s pointiest region – Cape York Peninsula.
Our relatively new LNP Government’s contribution is their Cape York Peninsula Bioregion Management plan – for which a scoping paper was released on June28th to minimal fanfare. The proposed plan was announced in the lead up to the Queensland election as the LNP’s answer to the vexed issue of ‘wild rivers’ – seeking to find the delicate balance between conservation and development objectives.
The scoping paper for the plan seems promising. There is recognition of the cultural and natural values of the region and the role of Traditional Owners in land and sea stewardship. While not re-inventing the wheel, the plan aims to draw on the knowledge of existing regional organisations and bring all parties to the table.
On June 3 the Minister for Environment and Heritage Protection, Andrew Powell, initiated public consultation on the process with a short introductory speech to a range of stakeholders in Cairns. Powell stressed that the Cape York plan would not replicate previous processes, but would draw on evidence-based science in protecting the regions unique environment, and streamline the process for economic development.
Of concern is the potential that this exercise will be used to weaken a range of environmental regulations that aim to protect values – both across Queensland and nationally.
One of Powell’s stated objectives is to identify regulation that constrains development and recommend changes that will reduce red tape and streamline approvals for ‘sustainable’ projects. Powell commented that one of his first tasks as Minister was the passage of the Greentape Reduction Bill introduced to the Queensland Parliament on 29 May.
As a former ecological and environmental planning consultant, I fully understand the challenges faced in the approvals process. A combination of land tenure, local planning laws and state regulations can sometimes have the unintended consequence of hindering development that is economically, socially and environmentally sustainable.
These sorts of outcomes only serve to paint conservation and government in a negative light. When approval for a dwelling is knocked back while the razing of thousands of hectares for a mine is approved it reinforces the perception of injustice and overly burdensome process.
Therefore the Cape’s unique set of socio-economic circumstances and tenure arrangements warrant a closer look at the regulatory framework that hinders appropriate development. Often, the people who are most affecting by this are Traditional Owners attempting build outstations, ranger bases, tourism facilities and other infrastructure that delivers social, cultural, environmental and economic outcomes.
If we are to take Minister Powell at face value, his approach is not about reducing environmental standards but, in the case of the Cape York Plan, facilitating the right developments in the right locations. However, it is a little unclear why it is business-as-unusual for mining approvals while this plan is still at the public consultation stage.
If this is a robust exercise it will identify that barriers to economic development in Cape York Peninsula also include limited agricultural potential due to poor soils, distance to markets from existing industries and, in particular, the lack of existing adequate infrastructure.
Independence and transparency will be fundamental to this process. If the process of mapping out the best regional plan for Cape York becomes beholden to narrow agendas and bogged down in the politics of competing stakeholders it risks achieving nothing. Minister Powell has said that should this occur – the LNP government will refer back to science for a way forward.
However, if genuine public consultation including support of the process from Traditional Owners occurs from the outset, we will be happy to embrace it and participate in good faith.
At the end of the day, we all want to see a way forward that protects rivers and landscapes, provides for appropriate development, stimulates sustainable economic opportunity and becomes a framework that eventually leads to prosperity for the region.
This article first appeared in the Courier Mail on 16 July 2012 and is also found here.