When we think of Cape York Peninsula we generally think of iconic landscapes of rainforest or savanna, crocodiles and green pythons, fishing trips and four-wheel-driving or just a spot of bird watching. We think of special places where both locals and visitors savour the connection to nature afforded by the remoteness of one of Australia’s most tropical and naturally stunning regions.
When the Queensland LNP went to the 2012 election, it claimed it would protect Cape York. Yet the State Government is now proposing to prioritise development over biodiversity values in most of Cape York and enabling a paper thin, discretionary level of protection for key iconic areas.
For those of us care deeply about the fate of Cape York, now is an important time to take stock of the future planning direction of current government policy before the public submission period closes on March 25.
Cape York MP David Kempton thinks the Cape York regional planning process is too skewed towards environmental protection. But it is vital in this process that we give a great deal more priority to the natural and cultural assets that underpin a vital and growing tourism industry.
As identified in the Queensland Plan, Queenslanders value a healthy environment. A $10 billion tourism industry and our sun-loving outdoor lifestyle depends on it. One of the Newman Government’s four economic pillars is tourism – and tourism is heavily dependent on maintaining natural places.
Yet from extending mining on Stradbroke Island, to opening the State to uranium exploration, grazing national parks and fast-tracking a host of developments along the Great Barrier Reef’s coastline – many Queenslanders are now asking whether the state government was genuine in its pre-election support for tourism and commitment to protect Cape York.
Late last year, Premier Campbell Newman surprised the public with a ‘declaration’ that the Steve Irwin Wildlife Reserve on Cape York Peninsula would be protected. Yet under the draft Cape York Regional Plan and the proposed Regional Planning Interests legislation, the Steve Irwin Wildlife Reserve along with many other iconic landscapes of the Cape could still be mined, logged and grazed.
To address this the Newman Government is considering regulation that specifically protects the Steve Irwin reserve as there is nothing in the current Plan for Cape York that would give it formal protection from mining. But that’s just one of many important places on cape York.
What’s currently on the table amounts to a process of ministerial discretion on major league environmental decision making in the future.
If a select few in Government could take a view that a development such as an open-cut mine should go ahead – it will simply go ahead without third-party appeal rights being available, not even to Traditional Owners or competing industries such as tourism.
Moreover, it has recently been revealed that even the strategic environmental areas proposed under the Cape York regional plan are now under review. Why else would a number of mining enterprises on Cape York continue to talk up their exploration leases as investment opportunities in areas currently proposed for a ban on open cut and strip mining? We must not leave the door open, as it currently is, granting the mining industry access to over 70% of the region.
Knowing that there are many approaches to conservation on Cape York, the Queensland Government does have an opportunity to make a difference in on-the-ground outcomes that would meet both its stated environmental and economic objectives.
Many Traditional Owners from the Mitchell River Delta to Shelburne Bay want to see their country protected from mining. Naturally, the environment provides the main opportunity for economic pathways based on culture, conservation and tourism.
Jim Wallis, a senior Wuthathi Traditional Owner from Shelburne Bay says: “It’s our duty to protect our heritage. We don’t want or need mining on our country.”
We need to get the balance right of ensuring economic livelihoods for people living in the Cape, respecting the wishes of the Traditional Owners, and protecting the areas that provide the backbone of our tourism industry – protecting the places we all love.
Yet as it stands, without substantial improvements and the inclusion of measurable environmental outcomes – the Cape York regional plan will fail to strike this balance, nor will it address land use conflicts and economic disadvantage.
We would urge all Queenslanders to take this window of time to understand the Cape York regional planning process and to ensure our politicians are paying more attention to the wishes of all Queenslanders than simply providing a rubber stamp to mining companies.