Tony Abbott risks being the first Australian prime minister to leave a World Heritage deficit.
At present he appears to be going in the opposite direction to his Liberal party predecessors in relation to Tasmania’s forests, but the opportunity awaits for a World Heritage nomination on Cape York Peninsula.
Between Malcolm Fraser and John Howard, the Liberal party is on par with any Labor government for enthusiasm in nominating Australia’s best-of-the-best for World Heritage status. Of our 19 World Heritage sites in Australia, there is almost an even split between the two major parties for nominations.
Malcolm Fraser was prime minister when Australia became a signatory to the World Heritage Convention in 1974. While in office he championed the initiative, calling on state premiers to identify areas worthy of nomination.
In 1980 Mr Fraser had either convinced or coerced then Queensland premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen to publicly support nominating the Great Barrier Reef, despite the Queensland premier’s wish to drill for oil off the Cairns coast. By 1981 the reef was listed along with the Willandra Lakes in New South Wales.
The Fraser government was the first to nominate areas of Kakadu and Tasmania for World Heritage status in 1981 and 1982 respectively. But despite the successful nominations, Mr Fraser also backed the contested Ranger and Jabiluka uranium mines in Kakadu and refused to intervene on the Tasmanian hydro-scheme plans in the World Heritage Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers national park.
The strength of the burgeoning Australian environment movement saw the Hawke government elected in March 1983, bringing intervention in both the Tasmanian Wilderness and Kakadu causes.
After shutting down the Franklin dam and slapping an export ban on uranium from Jabiluka, Bob Hawke took the environmental cause to the next election. On the advice of then environment minister Graham Richardson, Mr Hawke took on Queensland’s Bjelke-Petersen government and vowed to protect Queensland’s tropical rainforests.
Notwithstanding the lack of traditional owner consent and a hostile state, the Wet Tropics World Heritage nomination was successful and proclaimed in 1988. Prime Ministers Hawke and Keating went on to nominate and protect a number of other areas, notably Fraser Island, Shark Bay and sub-tropical rainforests of northern New South Wales and Uluru, while also making extensions to the Tasmanian Wilderness and Kakadu.
Under John Howard’s leadership, Australia continued to nominate sites and areas for World Heritage listing. Largely uncontroversial but no-less important was the recognition given to Australia’s subantarctic Heard and McDonald Islands and the recently declared pest-free Macquarie Island. Melbourne’s Exhibition Building and the Sydney Opera House gained World Heritage recognition under Mr Howard – as did the Greater Blue Mountains in 2000.
Malcolm Fraser’s enthusiasm for World Heritage listings was never matched by Howard. Similarly, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard never embraced the process as much as Mr Hawke. Perhaps, after the 2004 election defeat, when then opposition leader Mark Latham pledged to protect Tasmania’s forest, Labor shied away from the approach taken towards World Heritage during the 1980s.
While Ms Gillard and Mr Rudd oversaw extensions to Kakadu and the Tasmanian Wilderness, it was Ministers Peter Garrett and Tony Burke that steered Labor’s most recent run at World Heritage advancement.
With both ministers keen to leave a legacy, they made every effort to get the long-identified, but probably most complicated nomination, off the ground – the World Heritage nomination of Cape York Peninsula.
Even though a conducive policy environment was set in motion under Queensland’s Beattie and Bligh governments, it proved too challenging not only to advance the Cape York Peninsula’s nomination, but also get it on a tentative list.
As much as our prime ministers and environment ministers love to lead on these matters, traditional owners were driving the process. In what is perhaps a world first, Cape York’s traditional owners took the opportunity to identify what parts of their country – and under what circumstances – they would nominate for World Heritage status.
By the middle of last year, direct negotiations between traditional owners and the then environment minister, Tony Burke, had reached advanced stages. Management roles, resourcing, support and other expectations were being put on the table. Consent for World Heritage from different groups was being tentatively offered.
But then history intervened. Mr Rudd toppled Ms Gillard and soon after an election was called. Cape York barely rated a mention. Many traditional owners worked hard to consolidate their plans for economic and environmental outcomes and to provide Ministers Peter Garrett, Tony Burke and – at the last minute – Mark Butler with the information and feedback they required to advance a nomination.
This will remain unfinished business for many traditional owners. While the resources boom encroaches on Cape York, some communities seek to safeguard their culture and seek different economic pathways. Protecting culture and land from threats, combined with a desire for culture to be recognised and celebrated are driving World Heritage aspirations from Cape York’s people.
Cape York Peninsula presents Abbott with a unique opportunity to leave a positive World Heritage legacy, one more consistent with Howard and Fraser. While the conservation movement has celebrated Cape York’s world renowned values for decades, the call for adequate protection and recognition of its cultural significance is one led by traditional owners and Cape York communities.
It was with some relief to many traditional owners that both Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt and Queensland Environment Minister Andrew Powell have continued to keep open the possibility of advancing a World Heritage nomination for appropriate areas of Cape York Peninsula. Let’s hope they follow in the footsteps of many Liberal leaders of the past and recognise the value of a World Heritage nomination for Cape York Peninsula.
First Published on the Brisbane Times
April 28, 2014 – 3:31PM