Issue 53, November 2012 Australian Humanities Review
‘A Substantial Piece in Life’: Viabilities, Realities and Given Futures at the Wild Rivers Inquiries

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Figure 1: The reaches of the Wenlock River Wild River area (photo by the author)


Introduction: Cape York and the Wild Rivers Act Controversy
Since it was first enacted, the Wild Rivers Act (henceforth referred to as the Act), has been the subject of often sensational and divisive debate and controversial (mis)interpretation. It first came into being in early 2004 when the then Premier Peter Beattie and his State of Queensland Labor government, working from the findings of the Australian Heritage Commission’s ‘Wild River’s Project’, identified nineteen of Queensland’s rivers as potential ‘Wild Rivers’. In September 2005 the Act was passed, creating a system for the gazettal and declaration of Wild River areas and becoming the country’s first legislation to specifically identify and protect ‘near-pristine’ rivers and their tributaries. The first waterways to be officially declared were in the Staaten, Settlement, Morning Inlet, Hinchinbrook, Gregory, and Fraser Island Wild River areas (February 2007). In the next four years, four rivers were declared in Cape York Peninsula, namely the Lockhart, Stewart and Archer areas (April 2009), ahead of the Wenlock catchment (June 2010). More recently, three areas were declared in the Lake Eyre basin in the southwest of the State (December 2011). Before being elected in March 2012, leader of the conservative Liberal National Party of Queensland (LNP) Campbell Newman vowed to ‘axe’ the Act. His forthcoming Regional Management Plan instead aims to rebrand and retain some aspects of the Wild Rivers regime and remove others. For instance, the 45 Indigenous Australian ‘Wild Rivers Rangers’ employed by the State government, 27 of whom are stationed in the Cape, were recently renamed ‘Queensland Indigenous Land and Sea Rangers’.

This essay analyses the public hearings and findings of three Commonwealth inquiries—that took place as a result of the introduction of a federal bill that opposed the Act—as well as media debate about how the Act has impacted perceptions of everyday life and, in particular, employment opportunities in Cape York Peninsula. The latter is a sharply tapering spur at the top of eastern Australia; with an area of 137,200 square kilometres and a population under 18,000 spread over fifteen communities, the sparseness of the Cape exceeds nineteenth-century definitions of ‘frontier’ land (Rose and Clarke 22).1 The Act has drawn public criticism almost solely from this region, condemned by an alliance of interests including native title representative bodies, pastoralist organisations, regional mayors and Noel Pearson, former chairman of the Cape York Land Council (CYLC) and possibly the most influential Indigenous public intellectual in Australia. Interest in the controversy has, in turn, raised questions over Pearson’s prominence, demonstrated when a delegation of Cape York traditional owners appeared in Canberra to support the Act, stating that ‘Noel Pearson doesn’t speak for us’ (Claudie et al.). Pearson’s reply—in his weekly editorial in The Australian—was that ‘I have no greater say than anybody else’ (Pearson ‘Right Crucial’). At a June 2006 meeting in the central Cape, Pearson summarised the belief that ‘the Greenies are in the ascendant’ in Brisbane (‘Wild Rivers’). The Act was emblematic of that ascendancy, Pearson claimed, and would be ‘a death by a thousand cuts’ for pastoralists and Indigenous Australian communities. Pressure from these groups led to the Cape York Peninsula Heritage Act 2007, legislation that ensured Wild Rivers areas did not affect native title rights, while also relaxing land clearing for Indigenous titleholders and granting water reserves. For a moment stakeholders seemed to bury their disagreement and, according to the conservative national broadsheet, The Australian, the ‘native title crusade’ had been won (Koch ‘Crusade’).2 But, in April 2009, Pearson was reported as having stood down from his directorship at the policy think-tank the Cape York Institute (CYI) to fight the Act, subsequently stating that Queensland Premier Anna Bligh was ‘urinating on the rights of Aborigines’ (Koch ‘Wild Rivers Deal’). Journalists at The Australian compared the Act to a ‘‘green foot’ crushing the throats of Aborigines’ (Elks and Barrett) and this sensational rhetoric escalated when federal Opposition leader Tony Abbott announced, in January 2010, with the support of several prominent Indigenous figures, that he would endeavour to ‘overturn’ the Act to protect the development rights of Cape York’s communities (Koch ‘Abbott’s Bid’). The resulting ‘Abbott Bill’—more prosaically the Wild Rivers (Environmental Management) Bill (2010-11)instead proposed that, for a Wild River area to be declared, the consent of all relevant Indigenous titleholders was required. The Bill’s ‘relevant titleholders’ included eight types of Indigenous title in relation to seven types of land, making the Bill ‘a dog’s breakfast’ in the words of the Carpentaria Land Council chairman (Yanner qtd. in Michael). Suspicious of Abbott’s motives, certain Cape traditional owners openly criticised this right to consent. Nonetheless, even though it would only pertain to one Act, the adoption of language and consent principles borrowed from the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) potentially brought these titleholders’ rights to ‘a level that is unprecedented in Australia’ (Altman, Wild Rivers 4). Several times the Bill was introduced to the federal houses, and several times it was sent to an inquiry, leading to eleven public hearings between March 2010 and April 2011.3 The ‘Abbott Bill’ effectively ended in May 2011 when Senator Steve Fielding revealed he would no longer support it.

Criticism of the Act has, not surprisingly, centred on the dangers it poses to industrial and Indigenous-led development, although some of this criticism has attributed the Act powers it did not have and in sites it did not affect (see, for example, Karvelas). While, under the Act, any development applications in these areas must meet a ‘Wild Rivers Code’ (implemented through Queensland’s Sustainable Planning Act 2009) the central restriction of a declaration is the designation of a (typically) one-kilometre buffer zone around nominated waterways. This High Preservation Area (HPA) is intended to insure that ‘the natural values’ of ‘the near-pristine rivers’ are not impacted. In real terms this means no mining, no dams and no intensive aquaculture within an HPA, though grazing and other activities are allowed.4 As many stakeholders have subsequently explained, when development projects in the region struggle to meet planning requirements it is often due to the myriad of other applicable environmental regulations. Regulation of remnant vegetation clearing is particularly onerous. But this is not a controversy about the literal legalities of ‘black letter law’. As John Holmes has argued, debates over the Act are better understood as a sign of ‘the durability and intractability of contests’ over the future of Cape York Peninsula which a series of Queensland governments have failed to resolve, if not fostered (67). Other misinformation circulated, aided by the confused coverage of Australian broadsheets. In 2009 reports, the Act was cast as the illegitimate progeny of a ‘deal’ between the Queensland Labor government and urban ‘green’ groups, which both groups denied. In 2010, the Act seemingly stood against UNDRIP consent principles—an argument that could be about all Queensland legislation—while at the same time attracting praise from almost a dozen North Queensland traditional owners. 

Several stakeholders have cited the phrase ‘wild rivers’ as a cause of opposition to the Act. In the western Romantic tradition, wilds are unoccupied and unmanaged, invoking connotations of Edenic nature (Cronon 36). Wilderness is ‘no man’s garden,’ in the words of Thoreau. As Deborah Bird Rose has stated (Nourishing Terrains 19), many Aboriginal people also associate ‘wilds’ with unmanaged lands, dystopic places dispossessed from their traditional owners and left to waste. ‘Wild,’ too, were explorers and settlers with no respect for first peoples or first law (Rose, Dingo 188). Subject to these critiques in the 1980s and 1990s, the challenge in recent years for environmentalists in settler-colonial countries has been to acknowledge ongoing Indigenous relations to country while retaining the lush imagery of wilderness (see Neale), just as the Queensland government has attempted to exploit the far north’s ‘wild’ and ‘pristine’ rivers as a brand while disavowing colonial associations. In Cape York—an area of massive ‘intact’ biodiverse ecologies—Indigenous residents and advocates are apt to reframe the abundant ‘naturalness’ of its tropical monsoon savannah within a long history of Indigenous management. To cite the closing line of a regional history, the peninsula ‘is not a wilderness… There have always been footprints on the Cape York sandbeaches’ (Sharp 149). The land bridge that once linked it with Papua New Guinea, and the trade networks that preceded and survived the settler frontier, also contradict the image of the ‘top end’ as isolated or ‘untouched’ (Berndt and Berndt; Swain). Nonetheless, the Edenic concept of uninhabited wilderness was, and remains, central to the foundation of Australian nationhood, claimed under the doctrine of terra nullius (or unoccupied land) and later ‘overturned’ in the 1992 Mabo decision (Reynolds The Law 9-10). In Mabo, the High Court recognised that a form of ownership, native title, survived the settler-colonial state’s sovereignty and existed on Mer Island, north of Cape York. This prior title was also found to survive the granting of pastoral leases in the 1996 Wik decision over parts of the west Cape. As such, Cape York’s centrality to the formation of native title in Australia, during widely publicised trials in the 1990s, established a strong and influential regional leadership. This leadership built close relationships with government while also founding a network of linked Indigenous service-delivery programs in the 2000s. Today, large parts of Cape York are held under a variety of Aboriginal titles with different potentials and restrictions (see Moran).

Unusual for regions outside the Northern Territory, the peninsula has a majority Indigenous population (55%). It also has evidence of all the statistical health and education markers by which remote Australia is often pejoratively defined, steadily high rates of unemployment in the Cape (19% in 2011) are consistently higher amongst the Cape’s eleven Indigenous communities. ‘Cape York’s residents are,’ in the words of a federal subcommittee, ‘amongst the most disadvantaged in Queensland,’ with 83% of its residents in the most deprived 20% of the State’s population (Interdepartmental Committee v). As such, amongst the criticisms of the Act, the most consistent was that it would ‘suffocate at birth’ much-needed Indigenous-led developments (Michael, Odgers and Chalmers). But the only agreed (potential) victim of a Wild River area has been the Pisolite Hills bauxite mine on the west coast of the Wenlock catchment near the Indigenous community of Mapoon. The project, planned by part-Australian miner Cape Alumina, also covers a wildlife reserve purchased in honour of the late celebrity conservationist Steve Irwin. In 1957, Aboriginal reserve land here was part of the 103-year mining leases that the Queensland Country-Liberal government granted to UK-owned Comalco (an aluminium company now known as Rio Tino Alcan). On 15 November 1963, Mapoon people, who had returned to the Wenlock area following their forced removal from a former Presbyterian mission, suffered further violence and losses when they were raided by police, who detained them and then burnt their houses (Wharton). Following consultations with Mapoon people and Cape Alumina leading into the 2011 Wenlock declaration, the HPA was reduced in certain areas but the miner nonetheless stated the project was now ‘unfeasible’. Thus, the Wenlock declaration, ironically, found representatives of a community reclaimed against the will of a Queensland government in favour a mine now potentially quashed by another Queensland government. Such a situation, in which a settler-colonial government is less supportive of a mine than the local Indigenous population, runs counter to commonplace histories and conceptualisation of indigeneity both in Australia and internationally (cf. Macintyre and Foale; Cattelino).5 More typical—today as in 1957—is the perception that a transnational mining venture is the most lucrative and, therefore, most promising potential development of Aboriginal or native title land. The beneficence of projects that are not ‘Indigenous-led’ or consent-driven is a subject of considerable debate in Australia (see Weiner and Rumsey; Langton; Ritter, Contesting).

The Wild Rivers controversy raises many issues without being their origin or end. Who gets a say in the regulation of Cape York Peninsula and on what grounds? What are the legacies and potentials of the native title regime? What future role do environmental management, tourism, pastoralism and mining have in the economy of the region? As such, this papers focuses on the controversy elicited by the Wild Rivers Act as a site of disagreement, in the sense used by Jacques Rancière, not on the Act itself. As Rancière argues, disputes are often understood as the product of misconstruction (caused by ignorance) or misunderstanding (the product of an ill-disciplined ‘linguistic economy’) between parties all inhabiting one ‘real’ world. Alleviate the ignorance or correct the idiolect and the dispute will dissolve. But for Rancière politics is instead ‘made up of relations between worlds’ (42) each with their own account of what is ‘real’ and substantial. They are not worlds we might essentialise, reconcile or render incommensurable without authorising some parties and annotating outliers as ‘bad faith’ subjects. If politics is a count of what counts and for whom (Rancière 6), then rather than adjudicate these worlds—in the manner of a parliamentary committee—we might instead examine what counts in each as ‘real’. In Reinhart Koselleck’s terms of historical analysis, this is to ask about the given pasts, presents and futures in circulation. 

Like many other regions with majority Indigenous populations, the Cape has long been understood by administrators as exceptional, uneconomic, and in need of transformative market development. As such it has been the site of a series of imagined futures that I will call, to borrow Philip Martin’s phrase, Cape York Peninsula’s ‘history of bright futures’ (35-6). As Martin argues, the future-oriented nature of capitalist investments—such as the optimistic ‘bright futures’ predictions that mining will create employment opportunities for Indigenous communities—inevitably fail to account for the potential failure of these promises, and the social effects of possible failures. My focus here, therefore, is on the rhetorical effects of this ‘bright futures’ discourse, a discourse that produces speculative prospects, especially for future employment, as an avowedly ‘real’ world of ‘real jobs’ and ‘real development’ in the ‘real economy’. This ‘bright futures’ discourse is often presented as the ‘real’ alternative to ‘insubstantial’ and ‘unviable’ work and living practices that are taking place in the persistent present of remote Australia. In imagining a ‘real’ Cape York other conditions of the persistent present, such as ‘protracted and severe annual drought’, ‘the poverty of almost all its soils’ (Stanton), and its existing licit and illicit economies, tend to also be obscured.


A History of ‘Bright Futures’
Since the 1970s researchers have revised the pervasive fantasy of North Queensland’s European settlement as a ‘triumph in the tropics’ by generating another image of the far north as ‘one of the most violent places on earth during the global spread of Western capitalism in the nineteenth century’ (Evans 167). Documenting the events and structures of dispossession has produced not only reproofs against the forgetting of the settler-colonial past in the settler-colonial present (Evans, Saunders and Cronin; Kidd The Way), but also undermined the assumed success of the colony’s venture. In the euphemistic words of one historian, ‘the Aborigines were still unsubdued in some corners of the Peninsula at the turn of the century’ (Bolton 93). Rather than a familiar colonial ‘disaster,’ the far north might instead be understood as the result of ‘uncompleted colonisation’ (Loos Invasion xvii); witness to a faltering venture adopted and abandoned by administrators and contested by Indigenous residents for over a century. While the success of the sugar cane industry and pastoralism made closer settlement possible in areas south of the peninsula in the late 19th Century, industry north of Cairns was extremely limited. A 1931 government report forecast that the settlement of Cooktown, the largest in Cape York, would soon fail for lack of industry (Payne et al. 55-6). The peninsula’s one railway was abandoned mid-construction and then dismantled in the 1940s and only in 1959 were its communities joined together by road.

When Queensland became a colony on December 10 1859, Cape York’s inland had been surveyed once by a European expedition that yielded little information and few survivors. Decades after the 1848 Kennedy (abortive) and 1864 Jardine (murderous) expeditions, the area remained ‘a dangerous disappointment for the pastoralists’ fleetingly travelled by prospectors exhausting pockets of alluvial gold; the ‘frontier’ witnessed both ‘successful Aboriginal resistance’ to white settlement and unchecked ‘use of the rifle and poison’ (Loos Invasion 60). In his 1896 report to parliament on the ‘condition’ of the north’s Aboriginal people, amateur anthropologist Archibald Meston concluded that since much of the lands above the 17th parallel were enjoyed by ‘wild suspicious tribes’ who ‘occupy country not required for settlement,’ every effort should be made to ‘leave them alone’ (3). Meston’s separatism would be reconfigured in the 1897 ‘Protection Act’ system of reserves and missions, administered by a series of ‘Chief Protectors’ who, atypically, varied in their beliefs concerning Aboriginal populations’ future survival (McGregor). Continued under J.W. Bleakley into the 1940s, and retained and reformed into the late 1970s, the protectionist regime addressed Aborigines in the far north as ‘inmates in perpetuity’ (Loos Invasion 182), restricted to life under ‘protectors’; labour for the region’s few pastoralists or training for trades and services and, thereafter, ‘for absorption into the general community in the South’ (Loos, Church to State 82).6 Participation in the pre-protection industry of bêche-de-mer harvesting was formally forbidden and labour outside the missions and reserves required special permission. Wages, when paid, were under award rates and were (mis)managed by protectors (Kidd Trustees). By the mid-1940s it was evident to administrators and Mission boards that a ‘protected’ peninsula was untenable. The State had not planned for a permanent Indigenous population and it created few opportunities for Indigenous social or economic inclusion within the protectorates. When the Cape’s commercial future was contemplated by administrators—following the 1955 rediscovery of bauxite in the red soil of the west coast—it was subject to an ongoing perception that the region was ‘wild’, populated with Indigenous polities on country who were either contained in ‘an institutional subsistence economy’ or informal captivity.7 When, in the 1970s, pastoralists lost their exemption from award wage regulations, the region’s chief employer laid off the majority of its Indigenous labourers (Kidd, Black Lives).

Aboriginal resistance and State and settler hesitance in administering and developing Cape York Peninsula in this first 100 years produced an intermittent pattern of private industries, and uneven and often unfinished infrastructure; settlements struggled, missions floundered and missionaries retreated (see Ganter). The cartographic divisions now traced onto the peninsula attest to the consequences of faltering settler-colonial configurations; the discrete lines of immense National Parks abut the borders of diverse Aboriginal landholdings that, on the west coast, are bisected by bauxite mining leases and the inland island of the Scherger Immigration Detention Centre. Underlying this is a supplemental topography of undetermined native title applications that remap the remainder of the region, supplying a ‘translation’ of the pre-colonial map that many traditional owners hold as authoritative (Smith and Morphy). As stated in the 1996 Wik decision, which found that native title could coexist with other land interests on pastoral leases, it is in Cape York that pre-colonial Indigenous law and custom ‘are most likely to have survived’ (Wik 182). It is also therefore where, as Hafner et al have argued, ‘the possibilities offered by native title determinations have been the most contentious’ (115).

Between 1955 and 1957 Cape York’s mineral resources became newly tangible to surveyors and investors, and at Weipa and Mapoon the government ordered Indigenous groups off their country to make way for mines. Buoyed by government and news media enthusiasm this new dispossession was little noticed. For instance, in his paper on the Cape’s ‘potential future’, written for the Royal Historical Society of Queensland in April 1962, news media journalist, public servant and historian Clem Lack presented the peninsula as ‘an empty primeval wilderness occupied by only a handful of white people’ but ‘potentially the richest part of the Australian Commonwealth’ (942-72). Lack’s concern, in this paper, was how to ‘people and develop this fertile empty land of ours’ given that, for him, the mine provided ‘the key which would unlock at long last the Gulf and Peninsula region and settle it with white people’ (995). In this document, Lack parses out the Aboriginal population from the ‘new chapter’: an expected white township and port.8 In a 1959 report, never tabled in parliament, a Society life-member had offered similar solutions to the perceived deficiencies of the district, advocating economic incentives to encourage ‘new [white] blood’ into the Cape.9

In justifying the Weipa mine in 1957, the Minister for Health and Home Affairs had stated that ‘[we] have the assurance of the Company that it will employ all the natives’ (State of Queensland 1432) and subsequently questions of compensation to Aboriginal groups were displaced by promises of full employment. In the abstract, the movement into market labour seemed both benign and transformative, though the discontinuities in such thinking are evident. Booklets and films produced by aluminium company Comalco in the late 1970s reaffirm the wish to employ as many Indigenous residents ‘as can be absorbed into the workforce’ whilst explaining that the underemployment of these ‘missionized people’ is the consequence an unexplained lack of ‘statutory education’.10 Later resource projects, such as the Aurukun bauxite project, claimed to support ‘maximum participation by Aborigines’ even as they provoked Aurukun residents into litigation against the project agreement.11 Of course, the inclusion of local Indigenous people into such future imaginaries had other consequences. For Aurukun, this has meant engaging with a series of Godot-like leaseholders, each touted as the community’s redeemer, each (indefinitely) awaiting market conditions. As Martin demonstrates, the long history of Aurukun’s ‘bright future’ is bound up in promises to the community that are broadly publicised and broadly unmet. No longer explicitly excluded from negotiations, the generic rhetoric of development remains unchanged and in 2007 negotiations, just as in 1975, ‘the interests of a large miner in Aurukun were presumed to be consistent with those of the Aborigines living there’ (34).

Firm belief in the transformative powers of a single project, such as the Aurukun mine, was also rife during the planning of the failed Temple Bay ‘spaceport’ from 1986 onwards. Any public dissent about the spaceport was regarded by many as ‘an opposition to progress’ (Meadows 110). Traditional owners were to be reimbursed the market value of their country and, to quote a 1988 report, the project would modernise a region ‘where little change has been wrought for millions of years’.12 As Henry Reynolds notes, it was in the context of the threat of such ventures that the CYLC was founded in September 1990 (‘Cape York’s Future’ 22). Fears that the Cape was understood to be ‘up for grabs’ spurred many of the Council’s founding members, including its spokesman Noel Pearson, to call for a ‘moratorium on development’ until Aboriginal land tenure was resolved. Throughout the 1990s, ‘wilderness experience’ tourism was still perceived as a threat rather than an opportunity as, even in the Wet Tropics World Heritage area of southeast Cape York, it remained an industry offering limited Indigenous employment or control (see Dyer, Aberdeen and Schuler). Only recently, 25 years after World Heritage listing, have the Indigenous cultural heritage values of the Wet Tropics been officially recognised. Nonetheless, in 1995, many stakeholders, including Pearson, endorsed the view that only developments whose ‘over-riding principle’ was to create ‘a vital indigenous wilderness for the benefit of future generations’ were supportable (‘The Land’ 39).

Since founding the Cape York Institute in 2004, Pearson has renovated this principle. The primary aim of the Institute is the economic, social and moral reform of Indigenous communities. Critiques of these programs aside (Rowse; David F Martin), the future on offer is broadly one in which residents in welfare-dependent communities are able and willing to participate in private labour markets and, thereby, private housing and healthcare (Pearson Our Right; Pearson ‘Radical Hope’; Pearson From Hand Out). For the moment this is to be achieved by coercing parents into engaging fully with state services in the raising of their children, predominantly through welfare quarantining measures begun in 2008. As such, this program perpetuates a ‘fantasy of regulation’ in which labour markets are magically transformative and abundant and the state is uniquely competent and available to its citizenry  (see Lea, David F Martin; Neale). True to Pearson’s regard for Enlightenment thinking, the given future of the present project understands the children of these communities as a ‘generation one’ whose form of life, transmuted by scholastic tutelage, will be severed from the given ‘dysfunctional’ past; they will ‘orbit’ in and out of communities as transnational capital permits them, cycling back from their urban educations. Significantly, the Cape York Institute’s lists of private labour markets are dominated by businesses that centre on the Weipa bauxite project.

Since becoming a matter of concern for administrators in the late 1950s, Cape York has been the subject of archly modern development planning. This is because, in Reinhart Koselleck’s terms, each ‘given present’ expresses the relations between a given past (‘experience’) and a given future (‘expectation’) as radically discontinuous . Modernity’s given present is one in which ‘expectations have increasingly distanced themselves from prior experience’ (Scott 43), the breach between them demonstrating the trust invested in the forces of innovation, with social and economic flux often glossed as ‘progress’. In Cape York, the discontinuity between a given past of ‘uncompleted’ settler displacements and the recurrent given futures of market capitalism distinguish it, perhaps counterfactually, as highly modern. Following Koselleck’s metahistorical analysis, we might regard representations of Cape York as unviable and underdeveloped as a generic rhetorical form capable of uncanny recirculation. Thus given presents circulate but may never lapse, just as pasts refuse to recede and recalcitrant futures remain distant ‘horizons’ (255-76).13


Absent Proposals and Present Developments
In providing a space of legal impunity within a series of sites—Canberra, Brisbane, Cairns, Weipa, Mapoon, Bamaga, Chuulangun—the three parliamentary inquiries into the Wild Rivers controversy supplied a space in which divergent ‘real’ pasts, presents and futures were performed and contested by the Cape’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander residents. While the three inquiries perhaps made the Abbott legislation, in the words of CYLC chairman Richard Ah Mat, ‘the most scrutinised bill in parliamentary history’ (Legal and Constitutional Affairs, Canberra), they also made visible a formation of Cape York politics. Prompted to speak to the work of the Wild Rivers legislation on their lives most, instead, provided differing descriptions of what constitutes ‘a substantial piece in life’.

Parliamentary inquiries, of the kind convened to examine the Wild Rivers issue, are a problematic kind of public democratic theatre. When this public is predominantly Indigenous, such theatres are potentially apparatuses of ‘the politics of recognition,’ certificating certain kinds of Indigenous positions and values for the benefit of the settler-colonial state (see Povinelli Cunning 38-9; Povinelli Economies 78-9). But while the inquiries all ultimately decided in favour of the Act, self-validating their own role as arbiters, the inquiries also provided an important space to make visible certain kinds of problems and worlds. As part of my research project into the Wild Rivers issue, in March 2011, I attended public hearings of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Economics inquiry into the Wild Rivers issue in Cairns and Brisbane. In conference rooms sparsely populated with reporters, advisors debriefed stakeholders and familiar parties exchanged begrudging nods. Occasionally, an interjection interrupted evidence or committee members discussed procedural matters. Most often, members of the committee became exasperated as they encountered traditional owners who lived outside Wild River areas, community residents who were unaware of the specifics of the Act or Bill and regional organisation representatives generally frustrated by ‘FIFO’ (fly-in-fly-out) bureaucrats and angry at the State’s entire planning process.

The dearth of developments or projects proposed to be harmed by the Act also confused the committees, given the focus by critics on the Act’s prohibitions and their purported actions on Cape York’s Aboriginal population: ‘choking’, ‘killing’, and ‘suffocating’. Repeatedly in the inquiries, proponents and opponents were asked what environmentally sustainable projects this Act had rendered impossible? None were named, and the absence of specific answers to these questions rendered the Act more and more marginal, as the proximate cause of the controversy was shifted to other legislative and bureaucratic factors. Also absent were any employers and agreement trustees who could speak to existing mining economies. Employment and economic development programs such as Backing Indigenous Arts, the Indigenous Land Corporation’s Merepah and Crocodile-Welcome projects, Caring for Country programs, and the Western Cape Regional Partnership went almost wholly unmentioned at the inquiries. The region’s largest miner, Rio Tinto—an employer of over 200 Indigenous people at Weipa—produced a written submission but gave no evidence; publically it was neither a supporter nor opponent of the Act. Similarly, research into the tourist potential of the region was little-mentioned bar one reference to a 2005 government report’s finding that tourism could generate 1,000 jobs for Indigenous residents. Just as little was said of the State government’s Dreaming Track project, a 2,000km east Cape tourism trail that has passed through scoping studies and consultation, all in partnership with the CYLC’s development body Balkanu. A large infrastructure project encouraging both Indigenous employment and entrepreneurship, it garnered one mention and no questions (Standing Committee, Brisbane).

In lieu of any argument about the viability of Indigenous enterprises, the focus of the inquiries turned to Cape Alumina’s prospective Pisolite Hills bauxite project, 20 kilometres inland from Mapoon. Heir to a fraught history and with an estimated 15-year lifespan, Pisolite Hills was problematic for those opposing the Act as it is evidently not ‘sustainable’ in the sense of being permanent. Also, though bauxite mining dominates the Gross Regional Product (GRP) of the Cape it remains one of its smallest employers.14 Prior to the inquiries, the company stated it was ‘offering a rare opportunity for employment and economic independence for local residents,’ adding an endorsement from the head of the Indigenous agreement working group, Mapoon trustee Sylvester Blanco (Cape Alumina, ‘Press Release’). At a Cairns hearing in April 2010, Cape Alumina’s then-CEO presented the project and its $1.2 billion GRP as potentially providing over 1,200 indirect and direct jobs to Indigenous people, roughly equal to a third of the unemployed workforce in the peninsula. Elsewhere, the company indicated that the mine would offer ‘250 permanent, full-time jobs’ during its lifespan, adjusted to 350 ‘permanent jobs’ in June, then extended to 1,700 ‘jobs’ and employment for ‘about 350 indigenous people’ (Fraser, ‘Mining Woes’). Its written submission stated that, were the project jeopardised by the gazetted Wild River area on the Wenlock catchment, the loss would be ‘felt most severely in the Aboriginal community of Mapoon’ (Cape Alumina, Submission). In June 2010 the Wenlock area was declared a Wild Rivers area and the bauxite project became ‘highly unlikely,’ ahead of statements in October that the declaration had endangered the bestowal of ‘tens of millions of dollars to the local Traditional Owners and Aboriginal Trustees in royalty revenues’ (Fraser, ‘Mining Jobs’). A final decision still remains years away and the claims made about Pisolite Hills are ultimately unverifiable.15

Given the figures and gains boasted by the mine, and the apparent relation between the Act and the project’s fate, many in the inquiries nonetheless neglected Pisolite Hills. The evidence of Indigenous regional body representatives focused instead on a range of legitimacy issues surrounding the legislation,16 and in the first Senate inquiry ‘mining’ was a word rarely used by anyone who was not a conservative Senator or conservationist. But during the 2010-11 House inquiry, Sylvester Blanco and others at the Weipa hearing presented mining as the primary source of relief for those living on the west Cape. Blanco stated that in Mapoon there is ‘no chance of any economic development whatsoever’ but that, living in a capitalist society, residents still ‘have to get a job to survive’ (Standing Committee, Weipa). Later that day Rhonda Parry, a Pargan traditional owner from the Wenlock area, spoke from her sense that, with the seeming end of the bauxite project, ‘what we wanted for ourselves, our kids, their kids and their kids’ is ‘all gone now’:

That is what wild rivers did to me and my family. It took away our hope. We were struggling through and negotiating until we got slapped across the face. (Standing Committee, Weipa)

At the same hearing Phyllis Yunkaporta, a Wik-Mungkan traditional owner from Aurukun, added that what she and other Aurukun traditional owners want is an ability to stay on country, and that this requires finance: ‘If we were given buckets of money we would probably take good care of [the country] in a way where we can look after our own people’ (Standing Committee, Weipa). Mining companies, as against governments and NGOs, are thought to have ‘the big bucks’.

At the hearing in Bamaga the next day, Councillor Joseph Elu voiced his support for the bauxite project, additionally suggesting that native title land must become freehold and alienable in order for it to be capitalised. For it to function as leverage, Elu contended, land must be technically saleable. Without this reform, he claimed, Indigenous Australians were denied ‘the opportunity to be Australian citizens … What we are saying is freehold title is like giving you blue sky’ (Standing Committee, Bamaga). In Elu’s evidence, as in others, the connection between the Wild Rivers legislation and other forms of legislated impairment and disadvantage is unclear, though the sense remains that in the west Cape deliverance from present hardships relies on large injections of cash and capital from private investors who ‘know how to make money’. In the evidence from west Cape communities, Indigenous representatives repeated the understanding that their ‘hope’ and ‘survival’ hinged on Pisolite Hills. Given this equivalence, the secondary meanings of many traditional owners’ assertions that there is ‘no sustainable future for us with wild rivers coming in’ are that, firstly, this future is captured by an exclusive faith in the benefits of Indigenous Land Use Agreements (ILUAs) with resource extraction companies and, secondly, that the State and federal governments presently provide neither ‘hope’ nor ‘survival’. Mining, much like tourism, is tied to a construction of Indigenous futures as reliant on the capitalisation of their country, though the need for solutions now, and the absence of competing expedient alternatives, necessarily pressures titleholders towards swift resource developments in which they are, at best, partners. The restricted reading of native title supplied by the judiciary has helped establish a belief that, to be capitalised, native title land must either be developed by a third party or transformed into freehold through reform (Ritter, Native Title 4-7).

At the inquiries, Cape Alumina’s presence allowed committee members to make straightforward conclusions about opposition to the Act. If one complaint of the Act’s opponents was the lack of consent provisions for Indigenous titleholders—which the ‘Abbott Bill’ seemingly supplied—this could be approached as either an economic or political issue; if economic, then, was withheld consent going to facilitate a ‘sustainable’ or Indigenous-led development’? The obvious conclusion was that consent would chiefly facilitate a part-Australian owned mine with a short lifespan. Were any of the inquiries sympathetic to the Bill, it was nonetheless difficult to here endorse the kind of development that Australian governments, in other contexts, treat as a form of remediation to Indigenous inequality.


(In)Substantial Pieces
During the first inquiry, a telling exchange ensued during the evidence of Chuulangun traditional owner David Claudie, the Cape’s most outspoken supporter of the Act. Was not the size of Claudie’s organization ‘pretty light on’? How does Claudie’s organisation spend its funds? Does it receive any funding from The Wilderness Society?17 Senator Heffernan finally asked:

if you had a son or grandson who wanted to develop a substantial piece in life rather than for the rest of his life having the economic opportunity of getting your photo taken with a spear for a tourist, do you not think we ought to be able to develop land that you blokes live on for real economic development, which can be done in conjunction with protecting the environment? (Legal and Constitutional Affairs, Cairns)

Heffernan’s phrasing reveals a set of assumptions, evident amongst them being the priority of paternal obligation, a presumed and trivialised economy of cultural tourism, the belief that conservation arrangements are not, in a meaningful sense, a ‘development’ of land, and the possession of a common community of developers (‘we’) that is differentiated from traditional owners (‘you blokes’). Previously, at a hearing in Canberra, the Senator had said:

My kids are so sick of sitting around shaping boomerangs and spears … and I say, ‘There’s a thousand acres of damn good land there in the first kilometre from that wild river, let’s grow a crop’. (Legal and Constitutional Affairs, Canberra)

While the spear-holding father is sentenced to the economic stasis of ‘traditional’ activities, the modern son's desire to ‘grow a crop’ close to a monsoonal river is rendered progressive. In a complex discursive turn, ecotourism ventures were derided in the inquiries for their complicity in (re)circulating stereotyped images of Aboriginal people. Pearson, for example, associated ecotourism projects with the ‘view that all that Aboriginal people … should be entitled to is to stand on one leg in the sunset picking berries’ (Legal and Constitutional Affairs, Canberra). The image of the spear-holding father which surfaced in a number of different discursive contexts tended to present Indigenous living and work practices as insubstantial, rendering a cut between an archaic unreal present and a substantial real future. Through their use of such rhetoric, opponents of the Act implied that a ‘substantial piece’ was available only through ‘real economic development’. This was the case even though evidence such as Claudie’s indicated that he was attempting to ‘create the autonomy or economy ourselves on our homelands’ (Legal and Constitutional Affairs, Cairns). Another supporter of the State’s Act, Wik traditional owner Gina Castelain, also spoke about current economic development projects:

As the traditional owners, we wanted to play a principal role in the design and implementation of any programsenvironmental, cultural, business. … But wild rivers for us is not one of those things that is going to limit economic development. (Standing Committee, Chuulangun)

All those who presented support for the Wild Rivers declarations also spoke of their efforts towards, in Claudie’s words, ‘getting ourselves into economic development’. Nonetheless, the scale of these efforts were frequently deemed insufficient or ‘unreal’ by other stakeholders, due to their being state-subsidised and, therefore, susceptible to the whims of government. Hence, regional representatives criticised the employment and training of 40 Indigenous rangers through the Wild River Rangers program as ‘green welfare’, positions that were gained through negotiations by those representatives in 2007.

The majority of Indigenous men and women who presented at the hearings either implicitly or explicitly articulated concerns about life in Cape York not as a ‘bright future’ so much as economically and socially unsustainable. It would be a mistake, however, to see some concord between this need for change and Pearson’s claims that ‘traditional rights and traditional activities [are] important but that will never lift our people out of poverty and misery’ (Legal and Constitutional Affairs, Canberra). In March 2010, at the first hearing in Canberra, Pearson insisted that, beyond questions of due process and political influence, the true importance of the Wild Rivers debate is ‘a question of whether my son can make an application in 20 years time’; as such, his support of the Bill has been in order to ‘preserve opportunity’. Wild Rivers, Gerhardt Pearson later stated, ‘locks away these opportunities in perpetuity’. The language of ‘opportunity’ did not distinguish traditional owners for or against the Act, as Southern Kaanju traditional owner Donald De Busch stated: ‘I was not consulted in the initial stages but ... I think it can create a lot of opportunity’ (Legal and Constitutional Affairs, Cairns). In Weipa, Ankamuthi traditional owner Larry Woosup, an opponent of the Wild Rivers legislation, stated: ‘we are not here to destroy that country, we are there to manage it. It is about giving us the opportunity’. These were sentiments reiterated at many hearings by many traditional owners, some of whom concluded that the Act rescinded opportunities to maintain relations to country, if not make them profitable, while others concluded that the Act provided such opportunities. Many also supported more government involvement, not less. In the words of Tahpitch Pootchemunka, Mayor of Aurukun:

We have had a conservation act here from the beginning—40,000 years ago. … That is still being passed on from generation to generation, except that we need assistance, support and resources from the government—not legislation. (Standing Committee, Cairns)

Others also suggested that while the government should fund Indigenous environmental management initiatives, it should assume no mandate over those whom it funds. Universally, these speakers attributed the Cape’s rivers ‘near pristine’ condition to practices of Indigenous environmental management.

There are two distinct potentialities at work in this rhetorical recourse to a discourse of opportunity. The first is imagined as the preservation of a broad legal space in which a wide selection of developments might take place at the discretion of Indigenous landholders, justified by the ‘short history’ of discrimination and the ‘long history’ of custodianship (Turner 114-6). What is ‘sustainable’ is almost anything that shifts capital to Indigenous people, including a fifteen-year mine. Almost any development project presents a legitimate opportunity and almost any prohibition forecloses opportunity. The second form, as demonstrated by De Busch, Woosup, Yunkaporta and others, is the opportunity to continue management practices on country through associated funding—whether governmental or through ILUAs with resource companies—and market economic activity (carbon sequestration, ecotourism, etc). In the second case, the committee’s attention was drawn to the chronic underfunding of land management regimes by the State government, and a related fact that, since native title bodies do not receive operational funding, they either must search out support or enter into environmental land tenures (see Weir; Bauman and Smyth). The pertinent detail distinguishing these two forms of opportunity, for this analysis, is simply that in the former the speakers are arguing for an uncircumscribed future that, abstracted from present and past patterns of life, contains less ‘poverty and misery’ due to the simple availability of new economies and new labour markets divergent from ‘tradition’. The persistent present is not ‘substantial’. In the latter the speakers want the opportunity to continue homelands practices and self-directed projects, as well as take up ‘mainstream’ educational and economic opportunities, through economic security and capital growth. The source of funding appears as secondary. Whether bauxite mines are able to deliver on their promises or not, the potentiality remains that ILUAs—as one source amongst others—might help deliver more ‘viable’ conditions for these shared and individual goals. In both cases, past Indigenous custodianship is invoked as grounds for a given future, operating variously as a social license to industrial resource development, a knowledge base for land management, or a resource for tourism ventures.

Present practices of environmental and resource management were, nonetheless, of uncertain interest to the committee members or many of those giving evidence. Such projects—many already in existence—do not deliver the imperatives endorsed by representatives from regional development bodies, first amongst them being the movement of Indigenous people immediately into private labour markets. Questions about opportunities were based on whether they provided massive employment solutions and provided them quickly. Frequently, the Indigenous person’s lot was presented as a generational dilemma, crystallised in the paternal question of what one would do ‘if you had a son or grandson’ who wanted a ‘real’ future. Every Indigenous person argued that transformations of the local economy and the financial status of their communities was necessary, whether this necessity was warranted by the destitution of those communities, their low achievement in education and health statistics, or Australia’s obligation under international agreements such as the UNDRIP.

Coupled with this present insufficiency were criticisms of, if not contempt for, native title rights as they have developed through the decisions of Australia’s conservative judiciary since Mabo. For many, the recognition of a right to continue to exercise this ‘bundle of rights’ has not delivered the level of transformation hoped for and nor, in hindsight, could it (see Bauman and Glick). Certainly this does not mean the native title era has not accrued benefits for traditional owners beyond those mandated by the judiciary—such as in resource management or cultural services (Weiner; Fisher 172-6)—but that the native title regime seems to get represented as presently flawed, perfectible and hegemonic all at once. That is, despite being regarded as racist in its judicial interpretation, glacial in its progress, divisive in its processes, and a common law concept which many refuse to engage with (see Vincent, this issue), native title remains as a powerful presence in ideological discourse. Holding this tenuous title, traditional owners and others argued that were native title a freehold title, were it saleable, were it unmediated by unwanted State or federal legislation, were it to be attached to mineral rights, then native title holders’ lives would be transformed by ‘real economic development’. But in Australia’s persistently conservative political climate it is hard to imagine any significant change to native title rights, other than the reform of the regime’s processes. It is also unclear under whose control Indigenous country could move into marketplaces, and the potential of such processes to transfer lands to non-indigenous owners remains unspoken and unthought. Similarly, what ‘real’ projects might be, and what potentialities the land possesses, remained unstated in the inquiries. These are the complex scenarios raised, but left unresolved, by debates over the Wild Rivers legislation, debates which have also foregrounded the supremacy of native title and the singular place of traditional owners in processes of consultation.


Conclusion: Unviable Realities
Facing landholders possessing limited economic rights over their land, land with little-capitalised natural values, it follows that committee members at the Wild Rivers inquiries would believe any existing Indigenous small-scale development to be an ‘[in]substantial piece in life’. Ecotourism, in particular, had little place in the inquiries, as it was derided as an insufficiently transformative economic activity. Outside of this, some feared that environmental attention might scare off the frontier-seekers ‘that come up to shoot something’ (Standing Committee, Bamaga). Those who presented environmentally sustainable development projects were typically treated by the inquiries as exceptions, producing small gains for a communal ‘we’ that, often limited to kin, were marginal in comparison to the ‘majority’ presented by Pearson and the regional bodies. The regional focus of the inquiries meant that this was the ‘imagined community’ whose viability needed to be most urgently addressed, within a generational timeframe. Given a certain ‘real’ account, what opportunities remained for ‘Cape York’s’ Indigenous children? It is little wonder that, given this frame, the transformative development favoured has been and remains a bauxite mine, at least prospectively able to inject large amounts of capital and produce large amounts of public infrastructure. Communities may ceaselessly wait for these benefits to materialise, but the symbolic value is immediate. In the inquiries, few traditional owners spoke of bauxite mining as an unambiguous or wholly beneficial development, but with few or no other options for immediate integration into labour markets, it presents itself as the only option within the expedient temporality of ‘policy solutions’.

Doubtful though it is that any inquiry would endorse Opposition legislation, the findings against the ‘Abbott Bill’ do not exonerate the State and Commonwealth governments from their obligations to Indigenous landholders to support changes in Cape York Peninsula’s environmental legislation, planning processes and transport infrastructure. As various academic submissions to the inquiries point, out the repealing of the Act, a foregone conclusion under the new LNP government, will make little legislative difference to Cape York Peninsula. This paper has demonstrated the need for such analyses and their proposed solutions to remain mindful of the generic rhetoric and temporal divisions of ‘bright futures’. The Wild Rivers debates have followed familiar tropes. Whereas the Wild Rivers legislation reproduced the Peninsula as a biodiverse and intact wilderness, offering rare prospects to environmental services, tourism ventures and their customers, the opposition to the legislation also reproduced a familiar Cape York wilderness, though now a deserted scene of tragically undeveloped country. In both cases the faith in private markets and ‘alchemical’ development projects remains. But rather than argue that such developments as bauxite mining are unable to deliver these bright futures—that is another matter—my intention here has been to demonstrate that future-oriented rhetoric about opportunities to be reaped from large-scale industrial and commercial development also tends to shape understandings, and indeed prejudices, about how Indigenous lives are being lived now. Therefore this paper might be regarded as part of a wider call to critique the tropes of ‘policy talk’ and problematise the horizons set by development ‘solutions’ (see Lea; D. F. Martin; Altman ‘What Future’). What are remarkably ‘real’ and ‘substantial’ in accounts of administrators, planners and regional bodies are not the realities and substance of life in given regions, through given pasts or at given levels—the community, the individual, the ecological, the economic—but those of imagined horizons of privatisation: long heralded and ever-absent.




Timothy Neale is a PhD candidate in Cultural Studies at the University of Melbourne, currently engaged in a project concerning Queensland’s Wild Rivers legislation. He has published papers in Holocaust & Genocide Studies and Griffith Law Review, and his research interests include econationalism, settler-colonialism, and post-humanist critical theory.





My thanks to Carsten Wergen and Stephen Muecke for this opportunity and their guidance. I am grateful also for comments received from Chris Healy, Emma Kowal, Anne Poelina, Tess Lea, Tony Birch, Suzanne Fraser, Monique Rooney, Russell Smith and, in particular, from my anonymous referees. Any errors are of course my own.

1 Regional data from the Office of Economic and Statistical Research, Queensland Government. Queensland Regional Profiles. Brisbane: OESR, 2010. http://statistics. oesr.qld.gov.au/qld-regional-profiles (Accessed Oct. 2012).

2 Between March 2012 and January 2004 The Australian printed 126 stories on the Wild Rivers issue. In the same period, a competing Fairfax newspaper Sydney Morning Herald printed 11 stories, while Queensland’s largest paper, News Ltd’s The Courier-Mail, printed 95 stories.

3 There are technically five inquiries into the Wild Rivers Act, though only the first three conducted public hearings: the 2010 and 2011 Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee inquiries into Wild Rivers (Environmental Management) Bill [No. 2], and the 2010-2011 House of Representatives Standing Committee on Economics ‘Inquiry into Indigenous economic development in Queensland and advisory report on the Wild Rivers (Environmental Management) Bill 2010. The fourth, to be conducted by another House Committee, was effectively a nullity as the committee’s responsibilities were passed onto the Standing Committee Social Policy and Legal Affairs in November 2011.

4 As Chris McGrath has argued, it is difficult to determine in the abstract what kinds of development can go ahead in Cape York Peninsula, with or without the WRA, given the complexity of the environmental legislation regime in place. Chris McGrath, Submission No 35 to House of Representatives Economics Committee, Submission to House of Representatives Review of the Wild Rivers (Environmental Management) Bill 2010.

5 For other examples where Indigenous people supporting broad scale commercialisation contradicts the expectations of ‘tradition’ or transnational indigeneity see Haley and Wilcoxon; Erlandson.

6 During World War II, several mission populations were interned or transferred to penal settlements, suspected of being ‘doubly contaminated’ by Japanese luggers and German missionaries and therefore, in the words of one intelligence report, ‘the Aboriginals living on the Cape York Peninsular [sic] cannot be trusted’ (Saunders).

7 This phrase is from Noel Pearson, Up from the Mission 158.

8 Lack anticipated that the population of Weipa would reach 6,000, though he did not anticipate the innovation of fly-in-fly-out workers. According to census data Weipa’s population was 2,200 in 1996, 2,489 in 2001, and 2,830 in 2006.

9 Archibald Archer’s primary recommendation in his 1959 report was the granting of £100,000 to build the Mulligan Highway from Mareeba to Cooktown.

10 See also: Comalco, The Aboriginal and Islander Community; The People of Weipa South.

11 Peinkinna V Corporation of the Director of Aboriginal and Islander Advancement. See also Nettheim; Collins.

12 Meadows summarises that ‘[the] prevailing set of ideas and assumptions privileges perceptions of an empty land or a vast expanse of wilderness with the prospect of development far beyond our limited dreams’ (93).

13 In an Australian context, a similar conception of the ‘durative present’ caught between past and future tenses is found in the recent work of anthropologist Elizabeth Povinelli, Economies of Abandoment, 3-13, 69.

14 For instance, 2006 census data shows that employment in mining accounted for 1% of total Indigenous regional employment and 6% of total non-Indigenous regional employment.

15 Following the election of the LNP in March 2012, Cape Alumina has signaled that Pisolite Hills and another nearby project are likely to begin in 2015.

16 These issues included the insufficiency of community consultation that preceded the Act and declarations, the dubious legality of certain declarations, inconsistencies with the UNDRIP, and, importantly, flaws in the native title regime.

17 It is worth noting that the Wilderness Society and Chuulangun signed a Cooperation Agreement in June 2005 to ‘work together voluntarily in support of the protection of the natural and cultural values of Kaanju Ngaachi’. Claudie’s answer to Heffernan’s question was that his primary funding comes from the Commonwealth.

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last updated: November 15, 2013