• Managed Destruction in Yabbra State Forest in northern New South Wales (Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0)Source: Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0
OPINION: New Vegetation laws puts Queensland in contrast with the Federal Government's vision to see growth in regional and remote areas, writes Jack Wilkie-Jans.
Jack Wilkie-Jans

28 Jun 2018 - 2:29 PM  UPDATED 28 Jun 2018 - 2:29 PM

Next week elements of the Federal Government's 2018-2019 Budget come into effect. A budget that is supposedly about opportunity and vision for the future. However, over the past several weeks in Queensland, we’ve seen the opposite.

We have instead seen secular politics taken to new heights (or lows, depending on how you want to look at it) and opportunity for regional and remote areas dashed with the long-awaited changes introduced to the Vegetation Management Act 1999.

The Palaszczuk Labor Government has introduced controversial land-clearing laws which they say will reduce land degradation, protect water quality and reduce greenhouse gas emissions and sustain biodiversity.  

However, the changes to the Act are expected to greatly inhibit land use by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous land holders/owners when it comes to expanding existing farming or cattle grazing practices, as well as changing land use to more viable industries.


CDP - Jobs for Regional and Remote Areas

The Budget clearly plays it safe, as there is nothing groundbreaking to report on regarding Indigenous spending or for the arts. Mostly it bores the usual hefty pipe-dreams for infrastructure across the country. And the Budget’s estimation of creating 6,000 regional and remote jobs for Indigenous peoples through the Community Development Programme (CDP) is being pegged as a great achievement of the Federal Government’s vision.

Jobs in regional and remote areas is a good thing. People in these areas often find themselves at the brunt of welfare reform measures, while simultaneously being given little room to move into any economic security through industry and employment. But realistically, 6,000 jobs really isn’t much of a benchmark for Indigenous employment and that the CDP has hardly proven itself to be a great vehicle for successful and long-term employment opportunities.

However, the creation of jobs as a political push by the Federal Government is simply at odds with the machinations of our own State parliament. Regional and remote areas have an immense potential to play a more hands-on role in Australia’s broader economy. These are normally perceived to be in industries like mining or tourism, but in recent years there's interest to reinvigorate our primary industries such as agriculture and livestock.


Queensland Government and Vegetation Management

At first glance, The Queensland Government’s decision to toughen regulations around vegetation management (in particular tree-clearing) has all the hallmarks of responsible governance. It’s commitment to the preservation of the Great Barrier Reef due to sediment runoff, is one such example.

However, once the surface is scratched, one can begin to see the opposing argument to the vegetation laws in Queensland. Such opposition has been spearheaded by agricultural stakeholders such as farmers, organisations like AgForce, and individuals including —but not limited to— Noel and Gerhardt Pearson.

The changes have been dogged by two main points of controversy. The first, is that the legislation was spruiked and ultimately voted into law even with glaring flaws. This includes that In many circumstances, the changes incorporate vegetation mapping which has not been ground-proofed. Now, what the laws make 'illegal' will be judged retrospectively, and that these changes seem to value regrowth vegetation higher than remnant. It seems that a fair bit of homework was needed to tidy up the changes in order to minimise the room for protest.

The second is that these new laws puts Queensland in total contrast to the push by the Federal Government to see growth in regional and remote areas.


"Underdogs" in Australian society

The people who are pro-change are mainly those on the left of the political spectrum. They are the sort of people who pride themselves as political warriors of the underdog. In this instance, I would argue that two of the biggest 'underdogs' in Australian society are those living remotely; farmers who as we’ve seen have been struggling under chronic drought for much of the greater part of the 2000s and its teenage years. The other is Indigenous peoples. The changes to vegetation management jeopardise the lives to these two cross-sections of Australian society.


How will we feed ourselves as a nation or grow our export trade, if we are deliberately sacrificing our production and primary industries by way of inhibiting ability to pasture and grow crops? How ever will we Close the Gap on Indigenous disadvantage when the main industries in their remote areas (i.e: farming) are going down the tube? Aside from welfare, the only other potential source of income for some regional and remote areas is mining. An industry which almost always overcomes legislative barriers.


Indigenous People want jobs

My fear is that the blind love that the far left of politics has with Indigenous peoples is just that, blind. Blind and rose-coloured; an outlook that we are “noble savages” who appear as we do in ceremony, corroborating half-naked looking at the trees. In reality Indigenous peoples are sick of being under the poverty line, largely enforced as such by the side of politics so allegedly in our corner.

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The bottom line is that Indigenous peoples want and deserve to play a bigger role in industry in this country. And primary industries is the best route to do so, particularly given the so-called “discrete” nature of our communities and how close they neighbour farming lands. We deserve to make ends meet off of our land as much as our forebearers did and to suggest that the only means at our disposal to do so is to not engage with new technology and practices, and only as hunters-and-gatherers is racist.

Indigenous peoples want jobs and they want income to have a future and want to utilise the land that has always been theirs to help them achieve longevity and prosperity. How else will they be weaned off of welfare in their isolated areas if there are no opportunities for them to be weaned off of welfare onto?


"Us and them" mentality gets in the way of good governance

I know that both sides of this argument can be argued with vigour. However, the real tragedy of this entire saga is what it says of politics today.

In spite of the overwhelming evidence in submissions gathered via the Parliamentary Committee which opposed the changes, pushing through the controversial legislation on vegetation management just reeks of politics for politics sake. It makes a mockery of the Parliamentary Committee process and purpose, which is to find common ground and compromise. The real pity of this outcome is that the lead up was so bogged down with a “us and them” mentality and that it didn’t achieve what Parliament could and should be achieving, which is governance for all citizens, as opposed to just the ones with the stronghold grip in valuable seats which give parties the nod to form a government.

Did anybody expect the changes to the Vegetation Management Act 1999 to not go ahead? No. Were people hoping for there to be compromise and importance given on the importance of practical farming? Absolutely. The challenge for all government leaders at the next Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meeting is to find some common ground and partnered vision in how the different tiers of government legislate for the bush.


Jack Wilkie-Jans is an Aboriginal affairs advocate from the Waanyi, Teppathiggi and Tjungundji tribes of North Queensland.