• Low bridge over the dry Gilbert River in the outback of Queensland in Australia. (iStockphoto)
OPINION: One Cape York resident rejects the ALP commitment to a World Heritage Listing, calling on voters to think carefully about the value of jobs and industry.
By
Jack Wilkie-Jans

17 May 2019 - 2:21 PM  UPDATED 17 May 2019 - 2:21 PM

It’s easy to be sucked into the national discourse when a Federal election campaign is on.

Even easier, to vote emotionally based on the personalities in politics.

However, when we cast our vote, surely it’s more pragmatic to look locally; to the issues which are the most pressing to our own electorates and how the offers from the major parties will or won’t serve what we personally care about.

In my home, the Cape York Peninsula, the issue of economic development seems to always take precedence. This is no wonder, given the electorate cover many remote areas which suffer from a lack of economic opportunities. Naturally, this leads to other more specific issues such as poverty, lack of infrastructure, poor health and education outcomes.

Generally, should economic opportunities be realised, it tends to alleviate a raft of these systemic social problems.

From a Cape York perspective, there are two major policy announcements that could shape the future for the entire region. However they highlight the contrast between the Liberal (LNP) and Labor (ALP) parties.

For Labor, early into the campaign, they announced that if they are successful at winning the election they would, seek an en-masse World Heritage Listing listing across the peninsula and would work with Traditional Owners when doing so.  

In contrast, the LNP announced ten million dollars to build two dams to siphon approx. 500,000 megalitres of water per year from the Gilbert River, a region chosen for its great annual rainfall. Known as the Lakeland Irrigation Area Project, it will be the country’s biggest irrigation scheme aimed to develop a giant ‘food bowl’ region.

Lakeland...would see an estimated eight thousand hectares of viable agricultural land being used for primary industries, creating an estimated one thousand plus jobs in an area which desperately needs them.

The agricultural — ergo, economic — announcement is costed, which means either political party has the means to carry it through. If carried through, it would see an estimated eight thousand hectares of viable agricultural land being used for primary industries, creating an estimated one thousand plus jobs in an area which desperately needs them.

As reported by SBS, the proposal is not without controversy. Indigenous representatives from the Yalanji tribe, who hold native title over the area, are claiming they have not been consulted. Of course, the issue of dams is very emotive in Australia. Lakeland would be the first to be constructed in North Queensland in over three decades. As such, it’s anticipated that protests from environmental lobby and conservation groups will occur.

The ALP’s announcement of a blanket World Heritage Listing across the peninsula is a reheated policy, pulled out of the freezer and plonked into the microwave at any and every election. It’s also a policy which has been consistently advocated against by many Cape York people — including Indigenous figures like, Noel Pearson and Richie Ahmat, as well as those in primary industries sector.

Looking from the outside in, if you are not from Cape York Labor’s policy may not appear controversial. After all, working with Traditional Owners to have their lands recognised and celebrated seems a good thing in the era of treaty negotiations and anti-Australia Day, but I don’t believe the narrative that Indigenous Australians are the last vestige of pre-modern civilisation and therefore need their post-jurassic lands preserved for the sake of the past and for the use of the generations to come.

A World Heritage Listing of the region would potentially halt economic growth and would certainly, ignore the sovereignty of Indigenous peoples’ ability to intelligently govern and use their lands for their economic survival.

Unfortunately, this apparent goodwill ignores the fact that Indigenous peoples are very much part of the now, very much willing and deserving to play a role in the wider economy. An economy that was thrust upon them and which — at present — is excluding them. A World Heritage Listing of the region would potentially halt economic growth and would certainly, ignore the sovereignty of Indigenous peoples’ ability to intelligently govern and use their lands for their economic survival.

While Labor has a reputation for championing Indigenous rights; like focusing on reducing the disproportionate incarceration rates and backing the referendum on Indigenous constitutional recognition, these agendas are designed more to usher them into power rather ensuring an economic future for Indigenous Australians.

If you want to see the Cape grow, instead of the outward tide of residents leaving, be mindful of the kind of policies which will see a more viable future of the region.

It’s impossible for this to be the case should the region be inhibited by World Heritage Listing. The future of the region should not be one where our lands are locked up and the key discarded.

All the peoples of Cape York Peninsula deserve a future they can look forward to.

 
 

Jack Wilkie-Jans is a contemporary artist, political commentator and freelance writer from North Queensland. From 2014-2018 Jack was a board member of Cape York Sustainable Futures Inc, a peak organisation for economic & community development. Jack is from the Waanyi, Teppathiggi and Tjungundji tribes.