Abbott: a cunning stunt indeed

Tony Abbott’s planned private member’s bill to override Queensland’s Wild Rivers legislation may be, as his opponents claim, a political stunt.

But they can hardly deny that it’s a bloody good one. Not only does it wedge the Labor Party from two different directions, but, like all the best stunts, it combines skill and daring with a core of plausibility.

Premier Anna Bligh’s declaration that the Archer, Lockhart and Stewart river systems of Cape York should join six others already gazetted as wild rivers was itself seen as something of a stunt by many political cynics. According to this view, it was a straightforward deal with the Greens, trading the rivers for Green preferences at the last election.

Certainly it outraged the Aboriginal residents, in particular their charismatic leader Noel Pearson and his brother Gerhardt, who had been putting together plans for the development of the area to provide employment and eventual self-sufficiency. Pearson denounced the decision as “foreclosing on a future for our people... the state cannot rip the future out from under Indigenous children’s feet.”

Bligh has denied that this would be the effect of the law; development of a sensitive and sustainable kind will still be welcome, she insists. But there is no doubt that the gazettal has placed severe limits on the Pearsons’ options, nor that it has interposed another layer of bureaucracy between them and land which was found by the High Court’s 1996 Wik decision to be in traditional Indigenous ownership.

There is a certain irony in the fact that the Wik decision was largely gutted by Abbott’s mentor John Howard, and that Abbott is now proposing to effectively reinstate it. But unlike Howard, Abbott has credibility on Indigenous issues. Indeed it could be argued that no politician in the current federal parliament is better qualified to argue the Aboriginal case for Cape York.

Not only is Abbott a personal friend of the Pearsons, but he is a regular visitor to the peninsula and has done volunteer work at the troubled community of Aurukun at the mouth of the Archer River and inland at Coen. His private member’s bill may have a tinge of political opportunism about it, but at least he knows what he is talking about.

Furthermore, although such a bill would almost certainly trigger a constitutional challenge, it is one the Commonwealth would probably win. The Opposition’s legal affairs spokesman, the lawyer George Brandis, made a convincing case for it last week. He notes the similarities to the 1983 case involving Tasmania’s Franklin River Dam, which the Commonwealth won, and suggests that much the same arguments would apply, but in the Queensland case they would be even more clear cut.

The Commonwealth could invoke not only its constitutional power to make laws for people of the Aboriginal race, but also its External Affairs Power; only last year Australia signed the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which, among other things, provides that “indigenous peoples have the right to own, use, develop and control the lands, territories and resources they possess by reason of traditional ownership or traditional occupation.” At the time, of course, Abbott and Brandis vigorously opposed the government’s move. Now it looks rather handy.

Abbott’s bill will, of course, not be passed; Kevin Rudd is not about to overrule the embattled Labor premier of his home state, especially if it involves setting what could be a far-reaching and potentially embarrassing precedent. But opposing the bill will bring its own problems.

One of Rudd’s first commitments as Prime Minister was to “close the gap” between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. By refusing Abbott’s challenge to do something concrete and practical which has the support of some of Australia’s most active and respected Aboriginal leaders he risks being seen as putting political considerations ahead of good policy, and worse, of joining Bligh in sacrificing legitimate Aboriginal interests for more electorally valuable Green support.

Not that Rudd owes the Greens anything after their contemptuous dismissal of his Emissions Trading Scheme, but their preferences could be useful at this year’s election, and in any case he will almost certainly have to deal with them after it. Very much a Catch 22, made worse by the fact that the issue will also divide two groups which both traditionally support Labor. A cunning stunt indeed.

In keeping with his carefully cultivated image as Action Man, Abbott has also thrown himself vigorously, if somewhat confusingly, into the whaling controversy; last week he seemed to be suggesting sending a gun boat (or at least the hapless Oceanic Viking) back to the Antarctic to interpose its body between the forces of Japan and Sea Shepherd. And he wants to set up some kind of workforce to look after the environment in general. He is, as promised, going in with all guns blazing.

But hang on a moment: just what are they blazing at? Surely Abbott was elected leader as a sop to concerns that the party under Turnbull was moving too far to the left, getting too close to Labor. Abbott was to take them back to their conservative grass roots. But last week all he seemed to worry about were Aborigines and whales, the darlings of the elitist bleeding-heart chardonnay-sipping lovey-doveys. Come on man, get back to basics. Smash the unions! Tax cuts for the rich! What do we want? More profit! When do we want it? All the time!

That’s the trouble with political stunts. No matter how clever they are, in the end they’re just distractions. Good fun, sure, but not like the real thing.


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