Pearson's last stand: the rivers run dry

INDIGENOUS leader Noel Pearson has threatened to abandon the campaign against passive welfare, arguing that the Queensland Government's move to lock up vast tracts of Aboriginal land in Cape York would force him ``back to the barricades''.
Mr Pearson has led the push for indigenous welfare reform for the past decade, but warned yesterday he could not preach ``responsibility'' to his people while the Bligh Government stripped them of their rights.
As revealed in The Australian on Saturday, Mr Pearson is fighting a plan to lock up Aboriginal land along the ``wild rivers'' of Cape York, arguing that it denies indigenous people the means of achieving economic independence.
Last Friday, Premier Anna Bligh announced that the Archer, Lockhart and Stewart rivers in Cape York Peninsula would be added to the list of ``wild rivers''.
Mr Pearson said the wild rivers legislation took from the traditional owners of Cape York the right to develop and manage any protective regimes that affected their land and livelihood.
``The Mabo and Wik High Court decisions gave us land rights and native title, and my message has been that we have now to take responsibility for health, education and economic opportunities,'' he said.
``I have always tried to establish a balanced equation of rights and responsibilities. This declaration by the Bligh Government affects a large swath of Wik country that I spent 10 years fighting for.
``Now Bligh comes along and does an election deal with the environmental groups that takes away the dignity of the Wik and all other Aboriginal people.
``How can I sustain a message of responsibility for indigenous people within this region when government is trashing their rights? We have been forced by government to a real juncture where serious consideration has to be given to whether we have to go back to the barricades.
``I thought the whole rights fight for indigenous Australians was over. All that needed to be done was show them some decency -- some respect for the rights that had been granted in the Mabo and Wik cases,'' he said. ``We will have to put this reform agenda aside and get back to the barricades because those rights that were fought for and hard-won are being stripped away.''
Ms Bligh said yesterday the Queensland Government had made a commitment on the wild rivers legislation in 2004 and before the two elections since then. ``There has been a consultation process that started in July last year on these three rivers,'' she said.
``There were 2800 submissions. We also contracted Balkanu as a company in the Cape to lead consultation with all the land trusts so there has been extensive consultation with indigenous people.''
Balkanu principal Gerhardt Pearson, Noel's brother, said yesterday its report was presented to government and there was not even acknowledgement of its receipt, let alone any attempt to address concerns outlined in it.
``This Government's idea of consultation is to invite submissions and then ignore what people say unless it is in line with their original intentions,'' Gerhardt Pearson said.
``It was a fraudulent consultative process in which there was never any intention by the Bligh Government to listen to people and address concerns they expressed, so long as the Wilderness Society was appeased and got what it demanded in exchange for green preferences at the recent poll.''
At the March 21 Queensland election, the Greens directed preferences to Labor in 14 key marginal seats, helping Ms Bligh to a historic fifth-term win for Labor.
Liberal senator Bill Heffernan, who chairs the Senate committee inquiring into food production, said yesterday the Bligh Government's decision effectively stopped any economic development opportunities for indigenous people and was ``totally irresponsible''.