By Cape York Planning Andrew Picone, ACF Northern Australia Program Officer.

Deputy Premier Jeff Seeney wants to ‘normalise the economy of Cape York Peninsula’. To this end he has approved a massive new bauxite mine, rolled back laws that prevent broad acre clearing and will remove the Wild River declarations of four of the Cape’s most pristine rivers.

Consistent with a nation-wide approach to deregulation by state governments, Queensland appears beholden to a frenzy of cutting so-called green tape; allegedly causing the economic woes across countless regions.

The primary barriers to economic prosperity in Cape York include distance and access to markets, climate, poor soil, lack of infrastructure, limited workforce, investment disincentives and the reality that better opportunities exist elsewhere. These well-recognised and often debated issues are up for discussion yet-again under the current regional planning process for Cape York.

Cape York coast, near Captain Billy's Landing

Cape York coast, near Captain Billy’s Landing
Photo: Andrew Picone

Originally beginning with the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection, the Cape York planning process was quickly subsumed by the Deputy Premier’s Department of State Development, Infrastructure and Planning. The goal of the current process is to deliver economic development, establish state interests and investment opportunities and reduce land use conflicts.

There is nothing new in these aspirations.

However, is the Queensland Government’s vision for a ‘normalised economy’ simply weasel words for a one-size-fits-all approach that will equate to an unacceptable roll back of environmental protections? If it is a vision that means Cape York’s future will become beholden to the mining industry just to meet basic infrastructure needs, the region risks the loss of other crucial sectors including agriculture, tourism and emerging markets in conservation and land management. The opportunity still exists on the Cape to avoid the mistakes made in the past, and for government to invest in services and infrastructure that underpin a conservation economy rather than a quarry economy.

Cape York is also an Indigenous domain with strong cultural ties and native title interests across the landscape.

As we’ve seen recently in the Kimberley, pinning Indigenous prosperity to market-based resource development projects is fraught with great risk and uncertainty. Under that model, as soon as a project ceases to be a corporate priority, communities are left without promised funding and infrastructure. This is clearly a flawed approach further exacerbated by the fact that Traditional Owners often do not have greater leverage from consent rights in the first place.

So far this process bears all the hallmarks of a state government development agenda that is set to repeat mistakes that have been consistently made not only in Cape York but across the country.

All the evidence tells us that such an approach is incredibly flawed and is unlikely to deliver any lasting change. Yet the current Queensland Government seems intent to follow this path – seemingly oblivious to the lessons of history.

Palm Cockatoo, Cape York Photo: Andrew Picone

Palm Cockatoo, Cape York
Photo: Andrew Picone

We need to be considering alternative visions for the Cape right now that look beyond simply removing environmental regulations to the benefit of a small clique of  mining interests.

The focus of governments should be to facilitate developing Indigenous opportunities, capacity and skills in line with their aspirations for economic opportunity, ensuring land tenure changes do not jeopardise Indigenous aspirations, attracting investments that will develop local economies (not just mining) that are based upon valuing the Cape’s unique culture and natural heritage. A useful start would be establishing a sovereign or trust fund to back local and Indigenous communities in the Cape.

Cape York Peninsula as a largely intact landscape rich in living cultures and traditions needs to be considered in terms of its connectivity of people, place and culture in order to sustainably move forward in the long term.

A version of this article was previously published in the Courier Mail.