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The dispute between the Wilderness Society and indigenous groups opposed to the Queensland Government’s Wild Rivers Act continues to escalate.

This week the “Give Us A Go” campaign accused the Wilderness Society of being too scared to come and meet them to discuss the issue of Aboriginal consent to what they call the locking up of land owned by indigenous communities.

The Wilderness Society has hit back, suggesting the Wild Rivers campaign may be funded by mining companies that stand to benefit from it and that the Liberal National Party are closely involved in the campaign, which has also targeted the Queensland Government. There are suggestions that Liberal-aligned research firm Crosby-Textor has been supporting the campaign.

Give Us A Go spokesman Lew Griffiths categorically denies any links with the LNP or Crosby Textor, and says there has been no mining company support for the campaign whatsoever.

The recently-established Give Us A Go website was registered by Prue Gusmerini, a young lawyer and Australian Republican Movement official who has previously worked for Crosby Textor. Ms Gusmerini told Crikey she no longer worked for the firm (Crosby Textor principal Mark Textor did not return Crikey’s call). It also appears Ms Gusmerini has been involved with the Wild Rivers campaign from the beginning. In 2005, as a final year law student Ms Gusmerini joined the Cape York Land Council as an intern and worked as a policy officer. She wrote an article attacking the Wild Rivers Act in 2006.

There are widespread rumours in Queensland, however, that the Liberal National Party wants to use the issue for its own purposes. Former young Australian of the Year Tania Major has been the face of the Give Us A Go campaign, along with Noel Pearson, and appeared on Q&A opposite Anna Bligh on the issue. According to LNP sources she will shortly announce that she will run against Labor’s Jim Turnour in the seat of Leichhardt for the party. Major last week eagerly joined in the current campaign run by News Ltd newspapers against the Bligh Government, claiming “dodgy government backdoor deals” are how business is conducted in Queensland.

LNP president Bruce McIver was also seen in Brisbane last Friday evening talking to indigenous representatives from Cape York and urging them to join the LNP and help write policy on mining in indigenous communities.

Pearson of course has a strong relationship with The Australian, which regularly gives him an op-ed platform to promote himself and his conservative views on indigenous issues. Backing indigenous groups against conservation groups perfectly fits News Ltd’s agenda of portraying conservation groups as out-of-touch elitists.

But Griffiths accuses the Wilderness Society of dealing in fringe issues when the central problem is the lack of consent from Aboriginal communities to Wild Rivers framework. The Government’s consultation process prior to the declaration of the Archer, Lockhart and Stewart Basins last year was a sham, he says, and prompted the Human Rights Commission’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commissioner to criticise the lack of effective consultation. There is deep anger in indigenous communities on the Cape, Griffiths says, given it is precisely those communities who have looked after local rivers effectively for so long. The same sort of dispossession without consent wouldn’t be tolerated in white communities.

The Wilderness Society says the emphasis on consent is rich coming from Pearson, who supported the Northern Territory intervention despite the lack of consent from Territory indigenous communities. They also argue, as does the Queensland Government, that Wild Rivers doesn’t “lock up” affected areas but permits most developmental and economic activities as well as traditional practices.

Indigenous communities see Wild Rivers as an act of dispossession driven by south-eastern political deals. The Wilderness Society sees a right-wing campaign to undermine safeguards on the few pristine rivers systems left in the country. Neither side is taking a backward step.

Peter Fray

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