Tony Abbott’s “fair dinkum environmentalism” was spectacularly short-lived. If putting trade ahead of protecting whales, and labelling climate change concerns “crap” weren’t enough, Abbott has now launched a campaign to try to undo protections on pristine river systems on Cape York — some of the last natural, free-flowing rivers in the country.

A set piece cooked up over Christmas with conservative indigenous figure Noel Pearson, and the Liberal challenger for the Far North Queensland federal seat of Leichardt, Warren Entsch, Abbott announced his intentions to introduce a private member’s Bill in federal Parliament to overturn Queensland’s Wild Rivers legislation. Abbott cited concern for indigenous development as his motivation, but such action immediately raises a raft of issues such as protecting the environment, states’ rights, and support for sustainable indigenous social-economic opportunities.

Abbott and Pearson are suggesting we can only address indigenous disadvantage by allowing unlimited and unrestrained destructive development in our natural environments, trashing our pristine rivers and landscapes in the process. This is clearly nonsense. We need to enhance indigenous social and economic opportunities in a region such as Cape York, in part by protecting our pristine rivers and unique environment.

Abbott’s fundamental error here is that he has swallowed misinformation generated by Pearson and associates, who have been railing against Wild Rivers for years now, employing extreme tactics such as deceiving communities that Wild Rivers will mean no development and the banning of traditional hunting and fishing.

The Wild Rivers policy has been endorsed in three successive state elections, and subjected to three rounds of legislative amendments, each of which has involved Pearson and other indigenous representatives. Wild Rivers sets minimum standards for environmental protections, while also setting practical standards for sustainable economic activity. The legislation means that destructive development such as  dams, intensive irrigation and strip mining is kept out of declared pristine rivers. However, Wild River laws support cultural practices and smaller-scale uses such as eco-tourism infrastructure, cattle grazing and fishing.  Native title rights are explicitly protected, and Wild River declarations make special water reserves specifically for indigenous economic development.

While Abbott’s announcement usefully caught media and public attention on Wild Rivers and Cape York, this was a political stunt that was never going to fly.  It has maintained the sense of Groundhog Day when it comes to the campaign of misinformation over the Wild Rivers protections: we have been served with another dose of the same old, worn-out and untrue claims about preventing opportunities and lack of consultation, kicked off courtesy of Tony Koch and The Australian (Koch has written nearly 50 articles in the last year on this stuff — regularly attacking The Wilderness Society, and not once has he approached us for comment or correction).  The young indigenous person who fronted the media this week with Abbott claiming he wouldn’t be able to build a camp ground by the river has been misled —  an example of the propaganda and lies of the anti-Wild Rivers campaign.

The Rudd government was never going to play into Abbott’s game, and the concerns about states’ sovereignty and overriding environmental protections elsewhere to allow mining and other large-scale development are real and substantial.  So what was Abbott’s outburst really all about?

The Mad Monk is simply helping out a couple of mates, namely Pearson and Entsch, who’s looking to be the comeback cowboy in Leichhardt.  Abbott has long waxed lyrical about Pearson, and they are obviously close politically and personally. Further, knowing he’s going likely to be “political roadkill” at the next the federal election, Abbott and Entsch want to win back Leichhardt as a token trophy. If successful, presumably the troika will claim a moral victory on Wild Rivers.

But on the broader stage, this has surely backfired spectacularly, shattering any claims Abbott had about caring for the environment, further aligning his close associate Pearson with extreme Liberal politics, and attracting a wider spectrum of media beyond The Oz, with more pointed critique of the claims and a more thoughtful examination of the real issues.

Tony Abbott should spend more time pondering how he will spend the rest of his days in the wilderness … the political wilderness that is, given he seems no lover of nature.