Tony Abbott, The Australian, Noel Pearson, wild rivers — a potent mix at the best of times, but in an election context it’s usually more controversial than normal.  And today our only national newspaper plays to the script.

In the final days before the 2007 federal poll, The Australian ran a story  “Labor accused of selling Cape down the river”. Penned by Tony Koch, the piece centred on claims by Cape York Institute director Noel Pearson that the ALP was “selling out Aborigines” as part of a preference deal with The Greens — with the Wilderness Society behind a conspiracy to “lock up the Cape”. In the story, Pearson demanded details on preference discussions for the Cairns/Cape York seat of Leichhardt, where Liberal MP Warren Entsch was retiring.  Leichhardt, of course, subsequently fell to Labor with a large swing including a strong Greens preference flow to present member Jim Turnour.

Although there was no evidence of Cape York conservation issues being part of preference negotiations, there was frenetic activity behind the scenes in Queensland at this time, with ministerial meetings, policy discussions, and general engagement with the Cape York Land Council in an attempt to quieten the horses.  Then on election eve, Pearson re-entered the fray, with his infamous words of dread about Rudd as PM, accusing him of being a “heartless snake … innately contemptuous of indigenous people”.  As Alex Mitchell wrote soon afterwards in Crikey: “Heady stuff”.

Despite the blasting in November 2007, Koch and Pearson were noticeably silent in the lead up the March 2009 Queensland election.  But from the moment the first wild rivers on Cape York were declared shortly after that state poll, there has been a brutal, bare-knuckled fight between Noel Pearson and his brother Gerhardt, and the Queensland government, and the Wilderness Society.  Marcia Langton led an initial attack, but then went silent.  The “debate” over Queensland’s wild rivers laws since, and the political and media attacks that have been associated with the campaign against the rivers protection regime, has been an authentic “Groundhog Day” experience, with the same claims and assertions repeated ad nauseam, regardless of accuracy or relevance.

While the hyperbole and vitriol was remarkable from the outset, the past seven months have seen a crescendo in the politicisation of the anti-wild rivers campaign, and an attempt at its “nationalisation”.  The Queensland Liberals actually supported the passing of the Wild Rivers Act in 2005, but their federal counterparts under Abbott have now bought into the argument, with private members Bills to overturn the state Act, and a Senate Committee Inquiry into those Bills and the broader wild rivers questions.  The main report from the Legal and Constitutional Legislation Committee provides a good summary of the various issues and interests, and concludes with a fair assessment of the broader challenges of marrying environmental protection with Indigenous rights, and the reasons for why the proposed Abbott-style intervention was inappropriate and unworkable.   Its release was marred by the forcing through of a version of Abbott’s Bill in the Senate by the Coalition, with the help of Senators Fielding and Xenophon. But the election was called before this action was allowed to do any more damage.

The committee process itself was enlightening, with a lively array of witnesses and arguments in the Cairns hearing, including several traditional owners and indigenous leaders supportive of the laws as well as some opposed.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, this was one instance when The Australian missed an opportunity to run a story on wild rivers. It failed to send a reporter to Cairns, and apparently had planned to rely on Noel Pearson to cover events in an opinion piece, until it was pointed out to the editors that Pearson had not actually attended.

The Senate Inquiry was also significant because submissions from a range of sources — Jon Altman (Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research), George Williams (Gilbert + Tobin Centre of Public Law) and the Wilderness Society among others — all highlighted that the Native Title Act was the relevant and appropriate legal setting for addressing complex issues of indigenous consultation and consent, of economic and well as traditional native title rights, of conservation and development.  Clearly, we need to recognise and address social and economic imperatives that exist in remote and urban indigenous communities, and the translation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People into Australian law will shake the policy tree, but there was a very strong consistent opinion that the Abbott bill was ill-informed, superficial, and incapable of addressing key issues.

While it hasn’t receive a lot of attention, Tony Abbott has spoken several times publicly of a Liberal-National Coalition election policy to overturn the Queensland Wild Rivers Act, and Warren Entsch has tried to make this a centre-piece of his re-election bid in Leichhardt. And despite the need for a calmer, rational atmosphere to properly examine these complex issues, the last week of the 2010 federal election was always bound to provide an opportunity for more unleashed coverage of wild rivers issues in The Australian.  And so it was this morning, with almost boring predictability: Marcia Langton making a new cameo appearance, this time attacking the Greens claiming they are weak because they didn’t take the Pearson-Koch bait on wild rivers.  There’s nothing to the story, but The Australian puts it on the front page.

Can we anticipate further pieces in our illustrious national broadsheet ahead of August 21?  When I approached Koch last week about this, he indicated he was looking at such a prospect.  He could simply repeat his article of three years ago: why change tack now, when the main thrust of the fake doom and falsehoods, which have characterised his wild rivers articles since, are ready made for reference.  But maybe we ought to expect something more dramatic this time around?

All political parties should rightly be scrutinised for their indigenous policies, but this needs sophistication and nuance.  Wild rivers is not the relevant issue here; far from a Trojan horse for a secret agenda on either conservation or native title rights; it’s a red herring and a distraction from far bigger environmental indigenous policy issues in this election.