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Protecting the Kimberley

Speeches in Parliament
Scott Ludlam 22 Jun 2011

Senator LUDLAM (Western Australia) (13:14): I rise to speak on what is happening at the moment up in the West Kimberley in my home state of WA. There are scenes being played out that are reminiscent of Noonkanbah in the West Kimberley-for people with long-enough memories-where Aboriginal people and their supporters blocked access to country by bulldozers that were protected by the Police and even Army units sent up by the then Premier Charles Court to allow an American drilling company access to a sacred site, which they duly violated. With a touch of irony, there was no oil there and the entire exercise was a complete waste of time. Those scenes were absolutely formative in the West Kimberley. They are the reason that we have an Aboriginal Heritage Act, such as it is, in WA.

These scenes are being played out all over again as Woodside moves heavy equipment on site to begin land clearing for the Browse Basin gas project-a gigantic industrial complex which is being proposed for 40 or 50 kilometres north of Broome at the moment. It is amazing to hear the reports and see what is happening up there. We now have a blockade camp at Minari Road. They have had up to 120 people blocking the road and trying to stop-successfully-Woodside and its contractors getting equipment onto country. My dear colleague Robin Chapple MLC spent quite a bit of time up there, performers John Butler and Dan Sultan have been there, and I was very fortunate to visit with my team a month or so ago.

It is extraordinary to see this because this project has not yet been approved by either the state government or the federal government. In my experience non-violent direct action, with people putting themselves in the way to stop these sorts of projects, generally comes last, after all options have been exhausted. But in this case it is happening before either the state or federal government has given formal approval-because the company has decided to move in and start land-clearing anyhow. They are proposing to put in roads and flatten areas-allegedly to do work to complete their environmental impact processes-before approvals have been given.

As was the case at Noonkanbah, local opposition is the backbone. These actions are being led by local Aboriginal people and supported by West Kimberley residents. Blow-ins like me, who manage to turn up when we can, are very much in the minority. This action is being run by residents of the West Kimberley who oppose the influx of industrialisation of precisely the wrong kind. The blockade is taking place along nonviolence principles. Ironically enough, one of the reports I have read shows that the only people who are being let onto the site at the moment are security guards to protect the contractor's earth moving equipment. Apart from that, nothing is moving at all. People are conducting themselves with great respect for the Aboriginal people who are leading this movement up there, and very little work, if any, is occurring from time to time. The question is: why on earth are they having to take these kinds of matters into their own hands as happens from time to time? In this case it is absolutely crucial that we pay attention to why people feel so strongly about the way Woodside and the joint venture partners are conducting themselves and what the state government has unleashed while the federal government stands passively by and allows it to happen.

It is worth paying attention to a little bit of history to realise how things got so bad and why we now have this collision of interests and this clash on the cape in the West Kimberley. The former Carpenter government in Western Australia had a process in place that was not perfect at all but did have at its heart the principle of free, prior and informed consent. There were more than a dozen sites on the table and the Kimberley Land Council had been tasked with liaising with Aboriginal communities up and down the cape and across the length and breadth of the top end of the West and East Kimberley. They were saying, 'If you don't want your site to be in question, if you don't want to be at the table for these negotiations, then take it out.'

At that point, there was a change of government and the Barnett government was elected. There were four sites remaining and everybody in those negotiations knew they could take their country off the table if they sought to. The Barnett government, of course, rejected that approach in its entirety and went for compulsory acquisition. Within a couple of weeks of the election, they were talking about returning us to the colonial past of Western Australia-'give it to us or else we'll take it'. They were doing this under cover of native title laws that say you have the right to negotiate but you do not have the right to say no. It is no more than a colonial land grab. It is absolutely disgusting what the Barnett government is doing in that instance. They would have had a site by now if they had pursued a path of free, prior and informed consent. Instead of having a site they have a conflict, and Woodside has played entirely into this dispute in the same way.

It is entirely pre-emptive the way the state government behaved. They said, 'Give us the land, shake hands and we'll sign a cheque, or else we'll just come and take it without you.' That is what compulsory outcome means-'hand it over; we'll have it with your consent or without it.' And now the company, in the absence of state or federal approvals, is moving in and has put earthmoving equipment on site. No wonder people are furious up in the West Kimberley. No wonder they are calling for help-and they are getting help from all over the country.

Last year, Premier Colin Barnett called this area an unremarkable bit of coast. Well, having visited that area a couple of times, I can say quite clearly for the record that it is a remarkable bit of coast. It is a shame our unremarkable Premier does not pay closer attention and spend a bit more time on the country that he is proposing to allow Woodside to wreck. The values of the West Kimberley are, I think, pretty well identified. We have had confirmation of that again, if any were necessary, in a study led by CSIRO which was produced only a week or so ago. In that study they say that up to 45 native species in Western Australia's Kimberley region will die out within 20 years if no action is taken. They have called for an immediate cash injection of $95 million to save creatures including the golden bandicoot, the scaly tailed possum and the monjon rock wallaby from extinction. The potential for a mass extinction unfolding across the north of Australia has been on the cards for some time.

In the south of Australia we pursued the industrial development path of rip it, ship it, blast it, cut it down-whatever it takes. The reason we are in such trouble in places like the Murray-Darling, the reason we are still fighting in the forest of Tasmania, Gippsland and New South Wales, is the mentality that the only kind of economy is an extractive one, that it only counts as economic growth if we are blowing it up and shipping it overseas. We cannot allow this mentality to take hold in the Kimberley or, indeed, across the north of Australia. Anybody working in the Kimberley, across the top end or in the cape, knows that we do have a chance to do things differently, that we do have a chance to pursue non-extractive forms of economic development through which communities are sustained indefinitely and the economic and ecological values that sustain those communities are themselves sustained.

That is the opportunity we have in the Kimberley now but not if the Premier gets his way and not if Woodside get their way. We and the people in the Kimberley know very well that placing a gas plant at that bit of coast in the West Kimberley will unlock a wave of economic development-of extractive development, if you can call it that-across the Kimberley: uranium mining in the Fitzroy Valley, 300 kilometres of coal tenements in the Fitzroy Valley, bauxite mining in the Mitchell Plateau area and more downstream processing of gas for export.

The residents of the Kimberley do not necessarily want the same mistakes that have plagued the Pilbara and the south of our country to be repeated and that is why they are standing up. What needs to happen surely would be obvious to anybody with a basic appreciation of what has gone on in Australia and how we can do things differently in the Kimberley. We need to listen to local voices for local governance and local economic development in a form that is appropriate to the Kimberley and not simply to repeat the mistakes of the past at the behest of oil and gas companies and mining companies. That will end up locking-in on non-extractive economic development that is not based on chewing down the resource base on which we depend.

The gas plant proponents need to do what they said and look for alternatives. The bulldozers need to come off country while the companies do what they are obliged to do. This is where the Commonwealth can play such an important role. They were supposed to ensure, as part of the strategic environmental impact assessment that was undertaken, that all sensible and feasible alternatives had been examined before Woodside went onto that country with earth-moving equipment to start trashing the place. We know that has not been done. Have Woodside examined their options for processing the gas offshore, as Shell are contemplating? Have they looked at their options for processing that gas further down the coast at existing gas plants in the Pilbara? None of that work is being done.

Premier Colin Barnett said that is where it is going, Woodside said that is where it is going but, interestingly enough, we know that the joint-venture partners are not as keen as Woodside are for their own home-grown gas plant in the West Kimberley. There is substantial tension inside the joint-venture as to where it should go. That tension now has been met by people blockading the site in question, people who are standing up and saying, 'This must not happen.' There is dispute up there, and that will always be the case when the state government decides to ram-raid and puts groups like the Kimberley Land Council in an impossible position by saying, 'Sign up to this or we'll have it anyway.' It is absolutely unbelievable that in 2011 this is still the process that we call economic development. It is outrageous.

With regard to the people who are putting themselves on the line up there, I know that some of the work is probably not what you would expect. I encourage MPs-not just from Western Australia, because this is a national issue-to go there and sit down with the people who are on-site to find out what it is that they are doing. Some of it is a bit unusual. Some of them are doing flora and fauna surveys to do the work that Woodside's contractors are not doing. Some of them are providing information for the tourists who come past or for people in Broome or Derby to find out exactly what this form of economic vandalism would do to the West Kimberley and to the broader economy.

To the folks up there, some of whom may have put their lives on hold to do this work: it may seem an awfully long way from Canberra, but we can hear you. Keep doing what you are doing, keep behaving with the dignity and commitment you have shown so far, because it is getting through. It is going to be a long fight and a very tough one but it cannot be done without those voices on the ground, locally, in the West Kimberley.



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