Department of the Environment

Archived media releases and speeches

The Hon Tony Burke MP

Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities

Announcement on Wet Tropics of Queensland national heritage listing

9 November 2012

TONY BURKE: I want to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land that we're on. I want to acknowledge elders past, elders present. I want to acknowledge the traditional owners who are here of all the Wet Tropics areas, and the elders present from those areas and elders past.

A lot's been said in speeches already, about training. I want elders here to know, you've been training me for thirty years. The only reason - and I say the only reason I am environment minister for Australia is because of the elders of the Wet Tropics.

When I was fourteen years of age, I started to become interested in politics because I started to learn about the Daintree. I then joined the Labor party in 1986 because I started to learn how precious the Daintree was.

After the last election - or better to say after seventeen days after the last election - when Julia Gillard rang me and said what portfolio would you like, I decided I wanted to ask for the portfolio that had caused me to join the Labor party.

I asked for environment, because of the elders here and the elders past. Today, for me, is one of the most meaningful moments I will ever have, because today I get to, in some small way, make up for a decision that was previously made in an inadequate fashion, and that's something which I value at a very deep and personal level.

Some comments have been made about the Cape and I don't want to dwell on it, because today's not about that, but I do want to make plain a couple of things, and I want to make plain about them by acknowledging what we've gotten wrong in the past.

The way heritage decisions have been made in the past, in Australia and around the world, has been consultation has happened about values, the minister has then drawn a map, and the minister has then gone out and tried to sell the map, and they found some people who agree with it and some people who don't, and they've picked different people within communities and created division and ended up getting their proposals through.

But it's always been the minister who held the pen. I want to make clear to you what I've been saying over the last week around camp fires in Cape York. I have no intention ever of holding the pen on boundary decisions over traditional land. I have no idea whether there will be a world heritage listing for Cape York in the next year or any years after, but I do know if it happens, any boundaries will be boundaries that were drawn by traditional owners.

Any listing will only go ahead because traditional owners right down to family groups have made that decision, and when it comes down to the core values, while environment ministers might often view world heritage decisions as something as a bit of a notch to sort of tick off and say yeah, I did that, when I look back, if I have any pride in decisions I've been involved with, it won't be because of listings that were made. The pride of decisions that I want to hold is I want to be proud to know that I was a minister who handed the pen to traditional owners, and said the decision on the map is yours because it is your land.

So there's a lot of misinformation around on the cape, and there'll be a lot more trips on the cape and a lot more camp fires, because I know it takes a long time to beat misinformation. That's just the way of life, but I wanted you to have heard that directly from me.

If I could get back to what today's about; you know much better than me how silly it is at its core that at a government level we try to separate natural values and cultural values. We do it at law, but the land has no idea of the distinction, and as you have continued to train me, I have learned year on year, trip by trip, camp fire by camp fire, tent by tent that the reason we have the magnificent land that is in Australia, is because of the cultural values, and the culture and the language live in the environment as intrinsically as the alleged environmental values themselves.

And today finally, years too late, and I acknowledge that - years too late, but today for the national heritage list, we make sure that there are no decisions on natural boundaries or natural values in the years to come that do not have cultural values there, standing side by side with equal status.

We make sure, from today, that for the magnificent rain forest, that it is acknowledged that the quality of an environment that the world has looked at, and has said is one of the most precious places on earth, is only in that state because of the culture - because of the cultural values.

And we say today, while we acknowledge that no individual decision is the end of various struggles, that no individual moment of signing a document is a moment that says there we go - we've now fixed everything, but today we celebrate that one of the great omissions of the last few decades is corrected, and corrected permanently on the national heritage list.

Now, my department and my staff know how passionate I am about this part of the country. They know the deep respect I have for the elders and the groups who are here, and they knew this was a decision I wanted to make. So they put it to me some months ago, and I said this is not a decision I own - this is a decision that is owned by the indigenous communities and the groups of the Wet Tropics - this is a decision that is owned by the rain forest people, and it is not a decision to be made at a desk in Canberra.

So I sent it away and said this decision will only be made on country with traditional owners present. It took a while for them to get the message. They then tried to sneak the brief past me four more times and I kept pushing it back each time. They now know that I do read everything when it's put to me.

But I want you to know the reason the decision is being made on country today, that today is not just a chance to celebrate a decision already made. Today is a chance for the decision to legally in every way be made here, is in recognition that this law is only being made because there is already law here within the Wet Tropics that has for long time, for millennia, recognised that the cultural values underpin everything else.

This decision is made on country because I don't own it. You, the owners of the land, own today's decision.

COMPERE: So we'll just wait till we need to decide [inaudible]. And I would like to invite Phil Rist, Robyn Ballefquiah and Joann Schmider to come and accept the signed declaration on behalf of the Wet Tropics summit.