Department of the Environment

Archived media releases and speeches

The Hon Tony Burke MP

Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities

Dedication of the Eastern Kuku Yalanji Indigenous Protected Area Dubuji picnic ground, Cape Tribulation

8 May 2013

Tony Burke: Thanks very much. Thank you Andrew for the welcome to country. I acknowledge Uncle Joe and other elders who are here, and village ancestors, elders past and present.

Chrissy said a moment ago this is one of the ones she wasn't going to miss. I'm in exactly the same situation. The country that's dedicated today and the traditional owners of that country are the reason that I'm Environment Minister. It's as simple as that.

I joined the Labor Party at the age of sixteen off the back of the campaign for the Wet Tropics World Heritage Listing. That was what prompted my involvement in politics in the first place. It was the reason why, when I got the phone call from the Prime Minister after the last election - what portfolio do you want? It was the reason why I went straight to environment.

Out of that I then faced, when I first started to come up here and meet the traditional owners, I faced what was one of the biggest shocks I've had in my political life. For me, those decisions in the mid-eighties had actually been politically defining and unquestionably good, but I hadn't understood that for so many traditional owners they'd been left out of the process. I also hadn't understood that natural values were being put on the World Heritage List, and cultural values hadn't been considered at all.

I had to deal with what for me had been my complete politically defining moment as a kid, actually dissolving from a fundamental misunderstanding that the process had been [inaudible]. Out of that, I've been determined in this term to do everything I can to make sure that mistakes of the past aren't repeated, and also to make sure that the country where I'm here to do what I can to rectify that sense of ownership and the integrity of cultural values.

There are effectively three stages that I've tried to embark on, on making sure that this time we get it right. The first of those was to add cultural values to the national heritage listing. We did that in a wonderful ceremony last year, and at that point, finally started to get across the hurdle, which was a hurdle that so many people in Australia grow up with. It's a fundamental misunderstanding. Every traditional owner gets it right, but the rest of us often get it wrong, and think that somehow you can separate natural values and cultural values.

By getting cultural values there side by side on the national heritage listing again, we got through the first stage of being able to correct and get things on the right track again.

The second stage is today, and that is to have the whole process leading up to today. I've got say the process is as important as the announcement. An incredible amount of work - and others will know much better than me how much work goes into these documents - how much planning, how much personal investment, how much family story goes into making sure that these plans are right. Plans that go the integrity of the values that go to individual people, that go to land, that go to sea and country.

You've got to put all that together and join it all up again to be able to properly manage this country the way it traditionally always had been managed.

So out of that process we get today, and we've got two IPAs that we're dealing with here at the moment, but out of that process, we get principles which result in much better management. But most importantly we get management principles that are owned by traditional owners - that the management principles we're talking about here are management principles internationally recognised under categories where traditional owners have held the pen.

That's how it should be, and I think that gets us through the second stage of making sure we can rectify some of the shortfalls that happen with the original World Heritage listing. The final stage is what I want to set in motion over the next month or so.

People have heard me before with respect to Cape York where we're trying to make sure that any World Heritage listing - and it's going to take time and that's fine - but any World Heritage listing is one that's traditional owners have full ownership of, and that they hold the pen, that they have control over cultural values and have controls over boundaries.

In the same way I want to, over the coming weeks, formally establish a process for traditional owners here, where traditional owners hold the pen on putting forward cultural values to be added to the World Heritage list for the Wet Tropics.

People have said to me at the National Heritage listing - have raised with me - would I do it. I've thought about it since then, and my response is very simple. I want it to be done, but I want it to be done the right way, and that is for traditional owners to take full control over the cultural values that the Australian Government then puts forward to the World Heritage committee.

There are many issues, many sites, where their environment issues are significant, but cultural values actually tell a bigger story. Some parts of that story can't be told everywhere, but the places are known and the importance of management is known. And a heritage listing is the only mechanism we actually have available to us to be able to make sure that cultural values are being properly protected in their own right.

So I want to be able to set that up in the coming weeks, but, once again, I want it to be something where the timeline, the decisions, what comes back to Government, aren't based on political or a Government timeframe, but are actually based on a timeline that works for traditional owners. But, ultimately, this many years on from when the Wet Tropics system first came on, it's time to get a listing that traditional owners had a full ownership of. And that means cultural values being properly worked through.

Once we've got those three things I think we then have one of the most iconic environmental outcomes that the nation will ever have here in the Wet Tropics. We have the wonderful rain forest, and a whole lot of people apologised to me for the rain today; but a couple of things: it's called rain forest. I can deal with the first half of the name. Wet Tropics, so I expect to get wet. Thirdly, I'm in charge of the Weather Bureau, so it's arguably my fault.

I find it wonderful to see this country in all its many moods, to see just the power of the creeks and rivers charging and flowing back with something that, had it not been for the rain pelting down as we went for our walk, I would have missed, and I wouldn't miss that for the world. So I've really cherished this opportunity. But I'll keep coming back, and I'll keep coming back my whole life. So much of my political passions are defined right here on the land where we stand.

But I want to keep coming back and know that every step of the way, we've got management principles that meet land and sea country, that we've got heritage listings that are at the national and world level, deal with natural values and cultural values hand in hand, and where the principles of management that worked pretty well throughout the whole course of history here, that have been allowed to slip over a handful of generations, are actually given their integrity back again. We have traditional owners that want to do that, and I want to make sure that the Government level we facilitate that.

So today is not the end of the process, even for the IPA part of it. What we're doing today is - having completed the planning - we now say here are the principles, let's get on with the work of it and also open up the land fully to the Working on Country Program and the indigenous rangers' work that can come to that.

As part of an IPA the joining of the land and sea country forms part of the national reserves system in that way, rather than only being part of the national reserves system, as a national park or as a heritage listing. It's there in a fully traditional owner led and owned process.

This country has had much to speak to me. It has much to teach the rest of the nation and much, indeed, to teach the rest of the world. That's what World Heritage is about. No-one will ever again be able to talk about the Wet Tropics without knowing the indigenous management principles that now underpin it. Today is a real moment of formally turning the corner.

I want to congratulate everybody for the hard work that's gone into it, and being, no doubt, having turned the corner, you'll never have to look back. Congratulations.