Midnight Oil lead singer and former federal environment and heritage minister Peter Garrett must feel like he is stuck in a Cape York-themed reboot of Groundhog Day, that Bill Murray classic in which the protagonist finds himself repeating the same day with no end to the madness in sight.
In late 2023, Garrett was trotted out as the poster boy in the hunt to secure Traditional Owner consent for the joint State and Federal Government push to list parts of Cape York as sites of outstanding universal value through the UNESCO World Heritage Centre.
It should have felt like familiar ground for Garrett, because he was beating exactly the same path in 2010 when he was still in Parliament and the last concerted attempt to get Cape York on the World Heritage list was made.
Don’t get me wrong: Garrett is inarguably a passionate environmental and Indigenous affairs activist, and his political life and work with the Oils, one of our truly cracking homegrown rock bands, is testament to this.
The problem – as it was back in 2010 – is that Garrett, or at least his political masters in Canberra and Brisbane, seem to have made a fundamental mistake in ignoring the prevailing sentiment that many Traditional Owners do not want Cape York to make its way to UNESCO’s honour roll.
Why? Because there are genuine concerns about the process for green lighting the locations that make it onto the Queensland Government’s tentative list, which will then be endorsed by the Federal Minister for the Environment and Water, Tanya Plibersek.
Once it has been approved in Canberra, the list will then make its way into the red tape-lined halls of the Paris-based gatekeepers of everything World Heritage, some 14,500 kilometres from Cape York.
From start to finish, the process can take years, but several Traditional Owners have already flagged apprehension about the transparency of the initial fact finding, and why there seems to be a rush to get the tentative list completed.
The joint effort has been singing off the same song sheet that the process will be dead in the water if Traditional Owners do not provide “free, prior and informed” consent to which sites end up going under the UNESCO microscope.
The hurdle seems to be that the majority of Traditional Owners – as well as media outlets – are being kept in the dark about which locations across the 137,000 square kilometres that make up Cape York are being seriously considered.
One eastern Cape York Traditional Owner this publication spoke to said they were worried World Heritage status would create an additional level of bureaucracy to land management, and stimy the potential of communities to grow, move or explore business opportunities.
It is a valid reason for disquiet, as is the extra level of reporting that comes into play as soon as World Heritage listing is granted – at two-, three- and six-year intervals, depending on which statutory entity the report is going to.
You would be hard pressed to find someone who does not think the stunning landscape of Cape York needs to be protected, but it is political arrogance to assume that protection can be better afforded through supplementary paper pushing than by the Traditional Owners who have been looking after it for tens of thousands of years.
As for the apparent rush to compile the tentative list, the political cynics out there could be forgiven for thinking the process was anything more than an attempt to sure up a few green votes with a state election scheduled for October this year, and federal polling booths to appear everywhere by mid-2025.
It remains to be seen whether this new push by Labor will be a Groundhog Day of 2010, but you have to question how seriously it is taking the process, given rolling out an ageing rocker as a quasi political frontman – irrespective of how much of a passion project it is for them – has rarely delivered success with stakeholders and the voting public.
Cape York, and the Traditional Owners who have ensured this incredible part of Australia retains the natural beauty and environmental importance to make it worthy of World Heritage consideration, deserve better than to be treated like mute political chess pieces once again.