Cape York row threatens Rudd’s $60m UN bid


Various estimates have put the cost of such a bid at between $40 and $60 million and the Government has already raised eyebrows by enlisting Governor-General Quentin Bryce to lobby African leaders for votes.

Professor Wiltshire, who spent six years as Australia’s representative on the executive board of the United Nations’ Educational and Scientific Organisation (UNESCO), says the Government does not know how difficult the bid will be.

And he says Mr Garrett’s recent decision to support the World Heritage plan has made the task almost impossible.

Last Friday Mr Garrett and his state counterparts agreed to put the peninsula forward for listing, but the move has angered some Indigenous groups who argue it will stop them entering the real economy.

The Government stands accused of putting environmental concerns before the very real social and economic problems among the Cape’s Indigenous population.

“The World Heritage process now requires full consultation, particularly with Indigenous people,” Professor Wiltshire told the ABC.

“If the Australian Government is seen not to have properly abided by the spirit and the letter of those arrangements, it means Australia could be seen as acting contrary to the spirit of UNESCO.

“These are the sorts of things that affect a country’s reputation and if you are going for a seat on the UN Security Council you have to show that you are totally committed to United Nations principles.”

Mr Garrett’s office was at pains to point out the heritage proposal was a first step in what could be up to a 10-year consultation process.

“The development of the tentative list is the first stage in what will be a long and detailed consultation over the coming decade, helping ensure that we submit World Heritage nominations that have the best chance of success,” a spokesperson said.

“The Rudd Government is committed to World Heritage and the safekeeping of the values of our region’s extraordinary World Heritage places and we have previously indicated our support for the listing of appropriate areas [of] Cape York in consultation with the Queensland Government, traditional owners and other stakeholders.”

But Professor Wiltshire, the inaugural chairman of the World Heritage Wet Tropics Authority, says the talk is not being backed up by action.

He says the UN is extremely unlikely to approve the listing of an area without proper consultation with the Indigenous population, and the Government needs to produce more than just symbolic gestures.

“To get a seat it’s not enough to go around lobbying the world and doing deals and all these sorts of things, you’ve got to show that total commitment to UN principles,” he said.

“There is a danger that this (World Heritage proposal) could be interpreted that Australia is not abiding by its true role as a member of the UN.”

Much is at stake.

The quality of life of thousands of Australia’s most vulnerable people relies on being able to properly engage in the economy of Cape York.

The health of a potentially fragile ecosystem relies on sensible and sustainable management.

But a UN Security Council seat and the prestige of a World Heritage listing could push those concerns to the side.

Mr Garrett’s office says the Government’s aim is to balance the competing desires of development and conservation.

“World Heritage listing can be a huge opportunity for economic development on the Cape”, a statement from Mr Garrett’s office said.

“Australia’s 17 World Heritage properties generate $12 billion annually and support over 120,000 jobs across the country.”

Professor Wiltshire sees the danger in stumbling blindly into an environmental, political and economic quagmire.

“If they haven’t properly consulted with the Indigenous people and taken account of their values and wishes and needs there’d be no prospect and the nomination would be stalled,” he said.

“The World Heritage proposal is doomed if Australia still tries to gun it through. Australia will have a very bad reputation on the international stage.

“I don’t think Australia has properly thought through what’s involved in this bid.”

The ABC sent a series of detailed questions to the Prime Minister’s office but a spokesperson would only say that the Government was committed to the Security Council bid.

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