Proposed developments as insignificant as a toilet block may end up being dragged through expensive litigation while a $30 billion gas processing hub has escaped the additional red-tape attached to the west Kimberley yesterday.
Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke said his decision to add almost 20 million hectares of the west Kimberley to the National Heritage List – the largest area to be listed in Australian history – would preserve culturally and naturally significant sites but would not automatically shut-down the area to development.
However, the decision was criticized from all sides, with conservationists calling for the James Price Point project near Broome to be included and industries and the state government slamming the blanket approach.
The tourism industry, which could benefit from the new branding and attention to the iconic region, criticised the additional hurdles it would create for new ventures and even visitor facilities to go ahead, with proposals now requiring both state and federal approval.
Tourism Council WA president Evan Hall said without additional funding the listing would only make it more difficult for visitors to access or enjoy the region.
“Unfortunately, it means we’ve got to go through [approval processes] twice … which means we’ve got to go through the same red tape as if we were doing a huge mining operation,” he said.
“It’s a huge burden and makes it very, very difficult for small operators to do something new or to open up a new experience.
“It will cost time, it will cost money and it could cost the project.”
Mr Evans said approval would be needed for roads, walking trails, signposting, caravan facilities and camping grounds.
“It’s very easy for the [federal government] to come to the party and say look what we’ve done, we’ve protected this, but if all they do is shut the gate and make it harder for tourism to provide new experiences, then in fact it’s the wrong thing,” Mr Hall said.
“They need to work with the tourism industry … otherwise what’s the point of heritage listing? Why are we protecting it if people can’t preserve and enjoy?”
Premier Colin Barnett warned that even approved projects, from the smallest developments such as toilet blocks and caravan sites, could be dragged through expensive court proceedings.
“That may not prove difficult in most cases but if you have a dispute, and it might be between a land developer, it might be between Aboriginal communities about an Aboriginal project, it’s fairly likely that you’ll end up with litigation in the federal court and that will be expensive,” he said.
“I think many of the difficult projects will be agriculture, perhaps pearling, perhaps tourist developments. If there was a mining proposal you are generally talking about fairly deep pockets there, [so] it will be the smaller, medium-size projects which won’t be able to afford or find their way through this area of regulation.”
He said the national heritage listing was a sign the federal government did not trust WA to protect the west Kimberley.
“It’s about time the rest of Australia acknowledged and respected WA,” he said.
“As if the state is not capable of preserving and protecting the Kimberley.”
Chamber of Commerce and Industry WA chief executive James Pearson said the Australian economy could be affected if future projects in the west Kimberley were pigeon-holed.
“Australia’s economic well-being increasingly depends on the resources industry. Adding more bureaucracy, in a highly prospective region, could see some projects reconsidered,” he said.
“This approach could limit future investment, wealth and job creation within the region. Not just resources projects but other industries, including tourism and agriculture.”
Mining companies ‘will reconsider’ west Kimberley projects
Association of Mining and Exploration Companies spokesman Graham Short said the heritage listing would create uncertainty and put at risk development opportunities that could have opened up the untapped economic and social potential of the region, including significant employment opportunities in remote and indigenous communities.
“Western Australia’s reputation as a safe place in which to invest will also be severely tarnished,” he said.
“Although there are some areas within the Kimberley that have natural, indigenous and historic values it is not all pristine and iconic.”
The Chamber of Minerals and Energy WA also said mining companies were reconsidering proposed projects in the region.
“There are certainly a number of [prospective projects] in the region that don’t yet have approvals, which will now have to undergo further bureaucratic layers,” CMEWA director Nicole Roocke said.
“Companies will certainly be giving consideration to the impact of this heritage listing … they’ll need to go back and review the feasibility of the projects and make a determination as to whether the viability of the projects are impacted by this decision.”
Anger over James Price Point exclusion
The exclusion of Woodside’s $30 billion gas processing hub at James Price Point, north of Broome, from the heritage listing has removed another potential political hurdle for the project, angering conservationists.
However, the intertidal area within the Browse liquefied natural gas precinct was included and the company will have to preserve 130 million-year-old dinosaur footprints found north of the site.
In a statement, Woodside although it was surprised at the inclusion of the intertidal area, it accepted the broad heritage listing.
“We believe that Woodside’s proposed Browse LNG Development can successfully co-exist with the heritage values of the Dampier Peninsula,” the statement says.
The company argues that the dinosaur footprints are not of museum grade and are less significant than others along the Dampier Peninsula.
Opponents of the project were disappointed it had not been included in the heritage listing.
Wilderness Society national campaign director Lyndon Schneider said the heritage listing would be ineffective in protecting the Kimberley if Woodside’s proposed gas hub went ahead.
“The direct impacts of that development will be significant, but the indirect impacts of this development will be catastrophic for the entire Kimberley and will destroy the social fabric and character of the Broome community,” he said.
“Minister Burke will not be remembered for heritage listing the Kimberley if James Price Point proceeds. Rather he’ll be remembered as the Minister who handed the Kimberley over to industrialisation.”
Australian Conservation Foundation CEO Don Harvey also voiced his concerns.
“ACF remains concerned about current proposals to mine coal, bauxite, uranium and iron ore in the region and to process gas on the Kimberley coastline,” he said.
However he congratulated the federal government on the “historic announcement”, saying the formal recognition of the importance of the region proved it was too precious to be lost to industrialisation.
“The Kimberley is a region of outstanding natural and cultural significance, with many unique ecosystems, unparalleled beauty, strong Indigenous culture and enduring connections of the traditional owners to their land,” he said.
But Mr Henry said he urged the federal government to provide additional support for Indigenous land management and sustainable development in the area.
Aboriginals praise ‘historic recognition’
The Kimberley Land Council, which was involved in the assessment process, described the heritage listing as an historic announcement that cemented the region as “a strong and significant Aboriginal place”.
It is the council’s second significant achievement this year after it also played a key role in the historic $1 billion compensation package for traditional land owners at James Price Point.
“Never before have indigenous cultural values of an area been so widely included and recognised as part of National Heritage Listing,” the council’s chief executive officer Nolan Hunter said.
“We praise the Federal Government for doing business the right way.”
Mr Hunter said National Heritage Listing would ensure the indigenous cultural values of the Kimberley would be protected for future generations to enjoy.
But he called on the federal government to fund Indigenous management of the culturally significant sites to ensure the Kimberley retained its status as a living cultural landscape and national icon.