Uneasy Territory: Tim Neale's Wild Articulations

We talk to Tim Neale about his book on colonial legacies and mixed intentions in Australia's North

In the long and shameful scope of settler policy in Australia's Deep North - removal from land by force, removal by the fiat of rampant development - the passage of Queensland's Wild Rivers Act in the 2000s could appear from an outsider's perspective like some sort of change for the better. It gave the state government power to declare nominated waterways to be 'Wild River' areas, creating prohibitive restrictions around the kind of development and intensification that had degraded much of the region's ecosystem. The Wilderness Society hailed it as "groundbreaking" legislation, which protected 13 crucial river systems from "dams, weirs, polluting irrigation schemes and industrial development.

Yet the reality was more vexed than an overdue and feel-good step to save the region's natural beauty. In a decision that potentially extinguishes customary rights for "the good of everyone", Aotearoa-based readers might detect a recent contemporary echo. The fallout has demonstrated the harm of populist legislation without consultation, in treating the values and interests of Indigenous people as homogenous, of securing even modest sustainability gains in an adversarial political climate aided by an adversarial press. A tumultous decade is woven into a compelling narrative by Tim Neale in his new book, Wild Articulations: Environmentalism and Indigeneity in Northern Australia, the product of years of research, interviews and site work.

I talked to Tim about the book's origins, approaching a deeply local matter as a transplanted Kiwi, and knowing when to stop.

Tell me a little about how this book came about.

The book is based on a PhD thesis project I completed in 2014. Like a lot of graduates, after I finished the project I started working on turning this slightly peculiar object – a thesis targeted at a very small audience of academics interested in a particular slice of the world – into something more approachable, connecting my research to other places and other histories. I took the book proposal to a few different overseas academic publishers and one was kind enough to back it.

The legislation that’s the book’s central topic, Queensland’s Wild Rivers Act, sounds like it’s opened up some hard questions about who gets to be a stakeholder and to what extent, particularly when it comes to environmental sustainability. What was the original impetus behind the law?

That is a big question and I’m going to have to give two broad answers, though I should say up front I don’t actually know what was in the mind of Queensland’s policymakers. The first clear starting point was in the 1990s, when Australia’s federal government started trying to take stock of what was still left standing after two centuries of rampant settler extractivism and dispossession. In short, where were the forests, grasslands and water catchments that were still in a good ecological condition? Queensland was (and remains) a site of extreme ecological destruction, especially in terms of land clearance, as well as having many ‘intact’ river systems.

Then, in the early 2000s, the Queensland Labor government led by Peter Beattie put together a new environmental agenda to reform water governance, land clearance, and conservation through a whole range of legislation. The Wild Rivers Act 2005 was part of that agenda, and it was bipartisan legislation at the time, setting up a framework for the government to then nominate and declare development setbacks from ‘near pristine’ river systems.

In some ways, it was a ‘wild’ branding exercise, because many of the rivers that were then nominated were in national parks or had few development threats. That said, these rivers were also largely in remote areas of Queensland where there is both a lot of hope for future industrial development and Aboriginal people have recognised land rights. What happened after 2005 revealed that the government – amongst others – was poorly equipped to deal fairly in this complex context. There’s a lot more I could say but that’ll have to do!

So, how do you decide to stop? I think at a certain point you just have to make a decision that, while a given story is not over – lives and events keep unfolding – you know the issue well enough to have confidence that, whatever happens after a certain moment, your account is coherent enough to handle a ‘to be continued’ at the end.

Even as Wild Articulations was being completed, this legislation was still a political football in Queensland and Australia. Was it hard to know where to leave writing and feel like you’d covered events as far as you could for one book?

I think this is a real problem where you are trying to give a history of the contemporary. My initial end point for the thesis project was the 2012 Queensland election, when the Labor government was replaced by a conservative Liberal National Party government that said it was dead-set on ‘axing the Act’. And then that government did numerous weird and curious things, essentially betraying many of its Aboriginal supporters in remote Queensland, not repealing the Act until 2014, and replacing it with regulations that were very similar in many ways. During this time Tony Abbott, who had made a lot of mileage out of the Wild Rivers Act, became Prime Minister (or ‘Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs’ in his words).

About the same time, a court found in favour of a group of claimants from Cape York Peninsula that the Minister had taken insufficient time to consider submissions on two declared Wild Rivers, and that those declarations were therefore invalid. I could keep going. So, how do you decide to stop? I think at a certain point you just have to make a decision that, while a given story is not over – lives and events keep unfolding – you know the issue well enough to have confidence that, whatever happens after a certain moment, your account is coherent enough to handle a ‘to be continued’ at the end. If you’ve set forth the coordinates for how things will likely unfold, well, I think that’s about the best you can do.

What sort of relationship-building and local knowledge is required to get a book like this into focus – particularly as an outsider?

A PhD is a training exercise in learning how to be an independent researcher, and I tried a lot of different things and made a lot of mistakes in learning to figure out how to give a good account and analysis of an environmental controversy. I knew from the beginning that I would be working between a few different disciplines and methods, including interviews and archival research, so I asked around, read, tried things out.

This involved a lot of cold-calling academics with experience in the area and issue, cold-calling stakeholders, visiting them and the places involved when I had the opportunity, keeping in touch remotely, circulating things I was writing, trying to give them a sense of who I was and why I was interested.

In some ways, I think being an outsider can be quite helpful in very charged circumstances like that, for two main reasons. First, you’re not received as coming from some preformed group or ideology. To give an anecdote from a very different part of life here in Australia, it’s like when people ask you what school you went to, and you say some high school in Aotearoa New Zealand. People are trying to make a quick categorisation of your class and political affiliations but, at that moment, you’re just a little bit illegible, harder to box in. Second, I came to Australia to do this project with a good understanding of Aotearoa’s history and land rights law but a very bare understanding of Australia’s history and land rights law. My knowledge of Aotearoa, I think, actually helped me come at the Australian context with different questions and ideas than an insider might. You’re always stopping and asking ‘why is x this way?’

You’re originally from Auckland and did your undergrad studies at UoA. Looking back over the ditch, what lessons and parallels are there between how and who manages and holds stewardship over indigenous land in Aotearoa?

This is really difficult because I think there is a clear danger in comparing these contexts. Just thinking about land and resources management, you could easily say that in many ways the situation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia is relatively disadvantaged compared to Māori in Aotearoa. If and when Aboriginal people have their native title recognised in settler law, and there are many cases where it is not, there are only very specific kind of lands that can be claimed and what is recognised is a use right and not a proprietary right. So, no commercial rights to fishing or minerals, for example. Then, when third parties want to do something on native title land – say, build a massive coal mine, or establish a national park – the relevant Aboriginal group cannot refuse and if they are compensated it is for the disruption to the use of their land.

Really, if parts of Australia are still in good ecological condition it is because of millennia of care by Aboriginal peoples, but today their rights to these lands are very circumscribed. But, and here’s the danger of comparison, does this mean that Māori should somehow now feel grateful to have more robust political and legal rights than Aboriginal people? I’ve seen this comparison used for exactly this ridiculous argument. They’re both unjust situations. They’re differently unjust but they’re both unjust.

But to answer your question, I think there is actually an emerging interest in Aotearoa from the Australian side, spurred by renewed conversations about a treaty or treaties in Australia. If this is, as some Aboriginal leaders are saying, a viable route to a more equitable relationship between Aboriginal peoples and the settler state, then I think it makes sense to look to Māori for knowledge about the potential benefits and pitfalls.

Wild Articulations: Environmentalism and Indigeneity in Northern Australia is available through the University of Hawai'i Press. If you're in Melbourne, you can head to the book launch at the Institute for Postcolonial Studies in North Melbourne on Tuesday 8 August.

Wild Articulations was one of the Pantograph Punch's Knockouts for August - the stuff we reckon's worth seeing, reading, playing or hearing. For the others, go here.

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The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

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