Resolving the real conflicts

February 25, 1991

By Mark Horstman

BRISBANE — More than 300 environmentalists, trade unionists, Aborigines, industrialists and interested people from around Australia spent Sunday, February 17, discussing ways to resolve environmental disputes.

The community summit — "Resolving the real conflicts" — was organised by the Australian Conservation Foundation to promote community debate and participation in environmental dispute resolution, and to highlight the inadequacies of the state government's decision-making processes for environmental issues.

The community summit contrasted starkly with the governmental "national conference" on Public Issue Dispute Resolution held the following day. Admission was free ($235 cheaper than the exclusive government conference), the meeting was addressed by speakers with specific expertise and practical experience in dispute resolution, and a diverse cross-section of the community was able to participate.

As the businessmen, politicians and bureaucrats gathered at the Sheraton ballroom the next day, the trees were still falling on Fraser Island.

The success of the summit repudiated the theme of the "official" conference, jointly hosted by the Queensland and NSW governments and the Fitzgerald inquiry, which sought to "minimise the disproportionate influence of organised pressure groups ... that take advantage of opportunities ... in the pursuit of personal objectives".

A summit organiser said that the meeting sent a clear message that extensive community involvement within a framework for ecologically sustainable development was an essential precondition for the resolution of environmental disputes.

"We set out to identify the real conflicts — those between the earth's life support systems and our consumer society — which determine the survival of our society and indigenous cultures, and to ensure they formed the basis for dispute resolution in Queensland", he said.

Phillip Toyne, ACF executive director, warned that processes for dispute resolution could be used to suppress conflict and to shelter industries not willing to make the transition to ecological sustainability. He advocated constitutional reform and an effective Federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Adrian Jeffreys, director of Queensland's Wildlife Preservation Society, analysed the Fitzgerald inquiry process for Fraser Island,

and found it subject to political interference, lacking public participation and fundamentally flawed in allowing logging to continue for its duration.

Rosemary Sandford, coordinator of the Tasmanian Forests and Forest Industry Council, emphasised that any decision-making process is only as good as the level of involvement and understanding from the parties, which requires sufficient time and equity in resourcing. She said that mediation could have been more effective than the Fitzgerald inquiry.

Howard Guille, of the Queensland Trades and Labour Council, called for greater interaction between the union and environmental movements to produce "equitable conservation". He highlighted the linkages between poor work practices and conditions and environmental damage.

Peter Huthwaite, from the Queensland Confederation of Industry, claimed that lack of communication was the greatest barrier between business and environment groups.

However, it was the group of Aboriginal traditional landholders from the Cape York Peninsula, here to make the point that "we are not invisible people", that made the greatest impact on the meeting. Noel Pearson, of the Cape York Land Council, told conservationists to remember that "environmental protection has a social impact" for Aboriginal people, particularly with national parks, and called for a strong alliance between blacks and greens based on mutual understanding.

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