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Mining, marsupials and rural self-determination

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Rachel Siewert 23 Aug 2011


"There are things about growing up in a small town that you can't necessarily quantify". Hollywood is a long way from Broome, but when US actor Brandon Routh said this I felt that, in many ways, it summed up why some companies and politicians in the two major parties find it hard to understand why feelings are running so high in the community in regards to the James Price Point gas hub development.

One the one hand, data about economic and social circumstances in the LNG precinct, which includes Broome and the Dampier Peninsula, make for uncomfortable reading, especially in relation to the area's Aboriginal population. Youth unemployment is high, school attendance and achievement is low. The pattern continues in this vein with a number of social indicators.

Conventional wisdom dictates that job opportunities are central to improving these outcomes. But the gas hub development has opened a cantankerous can of worms, not just for Broome and the Kimberley, but potentially for many regional communities who feel that their futures are being decided by state and federal governments keen to claim the job creation and tax revenues from the underground and undersea riches that these communities live on or near.

Mineral, petroleum and gas reserves aren't usually found in cities but this is where most of the benefits and wealth end up while the negative impacts of rapid development on the fabric of regional communities don't get a look in.

Minister Burke's recent visit to James Price Point demonstrated clearly how government has failed to keep pace with the growing unease about conventional thinking that big development is best for communities.

The Minister was there to talk to people about heritage listing in the Kimberley and to assess possible environmental impacts of the gas hub. The site's 130-million-year-old dinosaur footprints and Aboriginal heritage issues will give Minister Burke plenty of work to do.

And there is now a confirmed sighting of the threatened bilby, another important consideration. But residents also wanted their voices heard and to discuss how this gas hub and any future development could impact their 'quality of life' and the myriad of other issues that the term encompasses. Issues that are hard to quantify, assess or cost up.

Community concern about the project will not influence the Minister's environmental assessment. But it does raise a fundamental question about unique regional issues and representation: who will listen to community concerns if this Minister can't? How do these issues get factored into decision making?

WA Premier Colin Barnett certainly isn't listening. He is salivating though, at the prospect of development and revenue. Mr Barnett wants Broome to be the next Dubai or another financial powerhouse like the Pilbara.

I won't speak for every resident of Broome, but I can confidently say that the many I have spoken to would not want to live in Dubai, Karratha or Port Hedland. Exorbitant rents, boom and bust economies and highly transient communities are just some of the downsides of high economic growth in isolated areas.

Hysterical claims that a small group of yuppies and environmentalists are trying to 'lock up the Kimberley' or are 'anti-development' also miss the point.

Resources Minister Martin Ferguson sounded like he was trying to whip up a class war when he claimed that many of the people opposing the gas hub were those who 'have well-paying jobs ' and were 'economically emancipated'.

Not only do I disagree with his assessment, this 'rich v poor' diatribe distracts us from the real issue of trying to find ways of empowering rural communities to decide their own futures, free from the pressures of boosting the bottom line of state and federal coffers and free from the assumption that lots of development will enrich the local community.

Everyone wants jobs and a thriving community, but not everyone thinks wrecking part of what makes Broome and the Kimberley so beautiful and unique should be part of the strategy. For many in Broome, the cost-benefit analysis simply doesn't add up.

The Federal Government could support Broome and other resource-rich rural communities in a number of ways. The Government should look at how they can use their powers under the EPBC and Heritage Act to enshrine the cultural and environmental significance of the region.

This would not be a barrier to future development, rather part of an economic mix with long-term goals, since a diverse economy that includes a healthy tourism industry would offer sustainable, culturally appropriate employment prospects for those who want it.

Canberra could also put a greater focus on the regional planning and development processes and ensure there is adequate funding available to support regional planning and fostering the participation of community organisations.

People leave cities, or decide to stay in the small towns they are born in, for many reasons. Remoteness, smaller centres, a strong sense of community, vast wilderness areas, connection to the earth and environment have real value to many people, both in the monetary sense and in ways that are harder to quantify such as good mental health, cultural pride, a sense of place and happiness.

In the short-term, the future of Broome's unique character may lie on the small shoulders of the endangered bilby and the importance of dinosaur footprints, but where do community voices fit in? Marsupials and Megalosauropus broomensis are important considerations when deciding Broome's fate. But residents in the gas hub precinct deserve to be heard as well.

First published on ABC's The Drum.

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