Australia Fears Kakadu is 'probably going to stagnate' during the long wait for promised federal funding

03:45  11 april  2021
03:45  11 april  2021 Source:   msn.com

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a man sitting on a rock: Jabiru resident Peter Keepence has spent years photographing heritage-listed Kakadu National Park, but he feels uncertain about its future. (Supplied: Peter Keepence) © Provided by ABC Business Jabiru resident Peter Keepence has spent years photographing heritage-listed Kakadu National Park, but he feels uncertain about its future. (Supplied: Peter Keepence)

The federal government has been urged to fast-track an investment worth more than $200 million it promised two years ago to revitalise the world heritage-listed Kakadu National Park.

The Australian government has allocated only $5.4 million so far to transition Jabiru — the community in the centre of the park — from a mining town into a world-class tourism hub.

Outlined in 2019 federal budget papers, the $216.2 million was also meant to fund road upgrades, a new park visitor centre and more than $50 million in tourism infrastructure over a 10-year timeframe.

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The federal government's promised spending has now grown to $276 million.

Parks Australia has blamed the COVID-19 pandemic and consultations with traditional owners for delays in approving funding.

For the past seven years, Peter Keepence, a photographer and the manager of the Jabiru Golf Club, has watched the park's season-dependent swell and dip of visitors.

He wants to open his own gallery and business offering photography tours through the park, but the uncertainty is holding him back.

"I have a lot of concerns about the future," he said.

"But I'm one of the ones that likes to give it hope."

Calls to fast-track the funding are also coming from within the federal government's own ranks.

The NT's Coalition senator Sam McMahon, who is among several politicians criticising the delay, says that without it one of the Territory's biggest tourism drawcards is "probably going to stagnate".

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"Kakadu is fantastic but it's also tired," she said.

"It hasn't had a lot of investment in the last 40 years and tourism has shifted over that time too.

"Whereas tourists were once happy to come and go on a cruise and see a croc and look at the natural beauty, tourists now are wanting much more interactive experiences."

Funding 'needs to hit the ground'

Critical of the pace of her own government's rollout of the funding, Senator McMahon said: "There are a lot of different players involved and they all have to agree on what they want to go ahead, when and how – that's the thing that's holding it up at the moment."

"There is a plan but it's still potentially a fair way off being rolled out," she said.

The Territory's Labor senator, Malarndirri McCarthy, told the ABC "funding needs to hit the ground' as soon as possible. 

She said the delays are threatening the "aspirations of traditional owners" and jeopardising the future of "this iconic spot that is immensely important not only to tourism but the cultural and natural heritage of our country". 

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"The potential for Kakadu is unlimited," she said.

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"It has spectacular scenery, a pristine environment and immense cultural value that should be shared with the world.

"But if action by the Morrison government is not taken quickly, I dread to think what will become of this iconic treasure."

NT Tourism Minister Natasha Fyles and Aboriginal Affairs Minister Selena Uibo also called for Canberra to fast-track the money.

"This investment will result in improvements for traditional owners, greater certainty to tourism operators and extended visitor access to Kakadu National Park and its tourism attractions," Ms Fyles said.

The calls come amid infighting between Parks Australia and traditional owners over management of the park, and as rehabilitation of the Ranger Uranium Mine gets underway.

Last year, two senior Parks Australia officials resigned after traditional owners said they had lost faith in their ability to repair the contentious relationship.

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Maria Lee, chair of Kakadu's board of management, said "hard rules" set by Canberra are hampering progress in turning Jabiru into a tourism hub.

"The rules from the federal government make us angry. We have to wait all the time … we could be waiting a long time for anything to happen," she said.

"We're working so hard to make it better … but the federal government isn't really listening."

Park management under review

Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation – which represents the Mirarr traditional owners — is being handed the lease to Jabiru in June, meaning it will play a key role in steering the town's transformation into a tourism hub.

But the organisation is facing its own issues, including a 2019 raid by the Office of the Registrar of Indigenous Corporations (ORIC).

No announcement on any findings has been made public, and Gundjeihmi has said it was confident there had not been any wrongdoing.

Last week, federal Environment Minister Sussan Levy acknowledged concerns over her government's joint management of national parks, appointing a six-person Senior Advisory Group to examine the running of the Kakadu, Booderee and Uluru-Kata Tjuta national parks.

Chosen for what Senator Ley said was their "experience and expertise in governance and Indigenous affairs", the group includes former Liberal cabinet minister Amanda Vanstone and outgoing Central Land Council chief executive Joe Martin-Jard as co-chairs, and former NT chief minister Shane Stone.

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"The group will help identify the best ways to protect these values and ensure that the traditional owners have control over the way the land is managed," Senator Ley said.

"In some cases, current management arrangements have been in place for over 40 years, and it is time we looked at them through the lens of today and the nation's recognition of traditional ownership and title."

The comments prompted speculation the move could see traditional owners handed sole control of some parks.

Ms Vanstone said she plans to visit Kakadu soon.

"Our job is to listen to all the interested parties, in particular traditional owners," she told the ABC.

Vision clouded in doubt

A Parks Australia spokeswoman said the COVID-19 pandemic and the "critical importance of ensuring that appropriate consultations with traditional owners are finalised before projects proceed" were the reasons behind the investment delay.

"A further $93 million of the funding is scheduled to be spent over the next 18 months on projects including improving telecommunications, upgrading the Cahills Crossing viewing platform, improving the Jim Jim Creek Crossing and access to Twin Falls, and upgrading various campgrounds and Ranger Stations throughout the park," she said.

"Forward planning will also continue on upgrades to visitor centres, renewing essential services such as water and sewer and planning for the further road improvements."

In 2018, the Northern Territory government and the Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation unveiled a $446 million makeover master plan for Jabiru, which included a visitors' centre, luxury hotel and crocodile-proof swimming.

The following year, the federal and Territory governments signed a memorandum of understanding supporting the master plan with the Commonwealth saying parts of its existing pledge of more than $200 million would contribute to realising it.

But in Jabiru, there remains scepticism about how any vision will balance tourism and the park's rich cultural and environmental value.

John Christophersen, a senior community member and Kakadu's member of the Northern Land Council, said he has "grave concerns" about plans for the park.

"People don't want to come to Kakadu and five-star it. They are coming to a natural and cultural heritage, not the Gold Coast," he said.

Mr Christophersen said the focus on tourism "puts all the eggs in one basket" and it is likely to limit employment opportunities for Aboriginal residents.

"I know our family out there isn't very interested in changing sheets, they want to be out on country," he said.

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