Seen here in the west Kimberley, Environment Minister Tony Burke could be caught between a rock and a hard place with some of his pending decisions. Picture: Vanessa Hunter Source: The Australian
SWIRLING around the remote islands of King Sound on the Buccaneer Archipelago, powerful 12m tides create the Kimberley coastline's horizontal waterfalls, dotting the waters with perilous whirlpools that can sink the foolhardy and the unprepared.
Navigated properly, the currents provide an ocean jet stream that has been used for generations to help speed travellers towards their chosen destination.
The region is a favourite place for federal Environment Minister Tony Burke, who last year declared the west Kimberley a National Heritage area. He has shed blood on the Mayala people's sacred ground trekking barefoot over the rocky islands that help create the raging tidal flows.
The Kimberley coast, with its mix of natural beauty, indigenous aspiration, mineral riches and latent danger, is a fitting metaphor for the challenges facing Burke as a series of long-running conservation campaigns comes to a head this year, while the nation's mining boom continues to build.
Two significant reforms started under the Howard government - the Murray-Darling Basin plan and protection of commonwealth waters covering an area bigger than the continent - will reach their conclusion before mid-year.
A new peace appears to be within reach to stop logging in Tasmania's old-growth forests, widely regarded as the Middle East conflict of Australia's conservation politics. Success or failure will be known by June.
Alarm from the Paris-based World Heritage Committee has supercharged demands for action to safeguard the Great Barrier Reef from increased shipping.
And Burke has declared his intention to follow up the west Kimberley national heritage listing with a World Heritage nomination for Cape York by February next year.
"It is potentially an historic agenda for the nation," says Australian Conservation Foundation chief executive Don Henry. "We have a coincidence of major issues all coming into a decision-making frame this year."
In addition, Burke is at the centre of a political storm over the potential impact of coal-seam gas production on underground water supplies. And he has provoked a possible High Court state's rights challenge from Victoria with his ban this week on summer cattle grazing in the alpine ranges.
Burke is confident the next 12 months will be his time of delivery. It will, he hopes, provide an environmental legacy for the nation and a personal legacy for his time in the environment portfolio. But some fear he has too much on his plate.
"It is a big program and this stuff is getting more complex, not less," national campaign director for the Wilderness Society Lyndon Schneiders says.
"The worst outcome would be trying to reform a little bit of everything and failing on everything, rather than delivering on three or four big issues."
Burke insists the core principles remain constant.
"It is effectively the same question," he says. "How can you make sure any developments are sustainable, sensitive to the environment and are not something we are going to look back on in 20 years' time and say, 'Why did we do that?' "
But a lot has changed since the Hawke government surfed to power 30 years ago promising to stop the Gordon below Franklin Dam in Tasmania, and later to protect Kakadu from mining.
The bruising politics of climate change has been allowed to dominate the environment debate. And the success of the Greens has left Labor split between competing for the support of city elites and returning to its more jobs-focused, working-class roots.
Labor still wears an environmental coat but its core message these days is jobs and economic development. The party can point to its support for the expansion of Olympic Dam, the world's largest uranium mine, to illustrate how much the Labor brand has moved on and highlight the gulf that exists between it and its quasi-coalition Greens partner.
So, on the broad suite of environmental issues coming to fruition this year, Burke's ability to hold his ground in cabinet has yet to be fully tested.
Some conflicts are already apparent. The Wilderness Society did Burke no favours this week when it injected the issue of wild rivers and a call for emergency National Heritage Listing of Cape York into the first week of the Queensland election campaign.
Burke has been engaged in sensitive talks with pro-development indigenous groups on the cape for months in a bid to negotiate a deal on heritage listing later this year. The "alarmed" response from cape development groups to the call was predictable.
"This is an appalling attempt by the Wilderness Society not only to show that they have a total disregard for the aspirations of the Cape York people, but it is one where they are determined to keep Cape York people in poverty," said Cape York Sustainable Futures, which represents indigenous mining and cattle interests.
Burke has made it known that he is sensitive to indigenous development aspirations.
"Where you have traditional owners who love the country and want to develop it, it puts a different complexion on it," he says.
But this is not a uniform view among environment groups.
"There is a whole bunch of people across the broad Left who struggle with the same issue and I understand that," Schneiders says.
"But you can wrap yourself up into a world of pain by having two standards. At the end of the day a bulldozer is a bulldozer and it doesn't really matter who is profiting from it."
Henry is on the same page.
"If there is traditional owner consent we need to be respectful of that," he says. "But the minister is still duty bound to sit down and make a decision about how a development affects the national interest of all Australians in relation to the environment of that particular site or area."
Nowhere is this issue more divisive than in Broome, where groups and families - black and white - have been split over Woodside Petroleum's plans to develop itsliquefied natural gas facilities and James Price Point. With a heritage listing in place, Burke has a direct stake in deciding whether the James Price Point project can proceed.
The project has the support of the Kimberley Land Council, but still may fail on commercial grounds with Woodside seeking to sell down its interest in the Browse Basin offshore gas field.
If it does not proceed, Burke says he will feel most for the indigenous groups who had given consent in exchange for a substantial royalty deal.
Such sentiments fuel doubts about the value of Labor's heritage agenda.
"Burke has delivered on the listing but we haven't seen what happens when he has to go head-to-head with Martin Ferguson in his own cabinet over large-scale resource extraction in the Kimberley," Schneiders says.
The Murray-Darling Basin plan has yet to officially hit Burke's desk, and given the process so far it will be a difficult job to bring it to a civilised conclusion.
In the end, Burke may decide to nominate a range of options for how water will be split between agriculture and the environment. Environmental flows would increase subject to the completion of specified capital works programs.
In Tasmania, there are signs the promise of peace is starting to fracture, with Greens leader Bob Brown encouraging protesters back into the forest and loggers threatening to walk away.
"The jury is still out," Schneiders says. "We will have a much better picture if Burke has managed to pull off a miracle in Tasmania in six months' time."
The same is true with offshore bioregional mapping of commonwealth waters, where Burke has elected to declare all protected zones around the nation at the same time later this year.
There are more immediate concerns over the threat that increased shipping poses to the Great Barrier Reef. Expansion of Gladstone Harbour to enable an east-coast LNG export hub is only the start of a projected shipping boom, with new ports and port expansions slated along the Queensland coastline.
"It is the right time to sit back and have a look at the development pressures and their impacts on the Great Barrier Reef as a whole," Henry says. "If you just look at individual proposals, whether it is gas industrialisation at Gladstone or proposals for a coal mine or a coal port, we might miss the big picture impact of them all put together."
Burke says this is already in place. And he is determined to extend his powers to consider shipping numbers, speed and where they wait offshore.
"I won't be approving anything unless I am satisfied that the reef is being appropriately protected," he says. "As a general principle I fail to see how you can you can have an expansion of any port where vessels will be going through a World Heritage area without those shipping movements being significant to any approval."
Few people doubt Burke's good intentions. But Henry says time is running out.
"As the mining boom picks up, we are probably finding we have less time to find solutions than we thought," Henry says. "It is the right time to make decisions."