Boobera Lagoon

In May 1995 I was appointed rapporteur in relation to Boobera Lagoon, an old path of the MacIntyre River in New South Wales near the Queensland border. According to the mythology of the local Aboriginal people, the Lagoon was made by and is now the resting place of a local version of the Rainbow Serpent, a being that appears in Aboriginal mythology in many places. There was no doubt about the genuineness of the claim, which had long been documented by anthropologists and consistently pursued by local Aboriginals whenever an opportunity had arisen over the years. The most acute among many issues was that the Lagoon had become a major waterskiing site, providing the only water-based recreation for the inhabitants of the hot, dry, dusty Goondiwindi area, but one that the Aboriginals found offensive and disrespectful to what they treasured as a sacred place. Also at issue was the effect of cattle depastured around the Lagoon, most acutely where a Travelling Stock Route bordered the Lagoon. Apart from spiritual desecration, the Aboriginals were concerned that both the waterskiing and the cattle were causing serious environmental damage to the Lagoon.

The matter proved difficult. The Aboriginals had been fighting for the protection of the Lagoon for many years, and although they were quite happy to share its enjoyment with non-Aboriginals who treated it respectfully, they would not condone waterskiing or continued environmental damage. The non-Aboriginal side was no less intransigent. The local authority managing the Travelling Stock Route would not even agree to watering cattle with water pumped into troughs from the Lagoon, a procedure that would have allowed its bank to be fenced off. One could not but feel sympathy for the water-skiers who had been using the Lagoon for many years and had come to regard it as a major feature of family and community recreation for which no substitute was available. There are many aspects canvassed in my report in the course of weighing up the competing claims, but in the end I recommended that waterskiing be banned and arrangements made to keep travelling stock off the Lagoon bank.

The recommendation was to have a chequered history. My report had been commissioned by the Labor Minister, Robert Tickner, but by the time I presented it in August 1995 the Government had changed and Senator Herron, a Queensland Liberal, was the Minister. Although I believed that my report made a persuasive case for banning the waterskiing and taking other steps to protect the Lagoon, I held out little hope of a positive outcome, particularly given that the move was opposed by the Deputy Prime Minister who held the adjoining Federal seat.[8] Several years passed with no decision announced, although I did hear a report of a white-headed man in a Commonwealth car calling in at Boggabilla Hotel to seek directions to Boobera Lagoon. Then under Ministerial rearrangements the Aboriginal Heritage Section was transferred on 17 December 1998 to the Department of the Environment, and Mr Herron, I am told, breathed a sigh of relief. However the Prime Minister decreed that he must deal with the matter before handing it over. To everyone’s surprise he banned the waterskiing, softening the blow with a grant of $5 million to construct a new waterskiing site near Goondiwindi. There were a number of postponements, but ultimately the new site was constructed and quiet descended on the Lagoon. It is a declared Aboriginal place under NSW law, and is now managed by a committee with a majority of Aboriginal members. They are gradually negotiating increased protection from cattle damage around the lagoon, and on recent inquiry I was told that the only blight on their satisfaction was that the $5 million to build the new waterskiing site was taken out of Aboriginal Heritage Protection Funds.