Indigenous advisers hoping to protect sacred sites to a national standard say they have ‘brief pause for hope’ after Rio Tinto’s destruction of caves at Juukan Gorge
A new Aboriginal heritage alliance will advise the Morrison government on possible law reform, a month on from a parliamentary report which found “countless instances where cultural heritage has been the victim of the drive for development and commercial gain”.
The new group held its first roundtable meeting with environment minister Sussan Ley and the minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, on Monday.
It will look at ways to reform legislation, and at how to set standards for states and territories to follow, according to the chairman of the National Native Title Council and co-chair of the First Nations Heritage Protection Alliance, Kado Muir.
“This gives us Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples around Australia a brief pause for hope that, together with the federal government, we can come up with a set of legislative reforms that protects sacred sites to a national standard,” Muir said.
He said he was hopeful the group would look at ways to put an end to “black tape” – the process whereby Aboriginal heritage has legal status when companies wanting to do business on Aboriginal land seek permission to destroy sites as part of development applications.
Muir said he wanted to uncouple Aboriginal heritage from development so sites could be protected and valued as places of cultural and religious significance.
“And then hopefully, through this process … we can identify a legislative reform package that takes Aboriginal heritage away from the development approvals framework and really looks at it from the enjoyment and benefit of cultural heritage that we as Aboriginal peoples inherit from our ancestors, that we share not only with other Australians, but other people around the world,” he said.
“For me as an Aboriginal person who engages with my heritage and culture as a part of my spiritual awareness and my religion, I will be looking at aligning more with the new religious protections that the federal government is introducing at the moment.”
Announcing the partnership, Ley said Indigenous heritage protection was an “all-too-complex interaction of state, territory and commonwealth law and it needs to be addressed through a national conversation”.
Wyatt said respect for Indigenous heritage involved respect for the views Indigenous Australians.
“Indigenous Australians should have the right to determine the heritage that is important to them, the ability to access applicable policies and laws to safeguard that heritage, and the choice of how they generate revenue on their land,” Wyatt said.
Rio Tinto’s destruction of a 46,000-year-old archaeological and cultural site at Juukan Gorge in 2020 triggered global condemnation and led to a parliamentary inquiry which released its final report, A Way Forward, in October.
The report found there were “serious deficiencies” at every level of government and urgent legislative change was needed to stop the destruction of Aboriginal heritage. It recommended the federal government set a minimum standard for heritage protection that states and territories could follow.
“The destruction of the caves was a disaster beyond reckoning for the Puutu Kunti Kurrama people and Pinikura people, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural heritage as a whole,” inquiry chair Warren Entsch said in October.
Since the blast, the West Australian government has developed a new Aboriginal heritage bill, which is before parliament. Rio Tinto had obtained ministerial consent to destroy Juukan Gorge under the old Aboriginal Heritage Act.
WA Aboriginal affairs minister Stephen Dawson has said the bill would give Aboriginal people the right to make decisions on matters affecting their cultural heritage and it was the result of “extensive consultation”.
But traditional owners have raised concerns, including that the minister retains the final say over heritage disputes, and that they would have limited rights of judicial appeal. They would only be able to go to the state administrative tribunal in six specific circumstances.
The Kimberley Land Council has warned of a “cultural catastrophe”.
Muir said the WA government should halt the bill.
“The West Australian government, if you pardon the pun, are bulldozing ahead with this legislation,’’ Muir said. “It’s essentially an abuse of its majority and it’s an abuse of Aboriginal people.
“We took this matter to the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination at the UN, because this legislation is discriminatory and it fails to set up protections to stop another Juukan from happening.
“It should step back and halt the bill, come back and enter into a partnership similar to what the federal government is doing.’’