When Rio Tinto exploded Juukan Gorge, a 46,000-year-old site of global cultural and archaeological significance it broke the hearts of traditional owners, appalled the nation and blew its own reputation into pieces.
It also triggered a federal inquiry, which on Monday found that what happened at Juukan gorge, while shocking, was not unique.
It was one of “countless instances where cultural heritage has been the victim of the drive for development and commercial gain”, the inquiry’s final report said.
There are “failures” at every level of government and there must be urgent legislative change to stop the destruction of Aboriginal heritage across the nation, the report said.
“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.
“This disaster was a wakeup call that there are serious deficiencies in the protection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural heritage. What is needed now is a way forward, for both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and industry.”
That way forward, according to Entsch and most of his committee, includes a new national Aboriginal cultural heritage act, to set the standard for all other state and territory legislation, co-designed with Aboriginal people. A new, independent national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage council should be set up to act as a “specialist voice” on heritage protection.
“And if they don’t measure up to those particular minimum standards, penalties ought to be imposed,” WA Labor senator and Yawuru man Pat Dodson said.
“The propensity of the states is simply to relegate Aboriginal heritage to the bottom rung in most situations, and therefore the destruction that’s being caused, it’s an absolute disgrace, that this is allowed to happen in our country,” Dodson said.
Aboriginal traditional owners must have a “right to refuse consent” over development on their lands, Dodson said.
The inquiry heard repeatedly from Aboriginal groups who said they continue to negotiate with resource companies despite the massive power imbalance, and are not “anti-mining”.
So will this report finally lead to meaningful change?
Not all committee members agreed with the findings. Liberals Dean Smith and George Christiansen’s additional comments indicate there isn’t a universal appetite for laws that might further curtail the mining industry.
Smith and Christiansen blasted Rio Tinto’s conduct, criticising it for paying millions to executives who stepped down over the disaster and calling for a judicial inquiry, including determining whether “criminal charges” might be laid.
But they said an overhaul of the heritage system was “unnecessary” and would lead to laws that could be used “as deliberate weapons against the resources sector”. Such action would give “further opportunity for activist activity” and undermine job opportunities and other economic benefits for Indigenous people, they said.
Greens senator Lidia Thorpe, a Gunnai Gunditjmara and Djab Wurrung woman, said traditional owners should have much stronger rights to refuse development, including a right to veto.
The minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt said he welcomed the report, but did not respond directly to questions about whether a transfer of responsibilities to his department was likely.
“I will continue to work in very close collaboration with the Minister for the Environment to strengthen the protection of Indigenous heritage,” Wyatt said in a statement.
“In considering this report, it needs to be acknowledged that any reforms are part of a co-design process in partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait communities.”
Dodson said he had “no confidence the government will do anything, quite frankly”, accusing them of “sitting on their hands” since the committee’s interim report was released in December.
But he warned that ignoring the report would show they have “no empathy for First Nations cultural heritage” and be at odds with the industry itself.
Superannuation giant Hesta, an institutional investor in Rio Tinto and other resource companies, said it supported a strong national framework.
“This is vital to improving the global standing of Australia’s mining industry damaged by the poor practices that have emerged in the wake of Juukan Gorge,” Hesta chief executive Debby Blakey said.
“The gap between our current laws and community expectations creates risk for companies and investors. Closing this gap will help protect our members’ investments, while protecting priceless cultural heritage and supporting a strong Australian economy.”
The Australian centre for corporate responsibility (ACCR) said the era of “virtual self-regulation” by mining companies must end but ACCR legal counsel, James Fitzgerald said it was “extremely disappointing” that neither the Western Australian or federal government have responded to the inquiry’s interim report.
ACCR said the mining industry, “particularly the Pilbara Big Three: Rio Tinto, BHP and Fortescue Metals” needs to publicly support the inquiry’s findings and recommendations and support traditional owners calls for Western Australia to halt its draft heritage legislation and engage a “genuine process of co-design of new heritage laws with First Nations representatives”.
The PKKP Aboriginal Corporation, representing the traditional owners of Juukan gorge, said their sorrow and loss are still beyond measure.
“Actions not words will be the true test,” they said in a statement.
“It was never our wish or choice to be in this position but the response by Rio Tinto, other mining companies and government decision-makers to the events at Juukan Gorge will be a test case for First Nations people throughout Australia and internationally.
The PKKP said they would continue to work “in good faith with the leadership of Rio Tinto to ensure that the attitudes and processes which resulted in the Juukan blast are truly replaced by a genuine partnership and respect.”
They want a role in decision-making, and the co-management of mining on their lands.
“Put simply this means early, meaningful and ongoing engagement through all stages of mining activity.
“We are doing all we can to make this happen.”