The Conservation Council of WA (CCWA) has urged the state government to take the opportunity to reexamine Western Australia’s Aboriginal cultural heritage laws after it was announced that the latest legislation would be repealed.
The WA State Government confirmed yesterday that it would be scrapping the new Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act 2021, little more than five weeks after they had been introduced. The laws were developed in the wake of the destruction of the 46,000 year-old, culturally significant caves at Juukan Gorge in 2020 by Rio Tinto, but the new legislation had attracted criticism from some land owners.
The WA Premier, Roger Cook, said that the 2021 Act would now be revoked and the original laws – dating back to 1972 – would be reintroduced with some amendments. This is despite the original act being described as ‘an outmoded relic from an era when Aboriginal people and culture were not respected’ by former WA Treasurer, Ben Wyatt.
“By reverting to original 50-year-old legislation we can reset, end all the confusion and importantly, strike the right balance”, the Premier said.
Having initially defended the legislation – even going so far as to publicly condemn its critics – Mr Cook later told the media that the legislation had caused ‘stress, confusion and division in the community’, for which he apologised.
State-wide survey project to be undertaken
Objections to the new act had largely been in relation to a requirement for landowners to understand and document cultural heritage sites on their land before carrying out certain types of work.
Some landowners had said they were unsure how this would work, how much it would cost and how they would be expected to carry out this requirement.
Following yesterday’s announcement, Mr Cook said that property owners would no longer be required to undertake surveys of their own land. Instead, the state government would begin a process of documenting cultural heritage sites in ‘high priority’ areas, with the findings of those surveys to be published and made publicly available. It has not yet been confirmed which individuals or which body will decide what qualifies as a ‘high priority’ area.
The Premier said that existing native title groups would receive support to develop the extra capacity needed to work alongside government and industry with regards to Aboriginal Cultural Heritage.
New amendments to WA’s cultural heritage laws will include a ban on gag orders for Traditional Owners and a right of review for decisions granted under the controversial Section 18 process which allows proponents to seek permission from the state government to destroy recognised cultural heritage.
Critics call decision ‘a backwards step’
While the state government’s decision was welcomed by some, groups like the Puutu Kunti Jurrama and Pinikura Aboriginal Corporation (PKKP) – the Traditional Owner group of Juukan Gorge – said that the reintroduction of the 1972 act was a mistake.
“We’re going back to pre-native title legislation, that was never fit for purpose, that benefitted industry over Aboriginal heritage”, PKKP Land and Heritage Manager Dr Jordan Ralph told the ABC.
“It’s a backward step – and that’s probably an understatement.
“We went through an entire senate enquiry around this (…) those reports from the senate enquiry recorded ‘a way forward’ and ‘never again’. This is not a way forward.”
The Chief Executive of the National Native Title Council, Jamie Lowe, told The Guardian that WA’s cultural heritage laws had been ‘a total disaster’ and left Indigenous groups and native title owners ‘frustrated and angry’.
“You get the result of this: a waste of taxpayers’ money, people’s time and energy and a net result of zero”, he said.
Indigenous leaders have called for an ‘urgent roundtable’ with the WA State Government.
‘A second chance to get it right’ – CCWA
CCWA Executive Director, Joe Heffernan, expressed his dismay at the failure of the state government to deliver important cultural heritage reforms.
“Effective conservation of WA’s natural places sits side-by-side with effective cultural heritage protection, in part through legislation”, he said.
Mr Heffernan called on the state government to listen to Aboriginal leaders in the state and proceed with a collaborative approach to the legislation.
“For all the criticism of the now abandoned legislation, we can’t lose sight of the fact that the 1972 act was not fit for purpose and did not recognise the rights of Indigenous people on this matter. The act treated Aboriginal heritage as the property of the minister of the day”, he said.
“That the Juukan Gorge disaster was allowed to happen under the 1972 legislation is reason enough to conclude that simply reinstating the old laws is not going to provide the protections needed.”
Mr Heffernan urged the state government to seek early advice from Indigenous groups regarding any surveys that the government intends to undertake and publish.
“We call on the state government to take this opportunity for what it is – a second chance to get this very important legislation right and deliver the cultural protections that Aboriginal people are asking for.”
MEDIA INFORMATION: The Conservation Council of WA (CCWA) is the state’s foremost non-profit, non-government conservation organisation representing nearly 100 environmental organisations across Western Australia.
For more information, visit: ccwa.org.au.
CONTACT: For any enquiries relating to this release, please contact Robert Davies
08 6558 5156 / 0412 272 570 or by email, [email protected]