Growing calls on the government of Western Australia to withdraw the ‘unacceptable’ indigenous heritage bill

There are growing calls for the government of Western Australia to withdraw its Aboriginal cultural heritage legislation, with nearly 150 prominent Australians putting their names on a letter of concern.

Work to replace the outdated Aboriginal Heritage Law began years ago, but was not completed in time to prevent the destruction of a sacred site at Juukan Gorge in the Pilbara region of WA in May 2020.

The WA government introduced the new legislation a fortnight ago and was using its parliamentary majority to rush the bill before the end of the year.

The legislation aimed to better protect indigenous heritage by removing the controversial Section 18 approval process that allowed mining giant Rio Tinto to blow up the 46,000-year-old rock shelters despite warnings from traditional owners about it. cultural significance of the site.

But the bill has sparked shock and outrage from some traditional owners and indigenous leaders, who fear it will not prevent another Juukan Gorge disaster and say there has not been enough consultation. .

Stephen Dawson is the current Minister of Native Affairs for WA and is said to have considerable power to intervene under the law.(ABC News: Hugh Sando)

Among their concerns was that the WA Minister of Indigenous Affairs would always have the final say in circumstances where traditional owners and mining companies could not come to an agreement.

In addition, the Indigenous Cultural Heritage Board, which will be responsible for providing strategic oversight of the system, would only have a majority of Indigenous members rather than full representation and members would be appointed by the Minister.

In addition, the new laws did not grant traditional owners any right to appeal to the state administrative court against the minister’s decisions.

“Unacceptable” invoice in its current form

In the letter to WA Premier Mark McGowan, the 146 signatories said the bill would not recognize, protect or preserve Indigenous cultural heritage.

“The bill does not allow Aboriginals to ensure the protection of heritage and sites – without the agreement of the proponent and / or the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs,” the letter said.

“Indigenous peoples have repeatedly called for better legal protection of heritage sites, but the bill weighs against indigenous custodians in all processes involving heritage claims to carry out activities that disturb or destroy areas of cultural heritage.

“With respect, we call on you to withdraw the bill and ensure that the law is designed jointly with indigenous peoples to respect human rights and ensure a system of” best practices “to protect cultural heritage aboriginal in our state. “

The wide range of signatories to the open letter included former Australian of the Year Fiona Stanley AC, Anglican Archbishop Kay Goldsworthy AO, businesswoman Janet Holmes-A-Court AC, former prime minister of WA Carmen Lawrence and Ernie Dingo AM.

A head and shoulders photo of Ernie Goof speaking at a press conference.
TV personality Ernie Goofy was one of the many prominent executives who signed the letter of concern.(ABC News: Kenith PNG)

Noongar’s human rights lawyer Dr Hannah McGlade said the bill was under consideration by the United Nations committee on racial discrimination.

“We are sending a clear message to Premier McGowan that the bill right now is unacceptable to a lot of people,” she said.

“Prominent Australians stand with us to say that Aboriginal heritage and culture matter. This government must stop placing mining and economic interests above the rights of traditional owners to protect and care for sacred lands.

Hannah McGlade wears a blue blazer as she stands in front of a bookcase
Noongar’s human rights lawyer Dr Hannah McGlade said the bill was unacceptable in its current form.(ABC News: Rhiannon Shine)

The state opposition accused the government of pushing the legislation through parliament, after introducing the bill with more than 100 amendments to the bill in the penultimate sitting week of the Legislative Assembly.

Laws to be adopted in a few weeks

The WA parliament was due to pass the legislation in a few weeks, after the state government declared it to be urgent legislation and added an extra sitting week for the upper house to complete its debate before the end of the calendar year.

The state government defended the consultation process and the legislation, saying the bill incorporated feedback from more than 100 workshops and briefings attended by over 1,400 people, 150 targeted and one-on-one meetings. stakeholders and over 380 submissions.

Mr McGowan said it was “the most progressive cultural heritage legislation in the country”.

“It enforces agreements with traditional owners, in accordance with indigenous title laws, and allows indigenous people to negotiate better results for projects on their lands,” he said in a statement.

WA Premier Mark McGowan speaks during a press conference inside a building site in Piara Waters, Perth
Washington State Premier Mark McGowan has said he is committed to putting the bill into law.(ABC News: James Carmody)

In parliament, McGowan said the bill would ensure that the protection of indigenous cultural heritage is enhanced and at the forefront of consideration when developing projects.

“After three decades of unsuccessful attempts, we are introducing our new law on indigenous cultural heritage,” he said.

“My point is that governments are elected to act, they are elected to make decisions and they are elected to make things better, and that is what this legislation will do.”

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