Outcry as Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Bill passes Parliament

Edward ScownGeraldton Guardian
Protestors against the WA Government's Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Bill gather on the steps of WA Parliament in August.
Camera IconProtestors against the WA Government's Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Bill gather on the steps of WA Parliament in August. Credit: Gabrielle Timmins/Kimberley Land Council

Aboriginal rights advocates claim the controversial Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Bill, which passed State Parliament last week, does not go far enough and places industry and government interests ahead of cultural protection.

Legislation was introduced to Parliament in mid-November which contained more than 100 changes to the existing laws, but Aboriginal leaders said it didn’t go far enough to prevent similar destruction of significant historical sites to that which happened at Juukan Gorge in May 2020, and called for more time to consider the Bill after more than a year of negotiations.

“Once again, government just talked at us, they didn’t listen to us when we said we needed time to consider things more, and they went on to introduce this new legislation that serves their and industry’s interests — certainly not ours,” Yamatji Marlpa Aboriginal Corporation co-chairperson Peter Windie said.

“You’d think by now we, as Aboriginal people, would be used to the Government ignoring us and doing what they want.”

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Greens senator and Yamati-Noongar woman Dorinda Cox said cultural protection offered by the State Government was “inadequate to say the least”, and took to social media to level criticism towards then-Aboriginal Affairs Minister Stephen Dawson.

“Traditional Owners have been stripped of their right to protect their cultural heritage sites and do not consent to their land being desecrated under the hands of WA’s (Labor) Indigenous Affairs Minister, Stephen Dawson,” she said.

Mr Dawson — who lost the Aboriginal Affairs portfolio on Friday — called the Bill a “significant milestone” in protecting cultural heritage, and said a co-design approach had been taken to the bill and its supporting documents.

“These laws are the result of widespread consultation and will deliver monumental legislative reform, transforming the way Aboriginal cultural heritage is valued and protected,” he said.

“It is the only Aboriginal heritage legislation in Australia to require Aboriginal people to give informed consent for agreements reached.”

YMAC chief executive Simon Hawkins rejected that claim, and said traditional owners were “fed up with being dismissed by the State Government when asking to meet with them”.

Premier Mark McGowan said the new legislation “strikes a balanced and respectful approach to Aboriginal cultural heritage management”.

“Finding a balance between the protection of that rich cultural heritage and delivering on the economic potential of natural resources to ensure our State’s continuing prosperity is crucial,” he said.

Despite the consultation process seemingly being over, YMAC still intends to go ahead with a co-design workshop it had planned for January 18.

“Now that the bill has been passed, traditional owners’ focus has had to shift from what they can do to craft a Bill that supports what they need, to now living with legislation that they did not support,” Mr Hawkins said.

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