The West Australian government introduced its controversial new Aboriginal cultural heritage laws to the state parliament on Wednesday, despite protests by traditional owner groups and Indigenous legal experts.
The new laws are aimed at preventing another Juukan Gorge disaster and will remove the Section 18 approvals process which allowed the destruction of the sacred site last year.
The law will still give the WA Minister for Aboriginal Affairs final say in circumstances when mining companies and traditional owners cannot come to an agreement.
The legislation will create an Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Council which will have responsibility for providing oversight for the new system, with members to be appointed by the Minister.
The council will have two Aboriginal co-chairpersons along with four to nine members, with a requirement for the majority of the council to be Aboriginal people.
However, Indigenous groups have repeatedly expressed their frustration over what they say has been limited consultation through the drafting process of the bill.
Yamatji Noongar woman and Greens Senator Dorinda Cox says the government has ignored traditional owners’ concerns and wants to see the removal of the minister having a final say over decisions.
Senator Cox has described the legislation as a “mining enabling bill.”
“It’s not a cultural heritage bill. It doesn’t strive to protect cultural heritage. What it does is it enables a more streamlined approach to the approval [process], it puts all of the decision-making in the hands of the government and the proponents…and they are the ones who are making the benefit from this process, not First Nations people.”
The National Native Title Council has also condemned the bill, with its CEO Jamie Lowe expressing disappointment at the way the bill was tabled in parliament without consultation.
“Disappointed is probably an understatement,” he said. “We’ve been calling for some time now for a co-design, partnership approach in designing this piece of legislation which will affect all First Nations people in Western Australia, so to hear it was tabled in parliament yesterday without a heads up….disappointed is an understatement.”
Mr Lowe said the lack of consultation with Traditional Owners represented an “archaic way of doing business.”
“First Nations rights and views need to be upheld, and through this process they haven’t. We need to be working in partnership rather than the old consultative model where the decision makers talk to a few people and then go back and make their decision.”
“The legislation purports to preserve Aboriginal cultural heritage, and forbids exercise of traditionally held rights to enjoy, manage, or bequeath Indigenous cultural heritage.”
“Essentially the new bill seems like a convoluted version of the old act, with the ultimate decision-making power still up to the Minister and still no real right to appeal for Aboriginal People. It also ignores the recommendations made in ‘A Way Forward – Final Report Into the destruction of Indigenous heritage sites at Juukan Gorge”.
The government says the bill incorporates extensive feedback and will put traditional owners at the “heart” of decision making for protection and management of sites.