A group of Aboriginal Elders in West Australia have stated they were not provided adequate consultation on the state’s draft Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Bill.

In a letter to newly appointed WA Aboriginal Affairs Minister Stephen Dawson, the Aboriginal Heritage Action Alliance (AHAA) which represents the states senior Traditional Owners expressed their legal and cultural concerns over the draft bill, which is set to be introduced to parliament later this year. 

“The group have unanimously agreed that the draft Bill provides no further protection for cultural heritage than was provided under its predecessor, the out-dated Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972, which allowed the destruction of Juukan Gorge” by mining giant Rio Tinto.

AHAA said the 8-week submission period was not enough time to detail their many concerns and said under the Draft Act, Traditional Owners would be afforded no increased decision-making power over their cultural heritage.

An alliance of WA Native Title Representative Bodies has echoed the Elders concerns, stating “Traditional Owners were not properly consulted in the short consultation period and that the draft bill should not be presented to parliament in its current form. Instead, a genuine co-design process in partnership with Traditional Owners should take place.”

NNTC CEO Mr Jamie Lowe said:

“The WA Government’s draft bill will not prevent another Juukan Gorge disaster. Minister Dawson has stated that the draft bill places WA Traditional Owners at the centre of decision making, this is only true to the extent that it places Traditional Owners at the centre of other people’s decision making: the mining companies, other land users and the State. Under this legislation, Traditional Owners will be left powerless to stop cultural heritage destruction.”

“This draft bill would do a disservice to all Australians and to the international community, who, after losing a site of such immense value in such unnecessary circumstances, are trusting the WA Government to get this right. Protecting cultural heritage and having a thriving mining sector can happily co-exist – we just need to get the reform piece right,” Mr Lowe Said.

AHAA member and Nanda Widi Elder Clayton Lewis said the best way forward is for the WA government to withdraw the bill in its entirety and commence mediation with the state’s Traditional Owners to co-design a best practice heritage reform.

“We think that various aspects of the new act is about appeasing the mining sector and not really about heritage control,” Mr Lewis said.

“Contrary to what the state government says we’d like to actually be more involved in the writing of the new act, rather than have this draft bill presented to us, which is undesirable on many accounts.”

WA Aboriginal Affairs Minister Stephen Dawson is on record saying, “we limit things like Juukan happening again” but could not guarantee a similar incident would not happen again.

Mr Lewis called Minister Dawson’s comments a cop-out and said he’s more or less saying that they will go ahead and do as they please.

“From that statement, it seems like what they’re going to push through will mean destruction of similar significant sites like Juukan – so the Act means nothing really.”

Clayton Lewis’ full interview with NIRS