Western Australia cannot afford to miss the opportunity to pursue “monumental reform” of its Aboriginal cultural heritage legislation in the wake of the Juukan Gorge destruction, Aboriginal Affairs Minister Ben Wyatt says.
In a speech to a heritage industry forum, Mr Wyatt has described Aboriginal cultural heritage as the most difficult public policy area in which to reach a broad consensus.
He says while some archaeologists and Aboriginal groups have raised concerns about the draft Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Bill, persisting with the existing outdated regime after multiple attempts at reform is a far worse option.
“The status quo is a tough beast to move,” he told the Australian Association of Consulting Archaeologists’ Future Forum 2020.
“The question you will have to ask yourselves is whether you want to continue with the 1972 Act or you want to create a new regime (which) will be imperfect as all legislation is.
“We’ve got to be able to come up with a system that is much better than an act that went through the parliament two years before I was born, years before the Native Title Act came into existence and does not embed the role of Aboriginal people in the heritage system.”
Mr Wyatt confirmed there was no prospect of the bill passing parliament before the March state election but the government would introduce it next year if re-elected.
WA’s existing Aboriginal Heritage Act notably does not give Indigenous land owners the right to appeal decisions.
Under the new regime, they will have the same appeal rights as land users and the controversial Section 18 approvals process, which enabled Rio Tinto to destroy the 46,000-year-old Juukan Gorge earlier this year, will be scrapped.
Land users will also face tougher penalties of up to $10 million for damaging sites without authorisation.
But heritage professionals have told AAP they are deeply concerned the new regime would place a huge burden on severely under-resourced native title bodies.
Aboriginal groups have also criticised the fact that the Aboriginal Affairs Minister will still have the final say over decisions on heritage destruction if the relevant parties are unable to agree under a new tiered approvals system.
Mr Wyatt, who is also the state’s treasurer, has said such a scenario will be rare.
He has also dismissed concerns that the complex 200-page draft bill was open for comment for just five weeks.
“There has been no other reform initiative undertaken by the McGowan government that has been subject to such extensive stakeholder consultation,” he told the forum.
Greens MP Robin Chapple said the government should commit to improving the bill before introducing it to parliament.
“Let’s see the next draft because the current one won’t work,” he told AAP.
“You cannot, in this day and age, allow the minister to be the final arbiter of what is a site and what is not a site.”
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