Agency blind to WA heritage site removals

Michael Ramsey
·3-min read

Western Australia's registrar of Aboriginal heritage sites has been grilled on the deregistering of thousands of sites prior to the ancient Juukan Gorge rock shelters being blown up.

A parliamentary committee examining mining giant Rio Tinto's destruction of the 46,000-year-old caves heard evidence on Friday from Tanya Butler, who is also secretariat of the Aboriginal Cultural Materials Committee.

The ACMC is responsible under WA's outdated 1972 Aboriginal Heritage Act for assessing Section 18 applications to disrupt sites.

Its recommendations are considered by the Aboriginal affairs minister who makes the final determination.

Ms Butler was asked about a study in the Journal of the Australian Association of Consulting Archaeologists which revealed 3207 sites - mostly in the Pilbara mining region - had been removed from the register between 2008 and 2015.

She was unaware of the figure cited in the study, but noted there had been many changes over the years as to what constitutes an Aboriginal site.

Committee chair and coalition MP Warren Entsch asked whether concerns had been raised about the ACMC's capacity to protect cultural sites.

"Over the years there have been concerns raised, which is why the department is going through the process of the new bill in addressing those concerns," Ms Butler replied.

In its submission to the inquiry, the Yinhawangka Aboriginal Corporation said the ACMC had been rendered "impotent" by the discretionary power of the minister and the limited role of Aboriginal people speaking for their country.

"I've got to say to you from the evidence we've received, the traditional owners have little or no confidence at all in the integrity of the process," Mr Entsch said.

"It seems to be set up to continually disappoint them."

Ms Butler said the majority of sites were added to the registrar as a result of industry-funded heritage surveys or other development processes.

She said the ACMC had only recently become aware of concerns about Aboriginal groups being subject to gag orders under their land use agreements.

Labor Senator Warren Snowden said he found that hard to believe.

"It raises the question of how much consultation takes place between the ACMC and your office and traditional owners around sites," he said.

Ms Butler said the ACMC had not been aware of the full significance of the Juukan Gorge sites when it was assessed in 2013.

WA's Labor government has drafted new Aboriginal heritage laws which will remove the Section 18 process.

With parliament having now risen for the year, the government has broken a 2017 election promise to overhaul the existing regime during this term in government.

The path forward has been further complicated by Aboriginal Affairs Minister Ben Wyatt's decision to retire at the March election.

Mr Wyatt this week said final improvements were being made to the bill which will be introduced in the next parliament should Labor, as expected, win another term.

It has been welcomed by mining companies, but received a lukewarm reaction from Aboriginal corporations and the heritage industry, which says more needs to be done to empower traditional owners.