Australia responds to 'shameful moment' that led to 'global outrage'

“A shameful moment in Australia's history” is how Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek has described Juukan Gorge’s destruction by Rio Tinto.

Two years after the Western Australia Pilbara site was destroyed by the mining giant, the federal government has promised to strengthen Indigenous cultural protection laws with legislation.

Under the watch of the previous environment minister Sussan Ley and the West Australian government, the 46,000-year-old caves were blown up in Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura country. Traditional Owners were devastated and a global backlash led to the departure of Rio Tinto’s CEO Jean-Sebastien Jacques and two executives.

Juukan Gorge in 2015, before it was blown up by Rio Tinto. Source: PKKP and PKKP via AAP
Juukan Gorge in 2015, before it was blown up by Rio Tinto. Source: PKKP and PKKP via AAP

Ms Plibersek told ABC Radio on Thursday Rio Tinto had permission to destroy the caves under the outdated state Aboriginal Heritage Act. “The destruction of Juukan Gorge was legal under the laws as they exist at the moment and it was completely wrong, but it shows how weak the laws are,” she said.

Indigenous PKKP group furious at government response

Ms Plibersek tabled the federal government’s response to the Joint Select Committee Report in parliament just after 9am. But this has angered the PKKP Aboriginal Corporation (PKKPAC) — the Indigenous group that administers the land on which the caves existed.

Its chairman Burchell Hayes said it could not comment on the government's response as it had not been consulted. He said he would have expected the minister to speak to them before making a public announcement about their heritage, but claims they received "no detail or meaningful follow-up".

“All of this started with the destruction of our cultural heritage, everyone keeps on telling us they are sorry about it, but actions speak louder than words,” he said.

He said today's actions confirmed PKKP peoples "had to look after themselves when it came to their country". “We have tasted the devastation and we know what needs to be done," he said.

A spokesperson for Minister Plibersek said her office has attempted to engage with the PKKP on at least four occasions this week. “The Minister’s office spoke to the PKKP cultural heritage manager,” they said. “A meeting between the CEO and the Minister was also offered.”

Key facts about Juukan Gorge:

  • Juukan Gorge is on of Australia's oldest sites of human occupation

  • The caves were home to 46,000 years of continuous culture and traditions

  • A 28,000-year-old bone tool and 4,000-year-old hair belt were found inside the caves

Minister Plibersek tables Juukan Gorge report

Tabling the Federal Government’s response to parliament, on Thursday morning, Ms Plibersek said other nations would not have destroyed cultural sites of comparable age.

A flat pile of dirt where Juukan Gorge once stood.
Juukan Gorge in 2020 following its destruction. Source: PKKP and PKKP via AAP

“It is unthinkable that we would ever knowingly destroy Stone Henge, or the Egyptian pyramids, or the Lascaux Caves in France,” she said. “When the Bamiyan Buddhas were destroyed in Afghanistan, the world was rightly outraged. But that’s precisely what occurred at the Juukan Gorge.”

Quoting the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people’s submission to the enquiry she said: “The Juukan Gorge disaster is a tragedy not only for our people. It is also a tragedy for the heritage of all Australians and indeed humanity as a whole”.

Coalition responds to Juukan Gorge report

Speaking on behalf of the Coalition’s shadow environment minister, the National’s Pat Conaghan responded to the minister’s speech. Characterising the destruction of Juukan Gorge the result of a “tragic failure”, he said it served as a launchpad for “reviewing and modernising” of Indigenous cultural heritage laws.

He continued by noting Minister Plibersek had made a “very important commitment” and directly quoted her, saying the reforms are “not about stopping development, or halting progress.” “Any work that is aimed at improving cultural heritage law should not be transformed into an exercise that demonises industry,” he said.

Tanya Plibersek speaks to parliament on November 14.
Labor's resources minister Madeleine King (right) watched on as Minister Plibersek delivered her speech to parliament. Source: AAP

Mr Conaghan said the Coalition would take at “face value” the government’s acceptance of seven of eight recommendations in the final report by the Joint Select Committee on Northern Australia. The government has signed an agreement with the First Nations Heritage Protection Alliance and is currently working through the final recommendation with them.

Labor faces tough decision on key industrial projects

It remains unclear if adoption of the recommendations will immediately affect other key projects under consideration by Labor.

The speech was watched by Labor's resources Madeliene King, who has thrown her support behind the controversial Narrabri coals seam gas project which is opposed by many of the Kamilaroi people who have warned it will destroy their own sacred site.

Asked whether the federal government's response to the destruction of Juukan Gorge had made her reassess supporting the project, Ms King's office issued a statement from a spokesperson.

"If developments like Narrabri stack up environmentally and commercially, and receive necessary approvals, then they should go ahead," she said. "That includes environmental approvals and Native Title processes."

The government is also assessing the impact of heavy industry operating on the Burrup Peninsula. Mardudhunera woman Raelene Cooper has urged authorities to urgently protect it. "Similar destruction to what occurred at Juukan Gorge is happening right now and every single day, as emissions from the Burrup Hub degrade the Murujuga rock art,” she said on Thursday.

"The desecration of Murujuga is happening right now under the exact same weak laws that allowed Juukan Gorge to be destroyed," she added. "The minister has a chance to step in and offer real protection.”

Following publication of this article, Rio Tinto released a short statement acknowledging the release of the federal government’s response to the Joint Standing Committee's recommendations.

“Since the tragic events of May 2020, we have been tirelessly focused on changing the way we engage and work in partnership with Indigenous communities, to protect and preserve cultural heritage," it's Jakob Stausholm said.

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