Stephen Dawson booted from Western Australian Aboriginal Affairs portfolio

Article by Rachael Knowles for the National Indigenous Times 

Questions have arisen about Western Australia’s Aboriginal Affairs Department after Minister Stephen Dawson was stripped of the portfolio only days after the controversial cultural heritage bill was passed.

The reshuffle occurred only days after the McGowan Government enshrined the new Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act, which was strongly and staunchly opposed across the state, the country and internationally.

Minister Tony Buti will take the Aboriginal Affairs portfolio from Minister Dawson.

The National Native Title Council (NNTC) noted that the reshuffle prompted a question – “why so suddenly?”

“The fleeting impermanence of ministerial appoints show the stark contrast of experiences and laws,” said Kado Muir, Western Australia Ngalia Cultural and Community Leader and Chairman of NNTC.

“We the Aboriginal people are left with an intergenerational burden of bad laws, while the minister representing the settler state rides off into the unknown and into obscurity.”

Mr Muir noted that whilst white law is constantly shifting, cultural Lore continues throughout time.

“In contrast whitefella laws come and go but create unending uncertainty and sadness to my people,” he said.

NNTC, who were one of the leading groups opposing the heritage bill, said that it can only be hoped that the “new portfolio minister Toni Buti builds a relationship on respect, and earns the trust of Aboriginal people”.

The WA Liberal Party have released a statement in response to Minister Dawson’s loss of portfolio noting it came after a “litany of failures of the McGowan Government” and the “trashing of conventions of Parliament by ramming through the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Bill in the final sitting days of 2021”.

The party noted that Minister Dawson, only 48-hours before the reshuffle, had admitted that the state government did have prior knowledge of Juukan Gorge and yet “took no action to prevent it”.

According to Minister Dawson, they government were made aware “a matter of days before” the destruction of the 40,000-year-old site by the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP).

WA Liberal spokesperson for Aboriginal Affairs Neil Thomson questioned Mr Dawson about the action taken, to which he responded that he was “not aware of what actions either he or his office took at the time”.

“It is completely inexcusable to say that Section 18 of the Aboriginal Heritage Act prevented the State from taking action” Mr Thomson said.

“In the past, these matters would have simply been dealt with through a quick phone call from a Director-General to the Chief Executive of the ‘at risk’ company before the destruction occurred.

“The fact that there appears to have been no effective action between the McGowan Government and Rio Tinto at that critical time underscores just how deeply incompetent that State has been.”

Mr Thomson notes that the consequences of pushing the heavily criticised bill through will fall on the shoulders of Minister Buti.

“It is now up to the incoming Aboriginal Affairs Minister Mr Tony Buti MLA to explain to the public how he is going to implement this Bill,” he said.

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