The chair of the parliamentary committee that investigated the destruction of the 46,000-year-old Juukan Gorge rock shelters has said every Aboriginal heritage site in the country remains at risk as long as the current state-based heritage protection regime stays in place.
Liberal backbencher Warren Entsch, whose committee report tabled on Monday proposed a wholesale rethinking of Australia’s cultural heritage laws, said: “We struggled to find any Indigenous cultural sites that are actually being adequately protected.
“Clearly the system as it is, isn’t working. It’s not doing what it’s supposed to do.”
Under changes proposed in the 315-page report, the federal government would create a new national framework to set minimum standards for states and territories’ cultural heritage protections, in line with international best practice.
It included a proposal to shift responsibility for Indigenous cultural heritage protections from the Department of Environment to the Minister for Indigenous Australians.
Neither Environment Minister Sussan Ley nor Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt committed to the new laws on Tuesday. Mr Wyatt said in a statement that Indigenous heritage protections were “intrinsically bound to federal and state environmental laws” and he would work “in very close collaboration” with Ms Ley on the recommendations.
Ms Ley said she would review the recommendations in the context of a process already under way to work with Traditional Owners to work out the best way to protect cultural heritage.
“Those processes are not owned by the Commonwealth, they’re owned by state governments. So, what we have to do now, and what I’ve already started doing, is working out how states and the Commonwealth can come together so that we don’t have these gaps in cultural heritage protection, so that we don’t have another failure like Juukan,” she said.
However, any change is likely to receive pushback from the mining lobby, with the West Australian Chamber of Minerals and Energy saying the state should remain the primary regulator.
The chamber and the big miners were “steadfast in the view that any proposal to strengthen federal oversight on Aboriginal heritage matters would not deliver improvements and would only duplicate processes and relationships that are best delivered at a local level with local stakeholders”, said the chamber’s director of policy and advocacy Rob Carruthers in a statement.
Mr Entsch told The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald it was up to his party’s ministers to acknowledge that the current system was not working, and to consider adopting the committee’s recommendations.
National Native Title Council chairman and Ngalia cultural and community leader Kado Muir welcomed the recommendations, saying: “First Nations heritage is destroyed on a daily basis, often legally and without a legal right for Traditional Owners to say no.”
He would welcome a new power for Traditional Owners to “withhold consent to the destruction of cultural heritage, and to better resource native title bodies so they can effectively carry out their statutory duties”.
The Australian Council of Superannuation Investors also welcomed the report, saying it was “crucial to have a legal framework that will improve engagement between companies and Indigenous groups and safeguard their rights”.
Cape York Institute founder Noel Pearson was critical of the inquiry, telling The Australian the standing committee had “squibbed” its brief by not uncovering Rio Tinto’s internal decision-making responsible for the blasting of the two shelters at Juukan Gorge, or holding people responsible for the destruction of cultural heritage.
“This parliamentary committee dodged the truth and gave Rio Tinto a ‘get out of jail’ card,” he said.
Mr Entsch hit back, saying Mr Pearson had made no submissions to the inquiry.
Mr Entsch said Rio Tinto was now working with the traditional owners, the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP), adding: “It’s costing them more than the $30 million in iron ore they will never recover from the site after they blasted the shelters.
“Noel needs to go and talk to the PKKP. They’re working with Rio.”
Labor’s environment spokeswoman Terri Butler said Labor would “heed” the inquiry report “in developing solutions”.