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WA tip-toes over controversy as new Cultural Heritage Act launched

David Prestipino -

The WA government has pinned its hopes on an implementation group to aid and address ongoing concerns over its controversial new Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act, which comes into effect on Saturday, July 1.

Thursday's announcement by new WA Premier Roger Cook was regarded as a concession to widespread calls from industry and stakeholders to push back the Act's introduction by six months to allow them more time to prepare for and understand its implications.

Four WA native title representative bodies - Native Title Services Goldfields, Central Desert Native Title Services, Kimberley Land Council, and Yamatji Marlpa Aboriginal Corporation - are yet to comment on the eleventh-hour changes, which also give mining companies and affected landowners a further 12 months to complete heritage surveys.

The ACH Act empowers First Nations people to make agreements about matters affecting their cultural heritage, with consultation on the new legislation ongoing for the past five years and finalised in the wake of Rio Tinto's destruction of the Juukan Gorge rockshelters.

The new implementation group will be chaired by the Department of Planning, Lands and Heritage director and include key industry representatives from mining, property, farming, agriculture, local government, First Nations corporations and the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Council, which will be co-chaired by former federal Liberal MP and Indigenous Affairs minister Ken Wyatt.

The group will work collaboratively for an initial six months to iron out any issues that may arise in the new Act's initial implementation, while the WA government ramps up education of the new legislation amid months of backlash and confusion, particularly from the agricultural and Indigenous sectors.

The new Act introduces a three-tiered system of activities, ranging from those that are totally exempt - such as residential development on lots smaller than 1100sqm - to tier 3, which involves major ground disturbance.

Perth landowners with properties bigger than 1100sqm also must determine if there is a site of significance on their property but risk big fines and even jail terms if they are non-compliant.

Mr Wyatt will play a key role as co-chair of the ACHC, which will adjudicate on permits and protection plans developed under the new Act and play a key role regulating the conduct of Local Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Services - or LACHS - none of which are currently established but eventually will be responsible for approving works under the new laws.

Mr Cook said the implementation group would contribute directly to a 12-month review his government has committed as part of the revised process and believed the new legislation would further protect Aboriginal cultural heritage.

"The current legislation is outdated and it wasn't good for Aboriginal people or land users. It led to incidents like Juukan Gorge, which was a global embarrassment for Australia," he said on Thursday.

Greens state MP Brad Pettitt on Thursday slammed the new laws for failing to do enough to protect First Nations artifacts and sacred sites, and claimed the last-minute amendments primarily benefitted the mining industry.

Dr Pettitt said the new Act should never have been passed through Parliament as it still placed WA's Aboriginal Affairs Minister as the final decision maker when disputes between a proponent and First Nations group could not be solved.

"This Act denies First Nations people a right to appeal, and gives individual government ministers the final say on cultural heritage that they have no knowledge or custodianship over," he said.

The Chamber of Minerals and Energy WA and Urban Development Institute of Australia endorsed the announcement of an implementation group on Thursday.

"While we have raised genuine concerns around the timeframe of implementation, we are supportive of the new framework and the importance of protecting Aboriginal cultural heritage in the longer term," UDIA WA chief executive Tanya Steinbeck said.

CME WA chief executive Rebecca Tomkinson said the government's education-first approach to compliance gave all stakeholders time to fully interpret the new laws without fear of breaches.

"We know that all stakeholders are keen to make this new system of heritage protection work, and this is a practical approach to achieving that," she said on Thursday.

"The implementation group will enable stakeholders to work through issues as they arise and CME will continue to work collaboratively with government and other industry groups to iron out any complexities present across the broader framework."

The Association of Mining and Exploration Companies also endorsed the last-minute changes, saying the measures would smooth the move to new compliance measures and enabled challenges to be addressed as they occur.

"While the new framework may be imperfect, the new process can be made to work through the good faith efforts of Traditional Owners, industry and government," AMEC CEO Warren Pearce said.

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