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New NSW Minister for Aboriginal Affairs and Treaty lays out plans

Jarred Cross -

There are three priorities on the agenda for incoming New South Wales Minister for Aboriginal Affairs and Treaty, David Harris - cultural fishing, cultural heritage, and Treaty, although one will have to wait.

The member for Wyong has been sworn in to cabinet in the state's first Labor Government for more than a decade.

Ahead of last month's election Chris Minns campaigned on commitments to First Peoples across the state and forecast a swift journey towards Treaty alongside $5 million in funding for steps towards "genuine reconciliation".

That journey is paused until the referendum on the national Voice takes place later this year, but the plans are mapped out.

Mr Harris told National Indigenous Times he would oversee the introduction of a 12-month consultation period, at unrestricted lengths, with First Nations people, Traditional Owners, Native Title holders, organisations and peak bodies overseen by an appointed Secretariat and three commissioners.

A secondary legislative commission is expected to hear these parties and their requests for mediation and agreement.

"They'll bring a report back to the (NSW) Parliament and then we will then work to set up a process that conforms to the views that we see," the Minister said.

"The important thing is, in this term of government there's something that's legislated so that the government's moving forward will be able to work within an agreed parameter."

Mr Harris said cooperation with peak bodies across a range of disciplines is crucial to the wider Treaty context.

"The key thing, and all the key groups said this to us, (is) that one of the actions of Treaty or agreement making has to be capacity building, because one of the dangers is if you just start rolling out stuff to communities that don't have capacity to deliver," he said.

"Inevitably there's failures and then there's then pressure to stop the programs."

NSW has fallen behind all other states and territories in strengthening cultural heritage laws in the state. In 2022, the state's parliament dragged its heels, and ultimately failed to finalise and pass a bill to change this after several attempts in recent years.

The new minister said it's been something "on the books to be done since we (Labor) left government".

At present, cultural heritage is overseen by a statutory body under National Parks.

"So we will be looking to put up a bill as soon as possible that sets up a state body that would get responsibility for culture and heritage, including fines and approvals for interference or removal…that would be made up by Aboriginal people," Mr Harris said.

"The first thing will be to set up the state body, and then look at how it could be rolled out at a local level. But we want to get that body set up as soon as possible.

"One of the issues we've had in New South Wales is that you can get a permit to destroy or move cultural heritage or affect cultural sites.

"Not a single application has ever been rejected. And the body doing the most damage is the state government. There's something clearly not right with the current system."

He said fines on companies in breach of heritage protections have, at best, been negligible.

"We need to make sure that the fines for illegal projects are very substantial."

Laws to protect Aboriginal rights to cultural fishing practices in NSW have similarly sat idle. In this case, for more than a decade.

A parliamentary inquiry last year found "the NSW government has failed to effect the will of the Parliament by not commencing Schedule 1 of the Fisheries Management Amendment Act 2009 to make special provision for cultural fishing"; a matter also on the Minister's list.

For the pressing matter on the national agenda, the Voice, despite their commitment to wait for the referendum, Mr Harris said the state government holds a level of responsibility ahead of the public casting their vote.

"We've got a strong role in putting forward the facts to the community and make sure that they understand what's being proposed how it would work and, and, and then obviously, we would be recommending that they, they look at it favourably," he said.

Mr Harris will also serve as Minister for Gaming and Racing, Minister for Veterans, Minister for Medical Research and Minister for the Central Coast.

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