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Northern Land Council hails High Court victory on Gunlom Falls

Giovanni Torre -

The Northern Land Council has welcomed the High Court's ruling that Commonwealth can be held criminally liable for damages to Indigenous sacred sites.

In December 2023, Jawoyn Traditional Owners of Gunlom Falls in Kakadu National Park travelled to Canberra to attend Australia’s highest court, seeking justice for work carried out on a sacred site in 2019.

On Wednesday the High Court's unanimous decision overturned a Supreme Court of the Northern Territory ruling which found that the Director of National Parks, could not be held criminally responsible for offences under the Northern Territory Aboriginal Sacred Sites Act 1989.

The High Court appeal was brought by Jawoyn Traditional Owners including Bernadette Calma, Bessie Coleman, Joseph Fergusson, Martin Fergusson, Balang Joshua Hunter, Rachael Kendino Wilika, Michael Page and Joseph Markham, and the Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority.

The Northern Land Council intervened in the proceedings to support the action.

Rachael Wilika welcomed the ruling at a press conference in Darwin on Wesdnesday morning.

“This decision makes me feel yillk-makgu – good and strong in spirit,” she said.

“It’s been passed down from them old people, strong spirit and to fight whatever comes, and to keep culture strong."

Balang Joshua Hunter said "this is good news".

“Gunlom is a special place for all of us and we thank the High Court for their decision. It is important that Gunlom is preserved for future generations to uphold law, culture and protocols.”

The Northern Land Council said it celebrated the "positive outcome for Traditional Owners in the Northern Territory", and acknowledged that protecting sacred sites, history and culture are of vital importance to all Australians.

The Council urged the Commonwealth government to "learn from this outcome and take steps to adopt greater protections for sacred sites in all states and territories".

NLC chair Matthew Ryan said the ruling shows shows that "the Director of National Parks, nor any other similar entity, cannot weasel out of their obligations by using out-of-date, out-of-touch legal loop holes like Crown immunity".

"It’s encouraging to see these Traditional Owners get justice," he said.

"We stand in solidarity with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across the country, and hope this can pave the way for greater protection of sacred sites everywhere."


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