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OPINION: Aboriginal Heritage Bill continues in the Western Australian Parliament

Guest Author -

My family, like many Aboriginal families, have strong ties and memories of being and working on farms and pastoral stations.

These were where Aboriginal people were sent after being removed from our Traditional Lands to missions. Missions established to teach Christianity, domestic jobs and then we were sent as servants to the pastoral stations.

Aboriginal people were sent to work under a system called 'indentured labour'. It was another term for slavery.

As a young teenager working on a pastoral station, I remember non-Indigenous workers always referring to adults and senior Aboriginal men as boys.

"Hey boy, did you do this or that," they'd say. It was the language of the time. All the Indigenous men would respond, "yes boss", "okay boss".

At the time I never questioned or understood the power imbalance and historical context of Aboriginal pastoral relationships.

Today, I see clearly, the power imbalance and the institutional racism. I understand now how important it is for our Indigenous Nations to have control and be at the centre of decisions that affect us as a people.

Much good and harmony comes from people, families and communities that have a say and control over what is important to us.

I understand the Labor Government is not happy with being questioned about the Heritage Bill.

Learning from great leaders of the past, we know is important to question Government, question those who are elected to fight for us.

As a young man I admired and am inspired by the leadership of Rob Riley. He never wavered from speaking the truth no matter what the cost.

In his words: "There are two things you must always remember:

You can't be wrong if you are right and

You don't stop fighting for justice simply because those around you don't like it

You just keep on fighting."

The Aboriginal Heritage Bill does not allow First Nations People to have a meaningful say over our heritage. Instead, it places the final say of heritage protection in the hands of the Minister and Government of the day.

It does not create a basis for transparent decision-making. It creates a decision-making process that is flawed.

It creates a decision-making process where the Minister can make decisions based on their own political interest for the State of Western Australia.

It makes First Nations People compete with Industry and developers to win the Ministers "good will" for protection what is important to us, as a people. In this protection, we see the places that our Creation stories say are important kept safe.

With the stroke of a pen, Premier Mark McGowan and Minister Stephen Dawson have constructed a law that reinforces the systematic racist system we was forced upon us on pastoral stations.

A master and subordinate relationship.

It is a relationship where we, as First Nations People, ask the Minister "yes boss can you protect my culture, my heritage, my values?"

To which he can say, "yes boy" or "no boy" or "yes girl" or "no girl".

This is the power being reinforced in the new Aboriginal Heritage Act.

Why I, and the vast majority of First Nations People, are outraged and strongly opposed to this type of decision making is because this is the principle power that has always rested with Government.

When the Puutu Kunti Kurram and Pinikura people (PKKP) were lobbying Rio Tinto and Government to prevent Juukan Cave being destroyed, real government leadership would have resulted in the relevant Ministers picking up the phone and telling the CEO of Rio Tinto Iron Ore to stop immediately, because it was the right thing to do.

The State was well aware and privy to additional information about the significance of the caves. No one from the State said no to the destruction - no bureaucrat, nor Indigenous Minister for Aboriginal Affairs - Ben Wyatt.

Instead, the Government upheld the sentiment that Rio Tinto had a legal right to destroy Juukan Cave.

This is the same power under the Aboriginal Heritage Bill being rebadged to give legal power to the Minister to continue to approve destruction of Aboriginal sites without judicial review.

What hope have future First Nations People have if our own Indigenous members of Parliament won't speak up for us?

We saw the devastation of thousands of sites in the Pilbara at the hands of non-Indigenous Ministers who made decisions about an ancient culture. One they have no understanding of and, in some instances, have no care for.

To add insult to injury, the final blow is about to become enshrined in law, that a Minister, in government, will have the power to say what Indigenous cultural heritage is worth saving and what is not.

To cherry-pick what they feel valuable, and what they find insignificant.

This principle is the foundation of which the New Aboriginal Heritage Act exists - a continuation of political decisions for political game.

The hypocrisy and racism of this State Government knows no bounds.

The Mark McGowan Government have, by tabling and ramming through the WA Aboriginal Heritage Bill, intentionally and ruthlessly made sure that First Nations People of WA do not have a mechanism for a legal judicial review of Ministers decisions.

That First Nations People are gatekept from justice.

It is just another example of McGowans willingness to completely ignore criteria from the United Nations.

The hypocrisy of the situation is clearly shown in the reality that decisions for the protection of western heritage values under the WA Heritage Act provide Proponents the right to appeal Minister's decisions.

But for Traditional Owners fighting for heritage under the proposed Aboriginal Heritage Act â€" there is no right of appeal.

Mark McGowan claimed he would be a leader for all Western Australians.

Then why does McGowan consider Indigenous heritage sites to be inferior to non-Indigenous heritage sites?

Why are First Nations Heritage Values being treated with contempt?

Why is there a different set of rules for western heritage, than there is for First Nations heritage?

It is this government's 'special treatment'. Should we expect more 'special treatment' from the Labor Party?

By Wayne Bergmann

Wayne Bergmann is Co- Owner of NIT and was the Chair of the Indigenous Expert Group for the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) Investigation into Indigenous land administration and use between 2014-2015.


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