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Backlash at handling of WA's new Aboriginal heritage laws forces major change

David Prestipino -

The WA Government has made a raft of eleventh-hour concessions to its controversial new Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act just days from its July 1 implementation.

The biggest change was the commencement date for more prescriptive survey requirements underpinning the new Act being delayed to July 2024, which were written into the guidelines listed on the Department of Planning, Lands and Heritage website on Friday but promptly removed, reportedly after issues with them were raised by industry representatives.

Proponents with existing surveys less than a decade old will have until July next year to secure an agreement with the relevant "Aboriginal party" that no updated assessment is required.

Surveys more than 10 years old that did not originally include any input from a First Nations corporation or native title body will not need to be redone, provided they have subsequently been endorsed by the appropriate group.

The significant amendments, which mainly benefit miners, came after months of negative feedback and confusion from farmers and landowners over the new Act, and despite the Cook government appearing to ignore a record petition instigated by Pastoralists and Graziers Association of WA president Tony Seabrook, which had almost 30,000 signatures calling for a six-month to delay to the Act's scheduled implementation on July 1.

The Institute of Public Affairs also warned this week the sweeping changes could bring economic activity to a halt and push up food prices further.

"WA does the heavy lifting on behalf of the nation when it comes to agriculture and resources, yet is increasingly burdened with productivity killing red tape, which is set to be made worse with the commencement of cultural heritage laws," deputy executive director Daniel Wild said on Tuesday.

Last week WA Liberal leader Libby Mettam said the difficult introduction of the new heritage act could damage the chances of the Indigenous voice to parliament, while it was also revealed the WA Local Government Association had urged the WA government in December to delay the act in a submission as part of late-stage consultation on the laws.

WALGA warned the new legislation would result in higher rates and neglected firebreaks from landowners afraid of breaching the new requirements.

"If Premier Cook can click his fingers and provide a 12-month grace period at the request of the mining and resources sector, then surely a six-month delay on these new laws for all concerned landowners is not too much to ask given the level of concern across the community," Ms Mettam told The West Australian.

All four native title representative bodies in WA - Native Title Services Goldfields, Central Desert Native Title Services, Kimberley Land Council and Yamatji Marlpa Aboriginal Corporation - have also raised concerns about the new legislation, with the latter claiming native title groups are "vastly under-resourced" for next week's roll-out.

Aboriginal Affairs Minister Tony Buti on Wednesday would not be drawn on why the changes were made at the last minute.

"As I said in the Parliament, the publishing of the survey guidelines was an error. Consultation with the industry was ongoing at the time," he said.

"The State Government committed to publishing the final survey guidelines, which has now been done, and reinforces our consultative and collaborative approach.

"WA's modernised Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Laws will result in simpler, fairer and modernised laws, which for the first time introduces practical exemptions.

"As part of the ongoing monitoring of the system the State Government has committed to a review of the regulations following 12 months of it being in operation.

"We're confident the system will work effectively, and are ready to adapt as is needed through the implementation of the new Act."

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