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WA Liberals vow to scrap Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act

Giovanni Torre -

WA Liberals are trying to cash in on confusion and discontent surrounding the state's new Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act, vowing to scrap the legislation completely.

The Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act 2021 replaced the notoriously racist and one-sided Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972, under which Juukan Gorge was legally destroyed by mining giant Rio Tinto.

Banners at the Rockingham by-election polling booths held Saturday showed the Liberal Party vowing to abolish the new Act altogether, rather than reforming aspects identified as needing further work.

Legal experts and Traditional Owners were critical of the Act before its passage through Western Australia's parliament, noting that it left the final decision-making power with the minister, rather than Traditional Owners, and did not mandate a majority Indigenous membership Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Council, let alone a 100 per cent Indigenous body such as the equivalent body in the Northern Territory.

WA barrister Dr Greg McIntyre SC told National Indigenous Times at the time that the right to challenge the minister's approval of a heritage management plan in the State Administrative Tribunal being excluded from the then Bill had "an element of substantive racial discrimination".

During the third reading of the Bill in the Legislative Assembly, then Nationals MP for North West Central Vince Catania said: "We have missed a great opportunity to co-design a piece of legislation that, when we look back over our careers, we could say we played a role in changing the landscape and rewriting old legislation that did not allow Aboriginal people to have a say and to say no."

More recently, Aboriginal land councils and others have raised concerns that Aboriginal land councils did not have sufficient resourcing to take on the additional responsibilities of being a Local Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Service (LACHS), a system introduced by the new Act, and that there had not been enough consultation over developing the Act's regulations.

In April the WA government announced a funding boost to support the new Aboriginal heritage system.

However, it was almost universally agreed that the replacement of the 1972 Act, which gave Traditional Owners no real power to protect heritage, was long overdue.

Aboriginal community leaders and organisations in Western Australia agreed that the need for reform was urgent, and reached out to the WA government multiple times before the Act passed parliament offering to work with farmers, miners and other stakeholders on creating new legislation that protected Aboriginal heritage and provided certainty and fairness for all parties.

The Liberals, enjoying a recent surge in support in opinion polls driven by anxiety surrounding the new Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act, appear to have taken a different route – by pledging to abolish the law entirely.

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