Banjima Elder Slim Parker has hailed the solidarity between Traditional Owners from the Kimberley and Pilbara region as a powerful force for change to Western Australia’s long-inadequate Aboriginal heritage protection system.

“This is only the beginning of our move towards our future in terms of self-determination, in terms of cultural heritage,” he told NIT after being a guest speaker at Thursday’s mass protest on the steps of WA Parliament House.

“I was asked to be a guest speaker and must say was very honoured and grateful to be given that opportunity. I got very positive feedback from a lot of people from the Kimberley,” Mr Parker said.

The demonstration saw Kimberley Land Council (KLC) leaders and other Kimberley Traditional Owners, joined by hundreds of others, march from Kings Park to Parliament House to call on the State Government to fundamentally reform the protection of Aboriginal heritage sites in WA.

In a statement, KLC Chair Anthony Watson said it is a critical time to protect Aboriginal cultural heritage in WA against further destruction.

“The Martuwarra Fitzroy River in the Kimberley is just one of many sites around the State that are under threat. We don’t want the Martuwarra Fitzroy River to be the next Juukan Gorge.”

Protesters gathered on the steps of WA Parliament House. Photo by Hannah Cross.

Mr Watson said the protest asked “for our voices to be at the front and centre of legislation that concerns our cultural heritage”.

At the protest, KLC presented ‘The Heritage Statement’ to Aboriginal Affairs Minister Stephen Dawson.

Minister Dawson told NIT the final drafting of the Bill is still underway before it will go to Cabinet for final approval.

A failure to deliver meaningful empowerment of Traditional Owners could see a renewed focus on pursuing Commonwealth Aboriginal Heritage legislation that would override any State laws, particularly given the Commonwealth inquiry into the destruction of Juukan Gorge is due to hand down its final report in October.

Mr Parker said the demonstration was “very positive and very structured” and “received really well”.

“For the people who participated in the rally and at Parliament House, they were overwhelmingly emotionally inspired. People knowing there is something that is starting to take shape and is going to hopefully bring about a betterment for the whole community,” he said.

“To have a heritage bill passed that reflects consultation with Indigenous people and recognises that we are a main party to be consulted and we must be heard.

“Our request in terms of going forward is there be a structure that enables the past history to be addressed, by righting the wrongs.”

Minister Dawson said the Bill “delivers greater protection for Aboriginal cultural heritage than the current legislation”.

“Under the new Bill, decisions about what qualifies as Aboriginal cultural heritage will be in the hands of Aboriginal people, this is not the case under the 1972 Act,” he said.

“The Bill provides Aboriginal people with the opportunity to directly take part in the protection of their cultural heritage through establishment of the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Council and Local Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Services. Neither of these bodies exist under the 1972 Act,” he said.

Minister Dawson said since the Bill was introduced by Ben Wyatt last year, there has been more than 100 workshops and information sessions attended by more than 1,400 people, 150 targeted and individual stakeholder meetings and more than 380 submissions.

“We have responded to those submissions and more than 100 changes to the draft Bill have been made. The Bill is stronger as a result,” he said.

By Giovanni Torre