Mining company BHP has requested that the South Australian Government dish out harsher penalties to companies illegally damaging Indigenous heritage sites as well as allow Traditional Owners to appeal heritage decisions.

In a submission to the State’s Aboriginal heritage inquiry, the mining giant said current penalties are “not proportionate to the potential harm” caused by legislative breaches, are “not substantial by modern legislative standards,” and are not reflective of community expectations of cultural heritage protections.

The miner suggested the maximum penalty of $50,000 under the State’s current Aboriginal Heritage Act 1988 (SA) could increase to $10 million as proposed in Western Australia’s draft heritage Bill, which was released for public consultation last year.

“BHP supports a material increase in the fines and penalties under the 1988 Act to reflect public concerns and act as a deterrent to unlawful damage, and to reflect the unique nature of some cultural heritage sites that are protected by the 1988 Act,” the submission said.

BHP, who currently operate the Olympic Dam mine on Kokatha, Barngarla and Kuyani Country, also suggested Traditional Owners be given the right to appeal decisions made under the Act.

At present, there are no avenues in the SA Heritage Act for Traditional Owners to appeal decisions by the Minister; they must take the matter to court if they oppose the decision.

“The lack of any prescribed appeal rights means that both Traditional Owners and land users are limited to judicial review or general law remedies to challenge a decision,” the submission said.

“BHP believes that the 1988 Act could be enhanced by providing access to merits review for both Traditional Owners and land users.”

BHP also pointed to the WA draft Bill’s suggested review by State Administrative Tribunal as a potential solution.

“A similar right of review could be given to decisions by the Minister to grant or refuse … authorisations … or to refuse to approve local heritage agreements made with Traditional Owners,” the submission said.

Led by the Aboriginal Lands Parliamentary Standing Committee, the South Australian Government’s inquiry into Aboriginal heritage began after Rio Tinto deliberately blew up Juukan Gorge in Western Australia’s Pilbara region last year.

The event triggered widespread public backlash and prompted the WA Government to review its outdated Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 (WA). The draft Bill is set to be introduced into WA Parliament later this year.

By Hannah Cross