On 18 August, the State Labor Government announced $11 million in support of the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Bill 2021. But bizarrely, about $1 million of it is earmarked for the Department of Premier and Cabinet simply to draft the Bill and prepare policies and guidelines in support.
It seems very unusual to add in the operational costs of a department, doing its normal job as part of a big announcement on Aboriginal heritage. In my view, Labor has invested so heavily in its own spin machine, it can’t see how ridiculous the announcement looks.
But the real story about investment into Aboriginal heritage can only be told in the context of what Labor did to the Department of Aboriginal Affairs (DAA) when it abolished it in 2017.
This was a department with a budget of about $33 million per annum. This department was responsible for the management of the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972, providing advice to the Aboriginal Cultural Materials Committee which in turn advises the Minister.
In 2017, DAA had almost half of 130 staff members devoted to advice and compliance in matters concerning Aboriginal heritage. While we can’t say for sure if it would have made any difference, the question remains whether the Juukan Gorge debacle would have occurred if there was more invested into compliance.
While the DAA had its critics, it did, to its credit, have a very high percentage — approximately 30 per cent — of Aboriginal employees, the highest percentage of any department in the public sector. This compared with an average of between two to three per cent across other departments.
Significantly, DAA’s Director General has almost always been an Aboriginal person and it cultivated close links with Aboriginal people through its raft of formal and informal engagement processes.
Four years on, Aboriginal heritage matters have been subsumed into the megalith of the Department of Planning Lands and Heritage (DPLH).
Sadly, many of the original Aboriginal staff were nudged out the door with redundancy offers. The corporate culture at the DPLH is very different to that of the old DAA with DPLH’s focus being the processing of planning approvals for the Minister for Planning.
We also see rising discontent in the community about the new Bill, and while I am not commenting on the detail now, as I will save that for consideration in detail in Parliament, what is clear is the Government has failed to consult effectively and bring Aboriginal people along in the journey.
This Government is not big on consultation, as we see it time and time again, whether it be in my patch, such as the Fitzroy River water allocation process, the location of the Broome Prison, or in Perth with its raft of planning decisions which run roughshod across local government and community concerns.
There are so many challenges in Aboriginal Affairs — whether it be in the arenas of cultural heritage, school attendance, homelessness, or employment. But so far Dawson has fallen short.
By Neil Thomson
Neil Thomson was a former Executive Director (Lands) for the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and is now a member for the Mining and Pastoral Region (Liberal).