It is with a heavy heart that we contemplate the final 345-page tome of the Federal Parliamentary inquiry into the Juukan Gorge tragedy.
We do so with a heavy heart because no matter how well-intentioned the report is or how strongly it calls for new laws and reforms, fresh starts and a way forward – politics always gets in the way.
So today, we take a different path forward.
You can call it pragmatism or realpolitik. But, we recognise the new federal laws as what they are. We recognise that they attempt to warrant an assurance of no more systemic dispossession of First Nations cultural heritage. But they will fall short.
This will never be politically achievable under either Liberal or Labor governments.
With hearts heavy, we look elsewhere. We have to look to the next best option, and it is found in an unlikely place.
Currently, Liberal Senator Dean Smith is arguing that the Commonwealth could set standards and assist the States to develop and adopt best practice around transparency, information sharing, stakeholder engagement and regulatory improvement in their heritage laws.
This could work in much the same way as has been mooted with environmental law and would require bilateral agreements between State and Federal Governments.
If this idea were to develop into a framework that had real teeth, it could hold State Governments to account.
State Governments such as McGowan’s, where the current draft heritage laws look unlikely to meet a national standard as outlined through the Juukan Gorge inquiry.
Senator Smith calls for the fast-tracking significant cultural heritage sites registrations to the National Heritage List across the country.
Anyone can nominate a place with outstanding value for inclusion on the list for the Australian Heritage Council to assess and makes recommendations to the Minister for the Environment.
For Senator Smith’s proposed compromise to work, it would need significant Federal funding to both increase the capacity and speed of the process and to fund Aboriginal corporations to make applications.
The Minister for Environment should not be the sole decision maker and the process should be overseen by First Nations representatives.
With a Federal election just around the corner, one must note that Senator Smith holds our full attention.
If the Senator can bring the Prime Minister and his Indigenous Affairs Minister to the table on these two ideas, he may be the Liberal Party’s only chance to showcase any interest they still hold on real Reconciliation.
By The National Indigenous Times Board