The Kimberley Land Council says it wants to play a part in co-designing the new Aboriginal cultural heritage legislation alongside the West Australian Government and the mining industry.

KLC chair Anthony Watson is set to sit down with WA Aboriginal Affairs Minister Stephen Dawson in mid-August to go over the new Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Bill 2021, which the Minister says has “many amendments” from the draft Bill former Aboriginal affairs minister Ben Wyatt released last year.

Mr Watson says he and others representing Traditional Owner groups are wary of what these amendments might look like.

“We don’t know where the amendments are at, and if they’re minor or major,” he told NIT.

“It’s a big turnaround for the Minister to turn around and actually engage with us, but there’s still uncertainty towards what will work and satisfy (Traditional Owners).”

Mr Dawson has told NIT the new Bill will deliver “greater protection” for Aboriginal cultural heritage.

He said the new Bill throws out the controversial Section 18 process which led to the destruction of Juukan Gorge last year, and instead implements a new “tiered approvals system”.

“This will ensure improved protection for Aboriginal cultural heritage by requiring approval for a range of activities that are currently unregulated under the existing 1972 Act,” the Minister said.

“Removing the controversial Section 18 process will put the focus on agreement making, resetting the relationship between land users and Traditional Owners and empowering Aboriginal people to make decisions about their cultural heritage.”

The Aboriginal Affairs Minister also says the Bill will recognise that Indigenous people “hold the knowledge and cultural responsibility for their heritage” and that decisions about what qualifies as cultural heritage will “be in the hands of Aboriginal people”.

But Mr Watson remains sceptical.

“As much as he says that (there will be a focus on agreement making), we haven’t looked at the details. As far as we know there are a lot of inconsistencies (still),” he said.

“There is no guarantee for us that more Juukan Gorges won’t happen, and we want to clear those issues up, (make sure) that we’re in the decision-making process and it doesn’t get taken away from us.”

Mr Dawson has proposed a hefty increase in fines under the new Bill.

Serious harm caused to cultural heritage could result in penalties of up to $10 million for corporate bodies or $1 million for an individual, compared with the current fine caps of $100,000 and $40,0000 respectively.

The Bill will also have provisions for stop-work orders and prohibition orders to stop unauthorised activity impacting heritage sites but it remains unclear what role Traditional Owners will have in this decision-making.

The KLC chair wants Traditional Owner groups to be able to sit down and negotiate as equal partners with the mining industry and State Government.

“We need to work around ways to prevent (Juukan Gorge) from happening again … that way we can better live side by side with the mining industry,” he said.

“We’ve never said no to industry but our involvement needs to be the centrepiece as well — it’s our heritage.”

By Hannah Cross