Western Australian Aboriginal Affairs Minister Stephen Dawson says it is “yet to be determined” whether the Marandoo Act 1992 (WA) will be abolished once new cultural heritage legislation is introduced, despite the piece of legislation exempting Rio Tinto entirely from the current Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 (WA).

Rushed through Parliament in 1992 in less than two days by a Labor Government led by Dr Carmen Lawrence, the Aboriginal Heritage (Marandoo) Act 1992 (WA) exempts some 193 square kilometres of land from the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 (WA).

Owned and operated by Rio Tinto, the Marandoo mine sits on Eastern Guruma Country and is surrounded by Karijini National Park. The land was excised by the Lawrence Government in 1990 to make way for the mine and its associated railway corridor.

Excising the land meant Rio Tinto, then Hamersley Iron, were exempt from any Class A Reserve restrictions — the highest protection provided to Crown land — and could mine the area unencumbered.

Since 1992, Rio Tinto has mined freely at Marandoo for almost 30 years.

As the McGowan Government prepares to introduce new cultural heritage legislation in the coming months, questions are arising over whether Rio Tinto’s Marandoo operation will be subject to the new laws.

Although Minister Dawson says it is “yet to be determined” whether the Marandoo Act will be abolished when the new legislation comes into force, Rio Tinto also holds a Section 18 consent over the land under the current Aboriginal Heritage Act.

When asked if Section 18 consents would carry over into the new legislation, which allows the Minister to green light cultural heritage destruction, Minister Dawson told NIT the drafting of the Bill was ongoing, “including consideration of Section 18 consents”.

The Minister also said there would be a transition period for all land users to “assist with a smooth transition from the current Act to the new legislation”.

But he did indicate that Section 18 consents could still be issued during this transition period.

“Section 18 consents that are issued during the transitional period will be subject to conditions regarding the reporting of new information about Aboriginal cultural heritage and also subject to stop activity orders and prohibition orders,” Minister Dawson said.

Land users will only be subject to the new penalties once the “new legislation is in full operation”. Minister Dawson did not indicate how long the transition period between Acts would be.

The Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Bill is set to be introduced to WA Parliament in the second half of 2021.

By Hannah Cross