Since 2016, over 400 applications to impact or harm Aboriginal heritage sites in New South Wales have been approved by the NSW Government.

NSW Aboriginal Affairs Minister Don Harwin confirmed at a Budget Estimates hearing on February 25 that 100 per cent of Aboriginal Heritage Impact Permits (AHIP) submitted in the past year had been given formal approval, with conditions to mitigate impact.

Of the nearly 500 applications approved since 2016, 84 of those were approved in the last 12 months.

When questioned by Greens MP and Aboriginal Justice spokesperson David Shoebridge at the hearing, Minister Harwin was not able to identify any permits which had been rejected.

“It is true to say that the Aboriginal heritage statutory protection scheme in New South Wales is a scheme of managed destruction rather than any kind of managed protection,” said Mr Shoebridge.

“For the last five years it has been effectively 100 per cent approval for the destruction of Aboriginal heritage.”

Minister Harwin responded, saying the current Aboriginal heritage legislation was “wholly unsatisfactory”.

“That is why one of my key projects as heritage and Aboriginal Affairs Minister is to overhaul Aboriginal cultural heritage legislation,” he said.

Mr Shoebridge continued, outlining similar sentiments had been shared by previous NSW Aboriginal Affairs Ministers and questioned the Minister regarding his intention in March 2020 to bring forward legislation.

Mr Shoebridge referred to the outrage surrounding the destruction of Juukan Gorge in Western Australia, noting that NSW has a system that is “basically replicating that with 100 per cent approvals for every application by a miner, developer, a government department”.

The Minister said the intention did not come to fruition due to the implications of COVID-19 and his temporary resignation for breaching COVID-19 orders.

However, the Minister said the government remains committed.

“I continue to engage directly with the three key Aboriginal stakeholders — the NSW Aboriginal Land Council, the NSW Native Title Services (NTSCorp) and the NSW Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Advisory Committee,” he said.

“The goal for the Government remains making sure that we have legislation that is acceptable to Aboriginal people.”

“I fully appreciate that progression of the reforms can only occur with appropriate engagement of the Aboriginal community and other critical stakeholders.”

Beyond the issue of Aboriginal heritage protection, Mr Shoebridge questioned the Minister in regards to the inadequate recognition of Aboriginal people in public art and statues.

“Part of the issue is that there are a lot of people who actually do not believe we should have more statues — the City of Sydney being one of them,” said the Minister.

“That makes it a bit hard in central Sydney to do anything about it. I would like to see something done about it but there are divided views, even amongst Aboriginal people, about how desirable it is to actually have statues celebrating significant Aboriginal people. It is a very complex issue.”

He noted he has met with the Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council and intends raise the issue with them.

When questioned further on the NSW Government spending on events surrounding the re-enactment of James Cook’s landing and spending for graffiti removal on current statues, the Minister took questions on notice.

NIT contacted NSW Aboriginal Land Council for comment but did not respond by time of publication.

By Rachael Knowles