WA Minister for Aboriginal Affairs Stephen Dawson has again disappointed Traditional Owners who were keen to discuss the State Government’s proposed Aboriginal heritage legislation by missing the seventh Annual On-Country Bush Meeting at the Yule River Meeting Place this week.

Yamatji Marlpa Aboriginal Corporation (YMAC) CEO Simon Hawkins said it was a missed opportunity for the Minister to hear directly from the community at the event, which ran across August 25 and 26.

“It is disappointing that the Minister, who is also the Member for the Mining and Pastoral Region, has not seen fit to send a representative on his behalf to what is one of the most important annual events for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of the Pilbara,” he said.

On Friday, Traditional Owners also staged protest at the South Hedland Centre Town Park to oppose the proposed cultural heritage Bill, adding to wide-growing concerns from Traditional Owners that the Bill is inadequate.

Traditional Owners also agreed at the meeting to protest in Perth in October to voice their opposition to the Bill.

A spokesperson for Minister Dawson’s office told NIT the Minister was due to attend the meeting when it was scheduled for July but could not attend the new date when it was moved because of COVID-19 concerns.

“Unfortunately, after the event was rescheduled the Minister could no longer attend the new dates, and his availability was not sought by YMAC before the rescheduling occurred,” the spokesperson said.

“Staff from the Aboriginal Engagement Unit at the Department of Premier and Cabinet attended the On-Country Bush Meeting this year, representing the State Government, particularly around conversations on the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Bill.”

The level of protection provided by WA’s Aboriginal Heritage Act (1972) has long fallen short of modern international standards for protecting world heritage, particularly First Nations heritage.

Companies that routinely damage and destroy Aboriginal heritage sites have faced no repercussions of consequence, and nothing is done to compel companies to acquire a social licence to operate.

With its commanding majority in both Houses of Parliament, the McGowan Government has an opportunity to correct an historic injustice.

After the Government’s August 18 presentation on the latest amendments to the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Bill 2021, YMAC Co-Chair (Yamatji Region) Peter Windie said it was “disappointing to see how little information was made available … to show how — in practice — heritage will be able to be protected by the owners of Australia’s cultural heritage in Western Australia”.

“The Bill requires a giant leap of faith that people who want to carry out activities will be prepared to reach agreements with Traditional Owners to avoid damaging our cultural heritage,” he said.

“We fail to see how this Bill can deliver on the statement … that ‘This legislation will better protect Aboriginal heritage in Western Australia, place Aboriginal people at the centre of our heritage protection regime and deliver better decision-making in land use proposals for stakeholders, industry and the community.’

“Under this current draft, if the Minister decides destruction of heritage can occur, it will.

“A key concern for us is the lack of appeal or review available when the Minister makes the final decision on the destruction of heritage.”

The Minister’s spokesperson said there are “multiple rights of appeal and review of decisions now included in the draft Bill”.

“All parties will have equal rights of review,” the spokesperson said.

“Detailed consultation sessions on the [Bill] took place last week. Feedback from the meetings has been overwhelmingly constructive and the Department of Premier and Cabinet is currently trying to book in specific Board consultation briefings for all Prescribed Body Corporates across WA.”

Mr Windie said “sites of great significance globally continue to be harmed or destroyed every day”.

“YMAC has long advocated for stronger protections for cultural heritage and a more equitable position for Traditional Owners in agreement-making,” he said.

While Minister Dawson was a no-show, the Yule River meeting was attended by Liberal MLC Neil Thomson, Member for the Mining and Pastoral Region and Shadow Minister for Planning, Lands and Heritage.

He told NIT it was “extremely disappointing to see not a single representative from the Government at the Yule River meeting”.

“There is a long history with Ministers and their representatives attending this meeting so the absence of the Minister was [keenly] felt when the job of explaining the Bill fell to two mid-level public servants from the Department of Planning Lands and Heritage,” he said.

“It is clear from the discussions with representatives at the Yule River meeting, that there are many concerns about the new Bill.

“I support the call from the meeting to defer the passage of the Bill until there is a stronger understanding of the implications of how it will work in practice.”

He noted that given “the current majority in both houses of Parliament” the final content of the Bill passed by Parliament, for better or worse, would be the responsibility of the Labor Government.

Mr Thomson said the Bill must ensure Aboriginal Cultural Heritage is appropriately protected and there is, “never again, another Juukan Gorge”.

“[The] Labor Government promised to deliver a better Aboriginal Heritage system in 2017.  But since then, all it has achieved is to abolish the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and see its Aboriginal heritage functions subsumed into the Department of Planning Lands and Heritage.

“I will be taking a very active role in addressing the Bill in detail when it comes before the Parliament and invite all stakeholders to contact me about your concerns so the State can be held to account.”

By Giovanni Torre