Western Australian Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Ben Wyatt, has released the much-anticipated Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Bill 2020 (WA) for final consultation, with a strong message to land users who contravene the Act.

The Bill will replace the near-half century old Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 (WA), which has been held under intense scrutiny since the destruction of Juukan Gorge in May this year.

Should the new Bill pass, Western Australians can expect much harsher penalties for land users who engage in unauthorised activities, including fines of up to $10 million.

The Bill also removes the notorious Section 18 process which allows the Minister to give irreversible consent to land users to destroy culturally significant sites in an area of land. Any current Section 18 consents will remain in force, however, as the Minister is legally unable to revoke.

For those seeking medium or high impact activity, the new Act will require land users to put an Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Management Plan in place. The land user will develop the plan in partnership with the Traditional Owner group, with the plan then being handed over to the government for consideration.

In an overview of the Bill released by the Department of Planning, Lands and Heritage, it says the Bill “presents a transformative and contemporary vision for the management of Aboriginal cultural heritage in Western Australia”.

The Bill will also see the establishment of an Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Council (ACHC) to assist in agreement negotiations between Traditional Owners and other groups. This Council would provide advice to the parties involved and give strategic oversight to the Minister.

Below the ACHC would be new local Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Services to “ensure the right people speak for Country” when negotiating heritage agreements. These services would work in partnership with the ACHC.

The Bill also plans to improve transparency in the Act’s decision-making process, with decisions and their reasoning to be published online as well as giving Traditional Owners and land users the same rights of appeal to these decisions.

A statement from Minister Wyatt said the Bill “addresses the shortcomings of the antiquated Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972”.

“We have seen recently how grossly inadequate the current legislation is to protect Aboriginal heritage and the appeals by Traditional Owners and land users to modernise our system,” Minister Wyatt said.

“This Bill will reset the relationship between Aboriginal people and land users and align our legislation with Commonwealth native title laws that respect the right of Aboriginal people to negotiate outcomes for projects and opportunities on their lands.”

As for the controversial Aboriginal Heritage (Marandoo) Act 1992 (WA), which excludes Rio Tinto’s Marandoo mine area from the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 (WA), the Minister is currently negotiating its repeal.

“The repeal of the Marandoo Act is desirable and supported by all parties, but it is an issue which must be carefully managed and will require patience and understanding from Rio Tinto and the Wintawari Guruma,” the Minister said.

“I do not want to rush this if more time is required for negotiation and dialogue.”

Information sessions and briefings on the new Bill are being held with Aboriginal groups and industry across the state in the coming weeks.

By Hannah Cross

*Editor’s note: A previous version of this article stated the Aboriginal Cultural Material Committee (ACMC) had no Aboriginal representation. It has since been amended.