The government inquiry into the destruction of 46,000-year-old caves at the Juukan Gorge in Western Australia’s Pilbara region has tabled its final report A Way Forward, highlighting the need for legislative change at all levels of government.
Put together by the Federal Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Northern Australia, the report notes the loss of sacred sites at Juukan Gorge is not unique but an extreme example of the destruction of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural heritage which continues to happen across the country.
Chair of the Committee Hon Warren Entsch MP said: “The destruction of the caves was a disaster beyond reckoning for the Puutu Kunti Kurrama people and Pinikura people, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural heritage as a whole.
“This disaster was a wakeup call that there are serious deficiencies in the protection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural heritage.
“What is needed now is a way forward, for both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and industry.”
Entsch added that from the significant volume of evidence received by the Committee, it was clear that extensive changes were required to ensure the protection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples cultural heritage.
He said: “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been let down by the Commonwealth, State and Territory governments as well as industry.
“In making these recommendations today, the Committee and I want to bring about meaningful change.
“Failures to protect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage must stop here.”
The report makes eight recommendations focusing on legislative change that will enhance Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s cultural heritage protections.
The Committee found that:
- There is a need for an overarching Commonwealth legislative framework which should be developed through a process of co-design with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
- Administration responsibility of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984 and the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 should be transferred to the Minister for Indigenous Australians.
- There should be an Australian government review of the Native Title Act 1993.
- The Australian government should endorse and commit to implementing Dhawura Ngilan: A Vision for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage in Australia.
- There is a need for the development of a model for cultural heritage truth telling.
- There is a need to establish an independent fund to administer funding of prescribed body corporates under the Native Title Act 1993.
Chamber of Minerals and Energy of Western Australia (CME) director of policy and advocacy Rob Carruthers said CME and its member companies would carefully consider the recommendations contained in the report and thanked the Committee for the opportunity to contribute to the inquiry process.
Carruthers said: “We remain committed to supporting the passage of Western Australia’s Aboriginal cultural heritage legislation as an absolute priority and in turn for the State to facilitate local custodians having their say on protection of their cultural heritage.
“The McGowan government understand how important this legislation is for the next phase of development and industry in WA and to ensure better outcomes for Aboriginal people.
“Formalisation of consultation and agreement-making on cultural heritage management will enshrine the priorities of local custodians in ongoing project development.”
Carruthers added that strengthening relationships between mining and resources operators and traditional owners was incredibly important – now and into the future.