/ 09 August 2023

Blasting away the West’s new cultural heritage laws

Image source: The Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura Aboriginal Corporation
Image source: The Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura Aboriginal Corporation


Yesterday’s announcement from Western Australia’s (newish) Labor Premier Roger Cook has been felt from Perth to Canberra… He’s scrapping the state’s 39-day-old Aboriginal cultural heritage laws after farmers, property developers, and miners complained they put too many burdens on landowners. And reports say Labor in Canberra was concerned that the issue was getting in the way of an Indigenous Voice to Parliament referendum. The legislation was meant to stop a repeat of Rio Tinto’s destruction of the 46,000-year-old Juukan Gorge sacred site in 2020, but Cook says the “stress, confusion and division” means he’s going to repeal it ASAP.


Rio Tinto had permission from the state government to blast the rock shelters in the Pilbara region, even though the traditional owners – the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) – had taken formal steps to stop it. The public furore that followed saw the mining giant’s boss Jean-Sebastien Jacques and chairman Simon Thompson leave the company, along with others. At the time, PKKP representatives said Rio gave them misleading information, and traditional owner Burchell Hayes said the destruction of the sacred site “left a gaping hole in our ability to pass on our heritage to our children and grandchildren.” The federal government vowed it could never be allowed to happen again, and former Premier Mark McGowan changed the laws in 2021. But that’s now come unstuck… 


It’s a good question because, after all that, the new regime has only been in place for 5 weeks… The problem was the laws required landowners to undertake detailed heritage assessments and apply for expensive permits, even for minor works, on any piece of land larger than 1,100 square metres (think an average house block times 3…). Yes23 campaign director Dean Parkin said on the weekend that he would welcome the backflip because the impending Voice referendum would be a debate about cultural heritage for voters in the state – and that wasn’t helpful. But PKKP land and heritage manager Jordan Ralph said the decision to overturn the new laws was “nothing short of a cluster and again, First Nations people are being treated as second class citizens in their own Country.” As for protecting the state’s cultural heritage, the state will revert to the original 50-year-old legislation – with amendments the government says will prevent a Juukan Gorge-style disaster again.

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