Indigenous heritage protection woefully inadequate

Published on Mon 24 August 2020 4:27pm

The bottom line is the protection of Indigenous cultural heritage in Australia is woefully inadequate. There is no effective national protection framework. I’m not sure we needed the Juukan Gorge tragedy to tell us that.

The Australian community was rightly aghast to learn of the destruction of the Juukan Gorge rock shelters. Those sites contained material that was 46,000 years old, including a hair belt that was 4,000 years old and bears a genetic link to the people PKKP traditional owners today. An expert assessment described the site as presenting the highest archaeological significance in Australia.

In the present inquiry Rio Tinto’s CEO has said the destruction of the rock shelters ‘should not have happened’, yet, in almost the next line, he said, ‘We operated within the regulatory and legal framework, above all.’

The bottom line is the protection of Indigenous cultural heritage in Australia is woefully inadequate. There is no effective national protection framework. I’m not sure we needed the Juukan Gorge tragedy to tell us that.

In the government’s 2015 white paper on northern Australia, there was a commitment to consult with Indigenous people with a view to reforming the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act. The government’s 2015 Australian Heritage Strategy also promised a review of the ATSIHP Act by December 2017. In 2018 the Australian Heritage Council also pointed Minister Frydenberg to the need to reform the ATSIHP Act, but nothing has been done.

And now, after failing to intervene on Juukan Gorge, after choosing not to alert her own department prior to the demolition, the minister says there will be some roundtable conversations about how to improve Indigenous heritage protection.

It should be a matter of sober and shameful reflection that that is exactly what the government has been promising for five years without doing anything at all.

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