Heritage protection an all-round failure

Published on Thu 12 November 2020 8:47am

The Minister needs to explain how from now going forward, if ever traditional owner calls her office, it doesn’t end up being a case of them being told you will get a phone call back from an advisor who’s on leave, who doesn’t get contacted, who never makes that phone call.

Mr Wilson (10:32am) – Thank you, Deputy Speaker, and I’m interested in the government’s programming and resources when it comes to national heritage and specifically Indigenous heritage. I’ve got some questions for the minister on that.

I acknowledge what the member for Wentworth said about the Antarctica program. Obviously, it was a lot of foresight by the Gillard government to commission the new icebreaker; it is behind schedule it means we won’t have an operative vessel this summer. The Aurora Australis has been retired and the Nuyina is not yet delivered. The comments the member for Wentworth made about Australia’s role in Antarctica are important. It’s salient, I think, to reflect on the fact that we’ve only conducted a very, very limited number of inspections of bases in our territory since the 1960s. Until recently, that was as few as nine. I think we’ve changed our approach and we’re going to do more of those, but that’s yet to be seen.

But I really want to focus on national Indigenous heritage and there’s no doubt that we have a badly inadequate national protection framework for indigenous cultural heritage. And sadly, we saw that through the tragedy at Juukan Gorge, and the caves there earlier this year; we saw sites that had evidence of occupation dating back 46,000 years wantonly destroyed as a result of failures all round. Failures all round, failures by Rio Tinto, but certainly failures when it comes to the Indigenous cultural heritage protection framework at every level, including the Commonwealth level, we did not need the Juukan Gorge tragedy to tell us that that framework is in a state of failure.

It’s been like that for some considerable time. There have been alarm bells all along the way. This government itself committed to a review of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act in its heritage strategy in 2015. It said that that review would occur by the end of 2017. It never appeared. The Northern Australia white paper said that the same review would occur. It never appeared. So I’d like the minister to explain what is actually being done in this space.

Since the Juukan Gorge cave tragedy and travesty we’ve been told that there will be some roundtables and some of them have already occurred; that’s sort of standard government practice when there’s a disaster, let’s call for some roundtables. There was supposed to be a review and a plan for reform delivered at the end of 2017. That was three years ago. If that had happened, maybe what happened to Juukan Gorge may not have occurred.

So, I think it is for the government and certainly for the minister to explain what actually is being done, what resources and what timetable to get on with the job that the government tasked itself for completing three years ago about which it has done absolutely nothing.

And the second thing the minister should explain is what actually occurred in her office because the Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act creates emergency intervention powers for the minister so that when a state protection framework isn’t working, the Minister can step in and say, ‘hang on a second, we’ve got to pause’.

What happened in this case? The traditional owners contacted the minister’s office, they were told they would get a phone call back and it didn’t happen. It was like dropping a stone in a deep and empty well; there wasn’t even a splash. Nobody got back to them and as a result, the department wasn’t even aware of the prospect of the destruction until after it had occurred. That is not good enough. Any minister that has emergency intervention powers must have their office set up in such a way that they can respond when that need is triggered. And it didn’t happen in this case. And it’s no answer to say by the Minister, that it was too late. We actually don’t know that. But it’s no answer to say that it was too late because the next time it happens it might not be too late, if it was in this case, and we don’t know that.

So, what I want the minister to explain is what has she done in her office to address that failure? I mean, the first thing would be to acknowledge it. You know, the Prime Minister this week talked about human frailty, we make mistakes, ministers make mistakes. But I tell you what, things aren’t going to improve if people don’t have the courage to say, that wasn’t right. What happened in my office wasn’t correct. Someone should have got back to the traditional owners and it didn’t happen.

The CEO of the National Indigenous Australians Agency, his agency was contacted and they made a mistake of not reaching out to the department. They acknowledged that when they appeared before the inquiry, they said we made a mistake and we’ve adopted a new protocol. And here it is, we table it.

Where is the equivalent from the minister? The Minister needs to explain how from now going forward, if ever traditional owner calls her office, it doesn’t end up being a case of them being told you will get a phone call back from an advisor who’s on leave, who doesn’t get contacted, who never makes that phone call. There needs to be some sort of change so that that emergency intervention power, which is absolutely critical to prevent these kinds of tragedies, doesn’t get stuffed up again, and the minister should be prepared to say it was a mistake in my office. I accept it. I own it. I’m doing something about it. I’m adopting a new protocol so that if ever that phone call comes into my office again, that kind of failure doesn’t occur.

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