Juukan Gorge disaster has not delivered effective change

Published on Mon 24 May 2021 11:29am

Following the explosion of the caves in Juukan Gorge, no one can seriously argue the current system is working. Our whole approach needs to improve. If we don’t do better when it comes to protecting our heritage places, they will continue to be at risk of being damaged or lost, especially in the case of First Nations cultural sites and material.

This opinion piece was first published in The West Australian on Monday, 24 May 2021.

Only a year ago, the Juukan Gorge disaster saw the detonation of First Nations heritage that anthropologists regarded as immeasurably precious.

Cultural material that reached back 46,000 years and reached forward to the present traditional owners were destroyed because of multiple failures. The site had contained a ‘hair belt’ that was 4000 years old whose genetic material was traced to today’s traditional owners, the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura peoples (PKKP).

It is impossible to properly describe that epochal loss.  In a hearing of the parliamentary inquiry into the tragedy, a PKKP representative said: ‘The loss of Juukan Gorge rock shelters is also a loss to all First Nations people and the community within Australia and internationally—communities who have lived to continuously endure the destruction of their physical, cultural, and spiritual land with little to no reprieve through legislation or the courts.’

The bottom line is that Australia does not have an effective protection framework for First Nations heritage. States like New South Wales have no specific protection in place. Western Australia is moving to address serious flaws in the 50-year old Aboriginal Heritage Act that did not protect the caves at Juukan Gorge.

But there’s no doubt the incredible significance of the Juukan caves demanded Commonwealth protection, and it has long been acknowledged that Australia lacks a cohesive national system for conserving our historical and cultural heritage.

The definitive assessment was conducted by the Hon Elizabeth Evatt AC in the aftermath of the Hindmarsh Bridge controversy in the 1990s, and for more than 20 years it has been understood that the Australian Government should take responsibility for creating a national framework.

The final Evatt report called for substantial legislative reform and the creation of an Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Agency. It lamented the absence of uniform minimum standards that would provide automatic protection, concerns that have been echoed by Professor Graeme Samuels in his EPBC Act review.

As it stands, the only Commonwealth mechanism for spot-fixing the shortfall in state and territory regulation is the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act (the ATSIHPA), which the Hawke Government created as an interim measure enabling the federal Minister for the Environment to intervene.

Sadly, we’ll never know whether the ATSIHPA could have prevented the Juukan tragedy.

We know that representatives of the PKKP were in touch with Environment Minister Sussan Ley’s office seeking ATSIHPA intervention. But no one called them back before the detonation.  

Rio Tinto executives including the CEO have since stepped down. There has been no acknowledgment of any fault from Minister Ley or the Government.

What’s worse, nothing has been done to prevent another Juukan, despite the Morrison Government knowing the inadequacies of the ATSIHPA for years.

In 2015, Tony Abbott issued a white paper for northern Australia which called for consultation with First Nations people in order to shape amendments to the ATSIHPA. At the same time, the Australian Heritage Strategy promised to review the ATSIHPA by December 2017. More than three years later, nothing has been done. And while the substandard system of protection drifted along without those promised reviews, the Juukan caves were destroyed.

Since the Juukan Gorge incident, a bipartisan parliamentary inquiry led by Warren Entsch and Senator Patrick Dodson unanimously recommended an immediate review of the ATSIHPA. Six months later and the Morrison Government has not even bothered to respond.

Last year, the Minister again promised roundtables and a review process. At Senate Estimates recently the Department said, ‘The department continues to engage regularly with Indigenous people as part of its responsibilities in administering the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984 and the EPBC Act, which informs approaches to Indigenous heritage protections.’ This boilerplate waffle was not accompanied by any Budget funding to support national heritage reform.

Following the explosion of the caves in Juukan Gorge, no one can seriously argue the current system is working. Our whole approach needs to improve. If we don’t do better when it comes to protecting our heritage places, they will continue to be at risk of being damaged or lost, especially in the case of First Nations cultural sites and material.

We are lucky to have the opportunity to learn from and share the custodianship of the remarkable and precious heritage that belongs to the longest continuous culture on earth. So far we have not risen to that call.  And so far the awful and unnecessary loss at Juukan Gorge has not delivered the change we need.

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