Juukan Gorge travesty could happen again tomorrow

Published on Tue 26 October 2021 3:21pm

When the action so far in response to the Juukan Gorge disaster has been the usual government gobbledygook about initiating consultation, and convening further meetings in the future, and better operationalizing existing departmental responsibilities, there’s not a lot of cause for hope.

Mr Wilson (5:22pm) – Deputy Speaker, I’m glad for the opportunity to speak on this report. It’s a very serious and timely piece of work. I recognise, at the outset, the effort and commitment of all committee members. It’s notable that the committee has undertaken the inquiry in hard-working, hard-hitting fashion, and has delivered a set of focused meaningful recommendations. It’s timely in the sense that it comes close on the heels of one of Australia’s greatest cultural tragedies. The destruction of rock shelters Juukan Gorge on the land of the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people’s, two distinct Aboriginal ownership groups that are collectively referred to as the PKKP peoples.

As anyone who followed the awful events of last year would know the site destroyed, that dated back some 46,000 years, had contained some quite unbelievable cultural material, including a kangaroo bone tool that was 28,000 years old, 10,000 years older than any similar artefact that has been discovered; a plaited hair belt that was 4000 years old. Think about that. An item that for references sake, comes from twice as long ago as the birth of Christ, with genetic links to traditional owners today. This is history and heritage that was rightly described as being of immeasurable significance.

It’s through no fault of the committee that the report is also in a sense, not timely, to the extent that the recommendations in the report come too late to prevent the destruction. And it must be acknowledged that, to some degree, the recommendations repeat imperatives that have sat before this government for some time.

This tragedy, which might as well be called a fiasco occurred through multiple failures, failures by Rio Tinto, failures of our national Indigenous heritage protection framework, and failures of administration within the Minister for Environment’s Office. If any of those errors had been avoided, the tragedy might not have occurred. And underlying those failures is the larger issue of disempowerment of First Nations peoples, which persists in Australian life today, and requires serious cultural change, through reconciliation and truth telling, and institutional change, including constitutional change all the things that were touched on in the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which this government first invited, and then dropped like a stone. That is a matter of stinging shame, an abdication of leadership and a responsibility. This deep and unaddressed cultural failure – the disempowerment of First Nations peoples bled through everything that was wrong in the circumstances of Juukan Gorge. Let me quote from the committee report on the recognition of this enduring problem in Australian life.

What was missing from Rio’s decision-making process was the voice of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The committee does not want to make this same mistake. The committee has prioritised the voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people throughout the report. The committee acknowledges that there are many companies within the resources industry taking strong measures to protect heritage sites, and commends those companies. However, the resources industry has more access to governments, the media and therefore the broader Australian committee than traditional owners. And the committee considered it important to highlight Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices above all others.

Deputy Speaker, in closely examining all the things that went wrong at Juukan Gorge, and in weighing the harm, and the loss and the pain, the report says, and I quote, ‘perhaps the tragedy may at least be a catalyst for change.’

Well, let’s hope so, let’s hope so.

It would be easy to have some optimism about that if the government had ever shown a preparedness to accept its past failures, or ever shown a preparedness to get on with the task of serious reform. In its introduction, the report states ‘it is time for the legislative frameworks in all jurisdictions in Australia to be modernised to bring meaningful protections for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural heritage.’

Funny that. This government’s 2015 Australian Heritage Strategy included a commitment to review the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act by December 2017. That did not happen. The government’s own appointed reviewer of the EPBC Act, Professor Graham Samuel said in his final report that ‘a comprehensive review of national level Indigenous cultural heritage protection legislation is needed.’ His report mentions the fact that, post Juukan Gorge, the minister held what has so far been a one-off meeting with state and territory ministers, and started some kind of process of engagement with first nation stakeholders. But the report notes little detail has been provided about how this process will be progressed.

The Samuels’ final report, recommendation seven, is for this government to and I quote ‘immediately initiate a comprehensive review of national level cultural heritage protections, drawing on best frame practice frameworks for cultural heritage laws.’ That final report, Deputy Speaker, was provided a year ago, in October 2020. Yet no comprehensive review of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act has commenced.

At Senate estimates in May early this year, the question was put as to why the review that was supposed to occur by December 2017 hadn’t happened. Departmental officials could only say that the review hadn’t occurred and if that there was to be a review, that was a matter for government. In other words, the bleeding obvious.

Nothing has been done. Nothing is being done.

What was offered was the following, and I quote, ‘there’s an ongoing process of the department examining how to best operationalize that Act.’ In other words, meaningless, useless, pointless bureaucratic waffle. And in relation to the roundtable meeting held by the minister with state and territory counterparts, there was a reference to a commitment to reconvene at a later date – that commitment was given in September last year. No further meeting had occurred in May, when the questions were asked in the Senate. And, as far as I’m aware, no further meeting has occurred in the time since.

On that basis, Deputy Speaker, it’s hard for anyone, for First Nations people’s, for anyone in the Australian community, for anyone in this Parliament, to be all that hopeful about the government’s response to the same recommendation in the committee report we’re considering this afternoon.

And again, it comes back to the point that if you’re not prepared to acknowledge the failures of the past, you’re not likely to prevent failures in future. As with so many things that we look at with this government, until there’s some accountability taken for incompetence, incompetence will continue.

Deputy Speaker, Australia does not have an effective national framework for the protection of First Nations heritage. This government has been aware of that for some time, and it has done nothing. If the Commonwealth law had been reviewed by December 2017, as promised, it’s possible that some material reform might have occurred by now. Whether that would have saved the immeasurable cultural heritage destroyed at Juukan gorge we will never know. When representatives of the PKKP got in touch with a minister’s office seeking emergency intervention before the rock shelters were destroyed under the law that’s supposed to provide exactly that kind of last-minute protection no one even bothered to get back to them. To this day, there’s been no accounting for that failure, and no explanation of steps taken to ensure it can’t happen again.

 In September 2020, Professor Graham Samuel’s final report, the government said a comprehensive review of national indigenous protection should begin immediately. That was more than a year ago, nothing even faintly like that has occurred. This report is titled A Way Forward, and that’s appropriate, because we desperately need a way forward, and we certainly need a response from government that makes sure that first nations Australians don’t begin suffer such an appalling loss of their heritage, which in this case was also a loss of national significance. And I would say of global significance.

But there’s no point glossing over the fact that this government has excelled at doing nothing, at ignoring the obvious need for action, of breaking its promises of rolling out the stock-standard process-based waffle at every turn, and of denying there’s anything wrong about its approach in the face of catastrophe.

When the action so far in response to the Juukan Gorge disaster has been the usual government gobbledygook about initiating consultation, and convening further meetings in the future, and better operationalizing existing departmental responsibilities, there’s not a lot of cause for hope.

There’s not much sign of any intention from this government of looking for, let alone of finding, a way forward. Indeed, it looks a hell of a lot like a government intent on keeping things exactly as they are. And that is a terrible shame. It will be a terrible shame. First Nations Australians deserve better and they’re rightly demanding better from this government.

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