Pilbara bush meeting sees vote to challenge Aboriginal Heritage Act amendments

Representatives from Pilbara Aboriginal communities are calling on the Western Australian Government to rethink proposed changes to the Aboriginal Heritage Act.
Elders from Pilbara Aboriginal communities gather to discuss proposed changes to the Aboriginal Heritage Act in a bush meeting at Yule River.

(Lucie Bell - ABC Rural WA)

Around 200 people met on the banks of the Yule River, south of Port Hedland, last Friday, to raise their concerns about a lack of community consultation around planned amendments to section 18 of the legislation.

The 1972 Aboriginal Heritage Act is used to assess sacred sites and objects and to determine how those sites are protected and preserved.

In April 2012, the State Government released a discussion paper with seven proposed amendments to the act, which it says will improve clarity, compliance and efficiency in the process.

In June this year the Government released the draft Aboriginal Heritage Amendment Bill 2014 and called for feedback over a 10 week period.

Amongst attendees at Friday's bush meeting though, there was a sense that the consultation period was not inclusive, or extensive enough.

Yinjibarndi woman Tootsie Daniel doubts that the proposed changes to the Act will be for the better.

"There are a lot of heritage sites that need to be protected, not crushed and mined," she said.

"We've never had anyone from the Department of Aboriginal Affairs come to have bush meetings like this with us.

"We haven't been consulted and that just really concerns me, because we are the Aboriginal people of this country, of this land, of this ngurra.

"The Government shouldn't be making decisions up the top, that's wrong, they think that we're not important, but we are important and that's why I'm here."

Michael Leonard looks after heritage claims on his traditional lands, consulting with elders in his community.

He says Aboriginal heritage can include a variety of natural landmarks, burial sites and/ or objects.

"We've got a lot of hills, pools and rivers, that sort of thing, sacred places where men go," he said.

"We want to take care of that stuff for the next generation, but the way it's going we won't have the next generation looking at any of that stuff."

Representatives from Pilbara Aboriginal communities vote to reject the proposed changes to the WA Aboriginal Heritage Act.

(Lucie Bell - ABC Rural WA)

Mr Leonard acknowledges it's not feasible to protect every sacred site, but he's concerned all the same and says a number of sites on his traditional lands have been destroyed already.

"We know there are millions of artefacts out there and caves, we can't save it all.

"I've been having a yarn to mining companies about sea containers, we hate putting artefacts in sea containers, we'd prefer to leave them on the land.

"It's difficult," he says simply.

One idea repeatedly raised by those at Friday's bush meeting, was the need for a united Pilbara voice on the issue of heritage.

Mr Leonard says that's an idea he supports.

"We need to get out of that idea of 'I'm on this side of the fence, you're on that side,' at the end of the day all Aboriginal people are related in one way or another.

"We need to be one, united voice, then we might have a fight on our hands."

Pilbara delegation to travel to Perth

In an overwhelming show of hands, attendees at Friday's meetings voted to reject proposed changes to the Heritage Act and to send representatives from the Pilbara region's language groups to Perth.

Friday's meeting was organised by the Yamatji Marlpa Aboriginal Corporation, a Native Title representation body dealing primarily in the Pilbara, Gascoyne and Murchison regions.

The corporation has been circulating a petition calling on the State Government to form a select committee to develop a new framework to reform the Heritage Act.

The corporation argues currently there is a 'heavy focus on approvals for industry'.

Yamatji Marlpa CEO Simon Hawkins says the turn out for the bush meeting shows there remains widespread concern.

"We've had members come from as far north as Bidyadanga, as far south as Yamatji and also Western Desert people attend to raise their concerns," he said.

Mr Hawkins acknowledges a lot of benefits have come to Aboriginal communities through development of their lands and says the group is not objecting to the Government's desire to improve the Heritage Act process more broadly.

He says Friday's meeting was focussed on a better balance being struck between competing interests within the legislation.

"Development is going to occur, but by the same token you can conserve and manage sites, you can strike a balance, which we've seen with built heritage and other forms of heritage across Australia," he said.

"We should remember as well, that Aboriginal people are not stakeholders in their own heritage, it's their heritage.

"Everyone else is stakeholders: miners, the government, non-indigenous people, and we should not forget that."

It's not yet known when the revised Heritage Act will be presented to state parliament for consideration, but a representative group hopes travel to Parliament House in the coming weeks to meet with politicians and present their concerns.

DAA: Act changes intended to better include Aboriginal voices

A spokesperson for the Department of Aboriginal Affairs said Minister Peter Collier was unable to attend Friday's bush meeting due to prior engagements.

A statement from the Department said that the proposed changes to the Act are designed to 'improve protection, certainty, fairness and consistency.'

The statement says the reforms are also intended to encourage early engagement between land users and the relevant Aboriginal people, and that regulations are currently being drafted to ensure Aboriginal voices are included in decision-making, 'something that was not included in previous legislation.'

The statement calls on relevant stakeholders to 'consider the benefits to Aboriginal people that will result from these reforms, and not be misled by comments from a small group of stakeholders intent on preventing these important reforms from proceeding'.


'Speaking with one voice' – WA's changes to Aboriginal Heritage law rejected at bush meetings

Written Dr Stephen Bennetts, who is a consultant anthropologist that has worked with Aboriginal people in Northern Australia since 1994

Be careful what you pray for. By proposing to strip away protection for Aboriginal people's heritage across the board, and throughout the State, the Barnett Government appears to have unwittingly conjured up a strong, united and angry Aboriginal coalition which is now mobilising against the AHA amendments.

Written Dr Stephen Bennetts, who is a consultant anthropologist that has worked with Aboriginal people in Northern Australia since 1994.    READ MORE