Changes to Australia's Aboriginal Heritage Act meet fierce opposition

by Tom Anstey | 27 May 2015

The government of Western Australia is under extreme pressure to throw out or dramatically alter its proposals to change the Aboriginal Heritage Act.

The government argues that the 40-year-old-legislation – which was designed to protect significant Aboriginal heritage sites in Australia – is outdated and being strangled by an antiquated approvals process.

The amendments, currently before the Australian Parliament, would if passed increase penalties for damaging or destroying sacred sites. In a bid to speed up the process, decisions over violations would be placed in the hands of one man: the chief executive of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs.

Conservationists and the Aboriginal community have cried out in protest over the changes, arguing that the amended act fails to protect heritage owners.

"The current legislation says the department is protecting heritage for the benefit of the public generally,” said prominent Perth barrister, Greg McIntyre.

"If they are going to take that seriously, then they need to take account of a proper balancing process between fast tracking development approvals and respecting Aboriginal heritage."

The bill has the backing of Australia’s mining industry, which argues that the existing system causes unnecessary delays in projects. Famous rock art sites are popular with mining companies because they house rare minerals such as diamonds and large deposits of coal.

The change in law could make these sites much more accessible to the mining industry, which is at constant odds with conservationists over plans which could damage heritage sites. At the behest of industry, the State Government has deregistered 22 sacred sites across West Australia over the past four years, leaving them vulnerable.

There are an estimated 100,000 rock art sites in Australia, but the country has no central register documenting the art and preservation is up to the various institutions managing it, with no set protection strategy. The ancient art faces a range of threats, including weather, feral animals and human interference.

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FEATURE: Features – Sharing the land

The government of Western Australia is under extreme pressure to throw out or dramatically alter its proposals to change the Aboriginal Heritage Act. The government argues that the 40-year-old-legislation – which was designed to protect significant Aboriginal heritage sites in Australia – is outdated and being strangled by an antiquated approvals process. The amendments, currently before the Australian Parliament, would if passed increase penalties for damaging or destroying sacred sites.
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The change in law could potentially open up access for industry to sacred and historical Aboriginal sites
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