Aboriginal leaders in the Kimberley, Pilbara and Perth have rejected the Western Australian government’s plans to amend the state’s Aboriginal Heritage Act to further streamline provisions under section 18 of the AHA that allow for the destruction of Aboriginal sites by developers.

At a bush meeting last Friday at Yule River, south of Port Hedland, representatives of all major Pilbara Aboriginal language groups voted to reject the AHA amendments and called on WA’s Legislative Assembly to form a select committee to develop a new framework for reform of the AHA with meaningful participation by Aboriginal people. A Pilbara Aboriginal delegation will also be sent to Perth for talks with Premier Colin Barnett and also, if necessary, to Canberra, to discuss their concerns with the (de facto) federal Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Tony Abbott.

The previous day, 400 members of the Kimberley Land Council also voted unanimously to reject the AHA amendments at an annual general meeting held in Jarlmadangah, 200 kilometres east of Broome. On Tuesday, September 16, members of Perth’s Noongar community also organised a rally outside WA Parliament denouncing the government’s proposals. A government call for submissions on the proposed AHA amendments drew a record 151 responses in August, almost all of them critical.

Critics (including the Law Society of WA) have highlighted numerous shortcomings in the proposed amendments. Whereas previously the Aboriginal Cultural Materials Committee (comprised of senior Aboriginal people and anthropological and archaeological experts) was responsible for determining the status of Aboriginal sites under the AHA, the current amendments would not only abolish the anthropologist position on the ACMC, but also invest a single government-appointed CEO — who may not necessarily have experience or expertise in heritage matters — with draconian powers over the fate of WA’s Aboriginal cultural heritage.

The amendments, it is claimed, are also potentially inconsistent with both the Commonwealth Native Title and Racial Discrimination acts; under section 18 of the Native Title Act, a developer proposing to destroy an Aboriginal site has a right of appeal to the relevant minister, whereas the Aboriginal custodian of the site does not.

The specific regulations under which the AHA would operate are still a closely guarded secret. The amendments themselves appear to have been framed according to a wish list drawn up by mining interests, while no meaningful form of consultation over the AHA amendments appears to have taken place with Aboriginal people or organisations.

For Dr Carolyn Tan, in-house legal counsel at Yamatji Marlpa Aboriginal Corporation, and an authority on indigenous cultural heritage protection regimes in various countries, WA’s current system is:

” … in some ways the worst in mainland Australia. (Although a bill has recently been introduced into Tasmanian Parliament’s to revamp the State’s current outdated heritage legislation) Victoria and Queensland upgraded their Aboriginal cultural heritage legislation in 2004 and 2006 respectively, but only Western Australia seems to be going backwards in terms of recognising the rights of Aboriginal people in relation to their own heritage.”

It would be a mistake, however, to assume that the current state Liberal government record on Aboriginal heritage protection is any worse than that of WA’s previous Carpenter Labor government; in 2006, Labor lifted heritage protected status over a protected rock art area in the Pilbara’s Abydos/Woodstock region, following lobbying by Fortescue Metals Group consultants Julian Grill and Brian Burke, to allow FMG to construct a railway line through the area, in circumstances later investigated — sensationally — by WA’s Corruption and Crime Commission.

In 2006 and 2007, the Carpenter government also gave approval for approximately 940 Aboriginal petroglyphs to be removed from Woodside’s Burrup Peninsula Pluto leases, to make way for the company’s Pluto LNG plant, against the explicit wishes of the local Aboriginal custodians, and after the then-minister for indigenous affairs, Michelle Roberts, had overruled the recommendations of her own expert advisory committee — the Aboriginal Cultural Materials Committee approved the Pluto A s18 proposal (though not the sensitive southern portion), but unanimously rejected the Pluto B proposal.