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“We have to do better”: the Government has announced its response to the destruction of Juukan Gorge

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The Federal Government has announced its response to the destruction of Juukan Gorge, a sacred site of the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura peoples destroyed by Rio Tinto in 2020.

The Federal Government has announced its response to the destruction of Juukan Gorge, a sacred site of the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura peoples destroyed by Rio Tinto in 2020.

In 2021, a Parliamentary committee found inadequate regulations at the state and Federal level had contributed to the destruction.

The Government has accepted seven out of eight recommendations made by that committee. Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek says the incident was “shameful”.

Background

Rio Tinto destroyed Juukan Gorge (in WA) when it set off an explosion to expand an iron ore mine. The explosion destroyed two rock shelters of sacred cultural significance for the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura peoples, which also contained some of the oldest archaeological evidence of human life ever found on the continent.

The Traditional Owners say Rio Tinto told them the site would not be damaged. Rio Tinto says it “fell far short of [its] values” but maintains it received appropriate consent from the WA Government. It faced no criminal penalties.

State laws

State and territory governments have primary responsibility for protecting culturally significant sites.

Under WA’s system, Rio Tinto had to apply for government consent, which it did. However, the Parliamentary Committee found WA’s process lacked “rigour” and authorities did not do “basic due diligence”.

It found the failure was not “one-off”, that destruction of cultural sites was “alarmingly common” in WA, and that state laws had “no consistency… states have failed.”

Federal laws

The Federal Government’s legislation on cultural protection is set up as a “last resort where state and territory protection is not sufficient”.

The Committee concluded these laws were limited, including because they required Traditional Owners to take initiative rather than ensuring cultural protection “from the outset”.

It called for a new national framework, mapping of cultural sites, harsher penalties, and an underlying principle of “free, prior and informed consent”.

Veto right?

Greens Senator Lidia Thorpe, a DjabWurrung Gunnai Gunditjmara woman, sat on the Committee and made additional recommendations of her own.

They included a final right for Traditional Owners to veto projects.

“Truly free, prior and informed consent includes the possibility of consent not being provided… Traditional Owners should have the right to veto acts and developments on Country, for whatever their reasons might be,” Thorpe said.

Government response

The Government accepted the principles for reform made by the Committee. It will now develop laws to put them into place.

Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek, whose responsibilities include heritage protection, said it was clear “this was not an isolated mistake, or an example of one company going rogue… our system is not working.”

The one recommendation the Government did not accept, which it says it is “working through”, is that all responsibilities should be concentrated under the Minister for Indigenous Australians.

The Government says its laws will be developed by the First Nations Heritage Protection Alliance, Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney, Special Envoy for Reconciliation Pat Dodson, and Plibersek.

The Government agreed in principle with Thorpe’s comments, but did not specifically express a view on the question of a veto.

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