Aboriginal Affairs Minister Ben Wyatt has welcomed a Federal Parliamentary committee’s interim report on the destruction of 46,000-year-old caves at the Juukan Gorge in the Pilbara region.
The report found evidence that Rio Tinto deliberately chose to destroy the rock shelters despite receiving evidence of the shelters’ cultural importance to the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) people.
It also found ‘severe deficiencies in the company’s heritage management practices, internal communication protocols and relationship practices with the PKKP’.
The report makes a number of recommendations to Rio Tinto, mining companies, the Commonwealth Government and Western Australian Government.
Mr Wyatt said that while a moratorium on new section 18 applications is not a practical solution, he expected any proponents to have fully engaged with relevant traditional owners before making any application.
In the interim report, Senator Dean Smith ‘commended’ the McGowan Government for progressing ‘important legislation’ that he believes will ‘address many of the concerns raised by traditional owners and industry throughout this Inquiry’.
Senator Smith also said he had ‘confidence in the advice of the members of the Aboriginal Cultural Material Committee and the final decision-maker, Minister Ben Wyatt, to ensure that future Section 18 approvals are appropriately balanced’.
Section 18 consents under Western Australia’s Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 cover a range of land use activities and outlines the conditions a proponent must adhere to when carrying out works on Aboriginal heritage sites.
Land use activities range from mining projects to bridge repairs, road safety projects, and projects along the Swan River such as foreshore upgrades and a waterbird refuge.
Many of these activities have the support of relevant Aboriginal organisations.
Of the last 20 Section 18 consents submitted to be considered by the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs:
- 10 applications have been submitted for local or State Government projects, such as bridge repairs in Collie, Swan River foreshore works in East Perth and a waterbird refuge for the Swan River;
- two applications relate to housing projects;
- one application is for the redevelopment of a holiday park in Exmouth; and
- seven applications relate to mining, including gold exploration and a mineral sands mine.
As stated by Aboriginal Affairs Minister Ben Wyatt:
“The failures by Rio Tinto which have been highlighted by this inquiry were inexcusable and I support the process to provide restitution to the PKKP.
“I have always been of the view that a moratorium on new Section 18 applications is not a practical solution in light of their use across a vast array of different projects, most of which are uncontentious. However, I expect any proponents to have appropriately engaged with relevant traditional owners before making any Section 18 application.
“As Minister I won’t be considering applications for Section 18s where native title parties have not been appropriately consulted.
“Section 18 approvals are required for many non-mining activities including housing, road and bridge construction.
“Recent applications have included a waterbird sanctuary and a holiday park.
“I agree with the committee’s recommendation for mining companies to cease using gag clauses with traditional owners and for traditional owners to have a greater say regarding their heritage.
“The McGowan Government has set the path forward for the historic reform of Western Australia’s outdated Aboriginal heritage laws.
“The new laws put Aboriginal people at the heart of decision-making about their heritage, and I am confident that the broad consensus for these reforms will allow the best possible chance for a Bill to be supported by the 41st Parliament.”