MELBOURNE – Australian Aboriginal groups will be consulted more widely but gain no veto over development projects on their traditional lands, under proposed changes to laws in the state where miner Rio Tinto destroyed ancient rock shelters last year.
Rio’s destruction of the sites at Juukan Gorge, which showed signs of human habitation stretching back 46,000 years, was legal.
But it sparked a public outcry, cost top executives at the global mining firm their jobs and prompted a national review of industry practices and Australia’s heritage protection laws.
Briefing notes of amendments drafted to existing Aboriginal heritage laws in Western Australia – where the gorge is located and Australia’s most mineral-rich state – were seen by Reuters on Wednesday.
The proposed changes include much heftier fines for damage to Aboriginal heritage and a focus on agreement-making between developers – who will have obtain informed consent and provide full disclosure of all their options – and traditional owners.
But they fail to provide the right to veto development projects damaging to their heritage that Aboriginal groups have demanded.
The bill establishes a new oversight body for the agreement-making process that will be majority Aboriginal and have a male and female co-chair, to account for cultural knowledge protected by gender.
The draft is designed to tackle a system in which development approval rests with the government minister for Aboriginal Affairs, in a process that has broadly rubber stamped such requests and does not now allow Aboriginal groups the right of appeal.
Aboriginal groups say they have not been adequately consulted over the new legislation, and expressed particular concern that the government remains the ultimate decision-making authority in cases where agreement can’t be reached.
The proposed Western Australia revisions state that, in such cases, “an alternate process will provide for Government consideration of these proposals”, without providing further details.
State parliament records showed that for the decade to July 2020, of more than 460 applications to disturb or destroy sites of potential cultural significance in the state by miners, all but one were approved.
The state government is briefing groups on the draft legislation over the coming days.