Changes to WA Aboriginal Heritage Act

Thor Kerr and Shaphan Cox, ‘Frustration rises over changes to the WA Aboriginal Heritage Act’, The Conversation, 21 August 2014


In June, the Western Australian Government released draft amendments to the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972. This is the legislation that determines what qualifies for heritage protection in the state – and what does not. The amendments have been met with increasing concern by Aboriginal people and scholars who see the Aboriginal Heritage Amendment Bill 2014 as a threat to the objects and sites that it claims to protect.

A review of the Aboriginal Heritage Act began in May 2011. This resulted in two rounds of public consultation. The first round focused on the government’s intention to reform the legislation and the second round concentrated on the draft amendments.

If the Bill becomes law after parliamentary debate expected later this year, the rights of people to engage with Aboriginal heritage can be ignored within government bureaucracy. Its obliviousness to Aboriginal heritage may become much more efficient.

One of the amendments authorises the chief executive officer of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs to issue a declaration that “there is no Aboriginal site on the land”. This declaration may be at “the CEO’s own initiative”. There is no administrative tribunal mechanism for reviewing the CEO’s decision.

On June 11, when the amendments were published, Aboriginal Affairs Minister Peter Collier said that the changes were needed to keep pace with rapid economic development, particularly in mining and construction. Several resource companies have expressed support for the changes.

The Law Society of Western Australia, however, has criticised the bill for not ensuring transparent reasoning of CEO determinations and for not guaranteeing Aboriginal people a voice in the decision-making process.

Indigenous voices respond

In an August 6 submission on the bill, filed during the government’s eight-week consultation period, Aboriginal MLA Ben Wyatt wrote that:

It is extraordinary that the government’s proposed amendments actually contemplate a reduced involvement for Aboriginal people than the original Act drafted in 1972.

The Bill fails to address the concerns articulated by many Aboriginal people during this consultation process.

In another submission, Aboriginal academic Blaze Kwaymullina and Aboriginal author Sally Morgan wrote that the government’s plan would “weaken a piece of legislation which is already failing to achieve the purpose of protecting Aboriginal heritage”. Indeed, the architects of the bill seem to have ignored the opinions of experts such as Professor Mick Dodson and Gary Toone of the Australian National University.

Read more here.

Thor Kerr is a Lecturer in the School of Media, Culture and Creative Arts at Curtin University.
Shaphan Cox is a Lecturer in the Department of Planning and Geography at Curtin University.


See also Victoria Laurie, ‘Bureaucrat’s last word on sites stirs anger’, The Australian, 23 June 2014.