House debates

Monday, 27 November 2006

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Amendment Bill 2005

Second Reading

6:17 pm

Photo of Peter GarrettPeter Garrett (Kingsford Smith, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Reconciliation and the Arts) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to support the second reading amendment moved by the member for Grayndler and to note in relation to this Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Amendment Bill 2005 that there seems to be very little legislation that comes through the House on Indigenous matters that is not tainted by extreme ideology or narrow wedge politics. This legislation is as good an example as any that we have seen recently.

This bill has been too long in coming. It has arrived in an incomplete form, which is a very great pity considering the importance of securing adequate and consistent recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage and its recognition henceforth. Notwithstanding the deficiencies in the legislation, Labor does support the general principles of the bill. Labor does support efforts to improve existing legislation, including to give more certainty to cultural loan arrangements and to provide for the Victorian government to administer its own Aboriginal heritage protection register. But it is clear that the government has not adequately addressed all the shortcomings that were a part of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act.

Minister Hill originally stated that reform was long overdue—and it was—but this bill fails to deliver reform which significantly improves and enhances the protection of Indigenous heritage. That is of real concern to us on this side of the House. In August 2003, Minister Hill stated:

We are anxious to have a new and better piece of legislation put in place as quickly as possible.

Three years later, judging by the bill in front of us, the government has not fulfilled its commitment to a ‘better piece of legislation’.

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984 was originally intended as a stopgap measure. The Evatt inquiry reported on the act in 1996. I will come to that in a moment, but it has been noted that the legislation was inadequate to deal with the national approach required for the Commonwealth’s heritage obligations. In fact, this act has been described as the ‘act of last resort’. A Senate minority report also considered the bill and pointed out that, of the 200 applications since 1984, only 22 have been declared for recognition and inclusion on the list and only one during the term of the Howard government. So, just as reconciliation lies dead in the water under this government, so, regrettably, does a genuine commitment to recognising and applying the appropriate legislative protective and recognition framework that Indigenous heritage deserves.

The failure by the government to ensure practical implementation of the provisions via listing means that the protection act is virtually defunct legislation. If there are so few sites that come into province and are applied for by this government, then the heritage protection act has become virtually defunct in the life of the Howard government. The Senate minority report on the legislation and its record actually argued that it appears to have been the intention of the Commonwealth to confine its statutory involvement in Indigenous issues to the EPBC Act while ignoring the ATSIHP Act.

The effect of this is that two implications apply for Indigenous heritage. The first is that, at the time when the Senate minority report was brought down, the EPBC Act was clearly much narrower in its scope, and the proposed amended act that subsequently came into the parliament is even narrower as a consequence. It is confined, for example, to matters of international significance, of national significance and of places located in Commonwealth areas. There will be many instances of places of Indigenous heritage that do not fall within that narrow purview. Those limitations that I have just described do not apply to the ATSIHP Act.

The second is that, as has been noted in the House previously, the Howard government has administered the national and Commonwealth heritage lists in a way that, in fact, makes it difficult for Indigenous sites to be included. The stringent criteria that seem to have been applied by the Howard government preclude identifying and including an Indigenous site as worthy unless it also has significance to the wider community. This way of reading the principle of inclusion under this legislation has meant that Aboriginal sites which are significant and important for their Aboriginal context, history and meaning have not come onto the list.

In July 2004, the Minister for the Environment and Heritage, Senator Ian Campbell, flagged a number of sites for priority consideration for inclusion on the National Heritage List. Those sites he listed included Castlemaine Diggings, the South Australian old and new parliament houses, the Port Arthur Historic Site, Mawson’s Huts, Point Cook, Point Nepean—all of those sites worthy of inclusion—the Dampier Archipelago art site, the Brewarrina fish traps and the Wave Hill walk-off site. At present the list contains all of the abovementioned sites—in other words, those items that I have just identified—with the exception of the Wave Hill walk-off site, the Damper Archipelago art site on the Burrup Peninsula in Western Australia and Point Cook.

Three months ago, on 22 August, was the 40th anniversary of the noted Wave Hill walk-off. This is a historic event with great significance for the Indigenous population as well as for the wider community. The Wave Hill walk-off site was identified by the minister previously. In 1966 Vincent Lingiari and others in that community had protested against the unfair treatment and conditions faced by Aboriginal workers on the Vestey cattle station in the Northern Territory. They were not satisfied with the conditions at the time, and they walked off the land and camped in Wattie Creek. Parliament noted the Wave Hill walk-off earlier this year and, of course, the member for Lingiari’s electorate is named after Vincent Lingiari.

The events at Wave Hill changed the face of Australia—there is no question about that—and were instrumental in the ensuing historic campaign that saw the introduction of land rights laws in the Northern Territory. These were land rights laws which were vehemently opposed by conservative political forces and conservative political parties both at the federal level and at the territory level. Notwithstanding that, the events at Wave Hill were of significant historic occasion; they were of real historic importance. So it was particularly disappointing that, earlier this year, the environment minister failed to mark the important anniversary of the Wave Hill walk-off by, in fact, listing Wave Hill and the site on the National Heritage List—even though two years earlier he had announced that its inclusion would be given priority consideration. It could be argued that, whatever political viewpoint one brings to assessing history, the Wave Hill site in and of itself is a site deserving of recognition. Indeed, it is hard to think of a place in the Top End with a more extraordinary history.

In his speech in the Senate on 11 May 2006, my colleague Senator Carr posed the question to the government:

Will the 40th anniversary of the actual walk-off itself, coming up on 22 August, come and go without any acknowledgement by the government?

Senator Carr was correct. He and many of us on this side of the House constantly identify and unfortunately have to remind the public that, no, when it comes to matters of genuine Indigenous significance in the Aboriginal history of this country, this government simply does not want to pay any attention at all.

The government does itself no credit by playing politics in this way. The Prime Minister is on the record as decrying what he calls the ‘black armband view of history’. That is a very strongly contested assertion here. But what we have is actually worse—that is, a government using its legislative authority on the basis of its ideological prejudice to simply pretend that history does not exist, to deny that something has any Aboriginal significance and to not provide it with the recognition that it ought to have under Commonwealth legislation. The Northern Territory government has provided for appropriate recognition of the Wave Hill site. It is a site that is visited by tourists. It is a site that has significant and ongoing history. But it is a site that involved unions and Aboriginal people fighting for their rights and, as a consequence, the government does not see fit to give it recognition.

The other site flagged for priority consideration is the Dampier Archipelago art site, which is on the Burrup Peninsula in Western Australia. I know that some speakers have made reference to this site. It is an extraordinary site in that it houses an estimated one million petroglyphs, including Australia’s biggest collection of standing stones and the largest example of rock carvings in the world. There are some genuine planning challenges afoot regarding this site because it is intended that there be significant industrial activity on Burrup. But a number of significant concerns have been raised by Indigenous groups who are seeking the guarantee of protection of these petroglyphs. The archaeological and heritage community and I think the wider community, as it becomes aware of the significance of the Dampier Archipelago art collection, are also concerned about the possibility of further destruction or removal of rock art from the site.

I do note calls by the member for Fremantle and the member for Pearce, amongst others, to call upon Woodside, the proponent for the development on the site, to reconsider its plans to build a pipeline and processing plant on two sites on the Burrup Peninsula. I also note that the joint North West Shelf partners—that is, BP, Shell, BHP Billiton, Chevron and Japan Australia LNG—have all indicated a willingness to work together to consider whether there may be a location for the proposed development by Woodside which does not significantly impact on the heritage and the rock art on the site. I certainly would encourage discussions between Woodside and the joint partners, because I think that, in actual fact, this particular area of rock art is of immense national and international significance and is a great heritage for the nation. It is important for Indigenous people that we recognise the worth of their narrative drawings and their rock art but also, given the scope and expanse of the rock art on the Burrup Peninsula, recognise that it has international significance. It would be important in that context—given that the Dampier art located on the Burrup Peninsula could be identified by the minister as necessary to be recognised in this way and placed on the National Heritage List—that he would actually look to do that.

Regrettably, the Minister for the Environment and Heritage is not fulfilling his responsibilities under the existing legislation. Two or three days ago he announced that he now intends to delay consideration of the inclusion of this site on the list for a year or more—and the proposed amendments that have travelled through this House on the EPBC Act actually give him even greater scope to ignore the heritage significance of the rock art on the Burrup Peninsula. I think subsequent generations will look extremely poorly at a minister exercising his responsibilities in such a deficient way.

Just to reinforce how important the Dampier Archipelago is in terms of the rock engravings and rock art there, there has been an Australian Heritage Commission assessment process that has looked in some detail at the natural and cultural values of the art and the work that is on the Burrup Peninsula. That assessment is in the hands of the minister for the environment, and it does identify the Dampier Archipelago as one of the richest and most exciting, as well as densest, concentrations of rock engravings in the world. That is a very significant identification by the Australian Heritage Commission. I note that former Minister Barnett in Western Australia has also said that we need to look again at the importance of conserving a rock art precinct of this kind.

There are three nominations identified by the Australian Heritage Commission. The first is for the Dampier rock art precinct, which comprises the largest concentration of petroglyphs, or rock carvings, in the world and the largest number of megaliths, or stone arrangements, in Australia. It says that ‘this quintessentially Australian and entirely unique cultural property is an utterly sacred place and should be to all Australians’. The second nomination notes the precinct has ‘significance for the whole Australian nation because it is the largest Indigenous cultural property within Australia’. The third nomination is of the Burrup Peninsula and associated islands and coastal strip, which comprise unique landscapes of granite and granitosite rocks with the world’s largest and prolific collections of Aboriginal engravings and artefacts. The stakes are terribly high that we as a nation ensure the best possible protection of an area of significance such as this.

I note in passing that the minister, whilst delaying any decision to consider the nomination that I have just described from the Australian Heritage Commission, has also in effect ruled out considering the listing for the Aboriginal tent embassy in the front of this parliament, despite its crucial historical role in the land rights campaigns of the past and its ongoing role as a meeting place and, hopefully, in the future, a possible cultural centre for Aboriginal people from Australia and worldwide.

What is needed is for legislation that seeks to identify and adequately protect places of Indigenous significance to be brought through by this government, and this legislation does not fulfill this task. Heritage protection is too important to become hostage to culture wars or short-term political reactions that are challenging for the government. In the case of the Burrup Peninsula there is a powerful argument that its important heritage and cultural values need to be adequately and resolutely protected. We note the failure of the government to fulfil its earlier commitments to consult with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities on the broad amendments in this legislation. I support the member for Grayndler’s second reading amendment, and I call on the government to ensure the adequate protection of the Dampier rock art site already identified by the Australian Heritage Commission assessment processes. (Time expired)


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