Wednesday, 9 December 2020
Northern Australia Committee; Report
On behalf of the Joint Standing Committee on Northern Australia, I present the committee's interim report, incorporating additional comments by Senator Dean Smith: Never again: Inquiry into the destruction of 46,000 year old caves at the Juukan Gorge in the Pilbara region of Western Australia.
Report made a parliamentary paper in accordance with standing order 39(e).
by leave—Never again can we allow the destruction, devastation and vandalism of cultural sites that has occurred with the Juukan Gorge. Never again. On 24 May 2020, Rio Tinto destroyed the site, a site which represented 46,000 years of culture and history for the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura peoples of the Pilbara. The blast devastated a place of personal community and national and international significance.
The parliament responded to this tragedy by tasking the committee with investigating the immediate causes and consequences and its wider ramifications for the protection of Indigenous heritage. The scale of the inquiry, the sheer volume of evidence the committee has received and the serious constraints posed by COVID-19 mean that the committee felt unable to do full justice to the inquiry in the time originally granted. As a result, the committee has chosen to table this interim report addressing its findings to date and setting forth recommendations that will be built on at a later date.
There are lots of things which contributed to the destruction of the shelters and the permanent spring at Juukan Gorge. Rio Tinto knew the value of what they were destroying but blew it up anyway. It pursued the option of destroying the shelters despite having options which would have preserved them. The evidence presented to the committee raised significant issues about the culture and practices inside Rio Tinto and highlights the need for the internal reform of the company.
Western Australian law played a critical role in the destruction of the shelters. The Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 failed to protect Aboriginal heritage, making the destruction of Indigenous heritage not only legal but also inevitable. The need for new laws is widely recognised. In the meantime, without government and industry action, Indigenous heritage will continue to be at risk.
The destruction of the shelters and permanent spring at Juukan Gorge also highlighted the shortcomings in federal law. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984 is moribund, and the inquiry has identified the imbalance of power at the heart of the Native Title Act 1993. The committee will give further consideration to the need to amend the Native Title Act as the inquiry progresses.
The traditional owners of the Pilbara are not opposed to mining. They see the possibilities that development offers. But they do not accept—and we should not accept—that the destruction of their ancient culture and heritage is the price to pay for prosperity. Damage is being done not because it's unavoidable but because people are not doing enough to avoid it.
The defining moment of the first phase of this inquiry was the visit to Juukan Gorge. It was an opportunity for the committee to experience the destruction of the site from a perspective of the traditional owners. The committee's visit, I have to say, was quite distressing. The grief of the traditional owners was almost overwhelming for everyone who witnessed it. They'd lost more than a piece of heritage; they had lost part of themselves, a piece of their living culture which was infused with the still-present spirits of their ancestors and pregnant with the future stories of their descendants.
It needs to be accepted that the destruction of the shelters and the spring at Juukan Gorge does not just impact on a small and discreet group of traditional owners in the middle of the Pilbara; it has robbed a significant piece of history from all Australians and from the world.
I would like to conclude with some words of thanks. Many people have contributed to this inquiry, including traditional owners, Indigenous organisations, companies, governments, lawyers, academics and members of the public who were outraged by the incident and wished their voices to be heard. I would like to particularly thank the PKKP, who, despite the grief, have embraced the inquiry and assisted with its work. I would also like to thank my committee colleagues for their attentive and constructive contributions to a difficult inquiry undertaken under very challenging circumstances. It's great to see my colleague Warren Snowdon, the member for Lingiari, in the chamber here tonight. Last but not least, I would like to thank the secretariat for their sterling efforts. Jenny and the team have been absolutely outstanding. Under very, very difficult circumstances, they have done a fabulous job.
Never again. On behalf of the committee, I commend the report to the House.
by leave—I thank the member for Leichhardt for his contribution and for the way in which he's chaired this committee. We've been working together for some time—over a number of years—and, I have to say, we're able to work very collegiately and cooperatively. I appreciate his leadership and the way in which this committee has functioned. Whilst I'm on the subject, I would like to particularly thank my Labor Party colleagues Senator Patrick Dodson, who has been instrumental to this process; Senator Chisholm; and the member for Lilley, Ms Wells.
Never again is an apt and appropriate title for this report. We should never again be asked to countenance what appears, to this joint standing committee, to be a deliberate action by Rio Tinto to destroy significant sites in the quest for profit. It was an unconscionable act that could have been avoided, had Rio Tinto had a mind to, and should have been.
I've already thanked the chair and the members of the committee for their diligence and application. This report reflects the concerns and amazement of the committee members at the behaviour of Rio Tinto in the destruction of the Juukan caves. These concerns are not limited to the Juukan Gorge. It is absolutely clear that priceless First Nations heritage is under threat across the country and that protections for it are very limited.
This inquiry has exposed major deficiencies and fault lines in Rio Tinto's management systems. It has provided Aboriginal traditional owners an opportunity to have their voice properly heard, as the member for Leichhardt said. We had some very poignant testimony from the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people themselves. One witness, Mr Burchell Hayes, whose father was known as 'Juukan', said:
We have an obligation to look after country in accordance with traditional law and customs. It is our obligation to the old people, who also looked after it. It was on loan to us to pass on to our future generations, our Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura children, and the future generations yet to come. The disaster has now left a gaping hole in our ability to pass on our heritage to our children and grandchildren.
We were only able to get this evidence by, as the member for Leichhardt said, travelling to Western Australia, sitting in front of traditional owners and talking to them directly.
This interim report identifies a catalogue of failures of process by Rio Tinto. It also makes plain, as has the inquiry, that First Nations people are seriously disadvantaged when it comes to dealing with mining companies and government agencies. The scant resources that they have and that they can muster are far outweighed by what those mining companies and bureaucracies bring to bear. And, as the member for Leichhardt said, legislation—state and federal—has failed to protect First Nations and their heritage.
This inquiry, and the interim report, has exposed an ongoing failure by Rio Tinto to ensure that the company has ongoing free, prior and informed consent by the PKKP for activities on their traditional lands. It has exposed the gross inadequacies of Western Australian heritage legislation and the need for mining companies in Western Australia to revisit section 18 approvals so that they reflect continuing free, prior and informed consent and consent that is current; that there are no limitations on Aboriginal people exercising their rights to oppose activities proposed under these approvals; and that gag clauses are removed. There is much work yet to be done, as the chair has said. The committee is intent on completing the next stage of this work. But let me be clear—never again. Never again.