Thursday, 10 December 2020
Northern Australia Committee; Report
I rise to make some brief comments on the recently tabled interim report of the Joint Standing Committee on Northern Australia, Never again: Inquiry into the destruction of 46,000 year old caves at the Juukan Gorge in the Pilbara region of Western Australia, on the destruction of the Juukan Gorge rock shelters. Along with all of my Labor colleagues, I am very pleased to see that this report was unanimous. I was present in the other chamber when both the committee chair and the deputy chair spoke to this report, and it was very clear to me that there was a united voice on that committee on the shocking, outrageous destruction of one of the most culturally significant sites in Australia.
The destruction of the Juukan Gorge rock shelters, which we now know were assessed as having the highest archaeological significance, was both disgraceful and a deliberate act. I think that is really what has been so shocking: the deliberate nature of the blasting. It is was a truly awful and avoidable act of destruction. It should never have taken place. But it should also never happen again anywhere in Australia. This interim report goes some way to putting some focus on the failings of Rio Tinto, the mining company that was responsible, and also on the inadequacy of the heritage protection laws at both Western Australian state and Commonwealth levels. Nobody gets off scot-free here. Nobody actually did the job that was expected, and, indeed, demanded in order to ensure adequate protection of what are not only ancient but also incredibly rich and diverse Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures in this nation. Indeed, we often hear the comment that Australia is home to the world's' oldest continuous living culture. These are remarks that I hear at every citizenship ceremony, at every important occasion and in debates both in parliament and in the nation more broadly, yet under all our collective watches—we all bear some responsibility now—we witnessed the destruction of a site with at least 46,000 years of cultural significance but also some very contemporary significance. We know that one of the artefacts—a hair belt—following DNA testing had direct genetic links to surviving members of that community. So I don't think we can underestimate the pain and anguish which the traditional owners suffered.
As I said, this report has also identified some industry-wide problems such as the inadequacy of other legislative regimes for the protection of First Nations heritage. Many of the recommendations are directed at Rio Tinto, but they do affect the mining industry more broadly as well and, as I said, the Western Australian and Commonwealth governments. Labor expects all parties to respond to this report as a matter of urgency. The report notes a lack of communication between the offices of the federal ministers for the environment and Indigenous affairs, their departments and the frustrated efforts of the PKKP peoples to protect the rock shelters under the Commonwealth Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act. We welcome changes that are being made by the Western Australia government to strengthen protection laws. But we've got a long way to go, and I expect them to do more. We eagerly await the remaining work of this inquiry.
I want to close my comments by giving a special shout-out to one of the Catholic primary schools in my electorate, Holy Family Primary School, which contacted me when news about the wilful destruction of those caves broke back in June or July of this year. They had a lot of questions of me as their federal member in this place. I connected with them via a Zoom meeting from Parliament House to try to address some of their concerns. They expected this parliament to act swiftly and decisively. I'm looking forward to sending a copy of this interim report to Holy Family Primary School. I give a sincere shout-out to the school, to the principal and to the teacher, Jane Dougherty, who contacted me with all of those incredibly thoughtful and reasonable questions that young Australians have about the apparent disrespect that we have for the longest-living culture on this planet.