House debates

Thursday, 24 November 2022


Northern Australia Joint Standing Committee; Government Response to Report

9:01 am

Photo of Tanya PlibersekTanya Plibersek (Sydney, Australian Labor Party, Minister for the Environment and Water) Share this | | Hansard source

I ask leave of the House to make a ministerial statement relating to the government response to the Joint Standing Committee on Northern Australia's reports on the destruction of cultural heritage at Juukan Gorge.

Leave granted.

I begin by recognising that this parliament meets on the home of the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people. I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land and pay my respects to their elders past and present. This is, was, and will always be Aboriginal land.

Today, the Australian government is formally tabling our response to the interim and final report by the Joint Select Committee on Northern Australia into the destruction of Juukan Gorge, on 24 May 2020. I want to thank all the members of parliament, from different political parties, who worked through these very thoughtful reports. I particularly want to thank Senator Dodson for his role in guiding the reports.

Most of all, I want to give my deepest thanks to the traditional owners who participated in this inquiry. A particular gratitude is owed to the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people, who are the traditional owners of Juukan Gorge. I can only imagine how painful it was to give your testimony. And I know how unfair it must have felt that it was us—as envoys from the state that allowed this destruction—who were asking you to relive your pain in public.

I also understand why First Nations peoples don't always trust the intentions of government, or have much faith in our ability to listen and to learn. But please know that your testimony was received as the gift that it was. The only way we can honour that gift is to listen to you, to work with you, and to reform our laws to make sure this never happens again.

As the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people wrote in their submission to this inquiry:

The Juukan Gorge disaster is a tragedy not only for the PKKP People. It is also a tragedy for the heritage of all Australians and indeed humanity as a whole.

We can feel the scale of this loss when we hear the way traditional owners described it in their testimony. This place was an 'an anchor of our culture'. It was a 'museum of heritage'. It was a site of 'profound', 'sacred', 'unique' and 'ancient' power.

The Juukan Gorge is one of the oldest sites of human habitation in Australia—with 46,000 years of continuous culture, traditions, practices and stories. When the site was excavated back in 2014, archaeologists were amazed at what they found: a 4,000-year-old hair belt, a 28,000-year-old bone tool—one of the oldest of its kind ever found in Australia—and a whole collection of ancient grinders and stone tools, some of the oldest that have ever been seen on this continent. That's the scope of history we're dealing with here.

It is unthinkable that we would ever knowingly destroy Stonehenge, or the Egyptian pyramids, or the Lascaux caves in France. When the Bamiyan Buddhas were destroyed in Afghanistan, the world was rightly outraged. But that's precisely what occurred at the Juukan Gorge. And what made it even more insulting—that this happened in the days before Reconciliation Week, when elders were planning to take their young people to the sacred caves, to teach them about their culture and their ancestors.

These reports explain how we reached that shameful moment. They make for difficult, infuriating, often shocking reading. But it's important that Australians understand what happened. Because we have to remember—this was legal desecration. No laws were broken here. Instead, we had an entire system frustrating the interests of Indigenous history and culture. These reports tell the story of the Juukan Gorge. But they also tell the much bigger story of our national failure on Indigenous cultural heritage. There were partnership agreements signed under gross inequalities of power, and that were only ever really understood by one party. There were gag clauses, meaning traditional owners were not allowed to speak out publicly without permission from Rio Tinto. There was a corporate culture that never took the company's obligations seriously. There was poor communication. There were weak state laws. And there was federal legislation that was only ever designed as a last resort—and that was confusing, difficult to access, and ultimately ineffective.

This was not an isolated mistake, or an example of one company going rogue. What's clear from this report is that our system is not working. Which is why, at the election, the Labor Party promised to reform the system, with a standalone piece of Indigenous cultural heritage legislation, co-designed with First Nations. That was our commitment—and today is the first major step in that journey. This morning, our government signed an agreement with the First Nations Heritage Protection Alliance. This partnership will guide the reform process—to ensure that Indigenous voices are present at every stage, in every room, and in every decision we make. Members of the alliance are here in the gallery today—and I want to thank them for their ongoing work and dedication. I also want to thank the members of my own Indigenous advisory group who have come to be with us today.

The committee report identified eight recommendations for reforming Australia's cultural heritage. We have accepted seven of them, and we are working through the final recommendation with the alliance, which is whether ultimate responsibility for cultural heritage protection should sit with the Indigenous affairs minister or the environment minister. As I said, these are thorough and considerate reports—and the recommendations speak to the principles and priorities that will shape our legislation. Free, prior, and informed consent. Truth telling and open dialogue. Genuine partnership—the kind that can only be entered into by equals. And wrapped around it all, a new respect for Indigenous culture and history, enshrined in our national law, honoured by business and civil society, and celebrated in communities right across this country.

The alliance and I are working closely with Minister Burney and Senator Dodson to make sure we get these laws right. Just like we are working closely with the states and territories, to make sure our rules are harmonised across the Commonwealth. And we will work closely with business—who have already shown a great willingness to learn from past experience and to grow.

These reforms are not about stopping development, or halting progress. They're about redressing an imbalance—our oldest imbalance. We're protecting Indigenous cultural heritage for the same reason we're supporting the Uluru Statement from the Heart and the Voice to Parliament. We are always a better country, more unified and confident and secure in ourselves, when we give everyone a seat at the table, and when we listen to all voices.

There's never been a better moment to take this step. As the Prime Minister said in his speech to Garma earlier this year, in our lifetime:

… there has been an extraordinary and joyous change in the way Australians from all walks of life have embraced the privilege we have to share this island continent with the world's oldest continuous culture.

We've got the momentum behind us—and with it, I truly believe, the goodwill of the Australian people.

We are so lucky to live in this country, with an endlessly rich culture to draw on, to learn from, to love and to value and to cherish. That's why I'm so proud to table our response to the inquiry into the destruction of Juukan Gorge today. We acknowledge we have to do better. We are committed to doing so, in true partnership with First Nations Australians.

I present the government's response to the Joint Standing Committee on Northern Australia's reports into the destruction of cultural heritage at the Juukan Gorge.

9:11 am

Photo of Pat ConaghanPat Conaghan (Cowper, National Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Social Services) Share this | | Hansard source

On behalf of the coalition I welcome the opportunity to respond to the ministerial statement. Firstly, I too acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, the Ngunnawal peoples past, present and emerging, and I also acknowledge members of the alliance. Thank you for your detailed work and working with the government.

On behalf of our shadow environment minister, Senator Jonno Duniam, I would like to express our gratitude to the minister and her office for providing us with notice yesterday that she would be making the statement. I also commend the minister on the depth and the sincerity of her address.

Clearly, the issues canvassed in the statement are extremely important and they command very serious attention and consideration. As the minister noted, Juukan Gorge is one of the oldest sites of human occupation in Australia, and it is home to many forms of profound and sacred Indigenous heritage. It has always been the coalition's view that the events at Juukan Gorge on 24 May 2020 represented a tragic failure in Rio's interaction with the Traditional owners. More broadly, they drew into very sharp focus the wider need for the modernisation of Indigenous heritage protection laws here in Australia.

Accordingly there are a number of points in relation to these on which the coalition resoundingly agrees with the minister. Indeed—and I'll return to the point later—we are very pleased that the minister has now made clear that she will be continuing the work that had already begun in this area during the years of the coalition government and particularly through our then environment minister, Sussan Ley, and Indigenous affairs minister, Ken Wyatt. That work was underpinned by funding in the 2021-22 budget that was specifically devoted to developing an engagement process to identify the best ideas, frameworks and models for reform.

As we also said throughout that time, we always considered that it was vital that this process be centred on the views and the experience of the traditional owners. In meetings at the time between the Commonwealth and the states and territories, there was a very clear and collective view that the Juukan Gorge disaster should serve as a launchpad for reviewing and modernising Indigenous cultural heritage laws, and we were very pleased to instigate that process.

The coalition would also like to pay special tribute today to the work of the Joint Select Committee on Northern Australia. It is their work more than anyone's that is continuing to serve as the foundation for the policy development in this field. That committee worked in a very considered, sensitive, bipartisan fashion under the outstanding leadership of the member for Leichardt, Warren Entsch.

As the minister said in her statement today, the committee also drew on a range of very powerful and compelling evidence from Indigenous Australians. All of that led to a series of seminal conclusions and recommendations. It is also very pleasing to see a bipartisan approach in adopting so many coalition policies going forward. Further, I note the minister's very important commitment today that the approach to Indigenous cultural prediction is, 'not about stopping development or halting progress'. Any work that is aimed at improving cultural heritage law should not be transformed into an exercise that demonises industry or imposes unacceptable risk to sensible, sustainable economic development across Australia.

On the matter of the government's decision to accept the first seven recommendations of the joint standing committee's 2021 report, the coalition will take that commitment at face value. We're also comfortable that the government will continue to at least explore the potential merit of transferring responsibilities for Indigenous cultural protection from the environment minister to the Indigenous affairs minister. We look forward to seeing the outcomes of all of that work.

That said, it does become apparent, from listening to the minister's statement today and from reading the accompanying document, that these outcomes may not be reached for many years. That creates some concern. As does the intensifying sense of unease across the business community, in the resources industry in particular, about Labor's broader agenda in the environment portfolio.

There has been considerable shock and dismay in response to the Albanese government's decision to hand nearly $10 million in funding in the recent budget to radical environmental activists. The effect of the decision to review 18 coal and gas projects approved by the previous federal environment ministers has also been concerning. Through the IPA's detailed analysis, we now know that this action alone could cost 174,000 Australians their jobs and cause the loss of $100 billion worth of investment in our country.

In turn, there is also growing disquiet about the government's imminent release of its response to the Samuel review of the EPBC Act and its looming creation of an environmental protection authority. However, in the meantime, we again thank the minister for her statement today. We also pay tribute to the traditional owners of Juukan Gorge for their ongoing determination to preserve and honour their beautiful and phenomenal cultural heritage. We thank all of the many people who have been involved in the past two and a half years in trying to turn an environmental tragedy into a much more positive and inspiring future.

Photo of Milton DickMilton Dick (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

I just want to remind the member for Cowper, when responding to a minister's statement it is about the statement and not to bring other material into the statement.

Photo of Pat ConaghanPat Conaghan (Cowper, National Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Social Services) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

9:18 am

Photo of Tanya PlibersekTanya Plibersek (Sydney, Australian Labor Party, Minister for the Environment and Water) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the House take note of the document.

Debate adjourned.