Senate debates

Wednesday, 21 March 2018


Environment and Communications References Committee; Report

6:09 pm

Photo of Janet RiceJanet Rice (Victoria, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

On behalf of the Chair of Environment and Communications References Committee, I present the report on Aboriginal rock art of the Burrup Peninsula, together with the Hansard record of proceedings and documents presented to the committee.

Ordered that the report be printed.

I move:

That the Senate take note of the report.

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

This report looks at the issues around the Burrup Peninsula, which is in the Dampier Archipelago in the Pilbara in Western Australia, the area known as Murujuga. This is a very important report. You will note that it's in four parts. There's a majority committee report and then three other reports, basically from the Greens, the government senators and the ALP senators. It's quite a controversial report. It looks into the Commonwealth's responsibility under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 to protect the globally significant and National Heritage listed Aboriginal rock art on the Dampier peninsula in Western Australia. There are long terms of reference.

This inquiry was initiated by the Greens to look at some really important issues. We are talking about the highest concentration of rock art in the world. Over a million petroglyphs and images are concentrated in that relatively small space on the Burrup Peninsula. It's a World Heritage valued area—it's not on the World Heritage List yet, and I'll get back to that. Guess what governments have done there over the years? In this relatively small area, with that huge concentration of petroglyphs, over the years governments have located industry there. There's gas processing plants, there's fertiliser plants and there's the TAN plant, which, by the way, is operating under a preparation and building licence rather than the full licence, which I'll also come back to in a minute. There are serious issues there.

If people in chamber haven't seen this world valued rock art I advise you to go up and have a look. It is magnificent. I have visited the area on a number of occasions, and it is truly astounding. I haven't visited the whole lot, of course, because there's a million petroglyphs and I have only visited areas that are suitable for public viewing. Some of the art is regarded as sacred. Some is men's art and men's business and some is women's. It is truly magnificent.

So they've established this industry there. The latest plant on the peninsula, next to the fertiliser plant, is the TAN plant. The conditions of approval for that plant are based on flawed science or flawed interpretation of the science. The issue here is that the emissions from this industry affect the rock art through a very complicated process, which the committee was taken through. Part of what it does is affect the patina on the surface of the rock. Effectively, that undermines the rock art, the carvings and the petroglyphs.

The conditions that were initially set were based on a flawed interpretation by the CSIRO—who, by the way, I hold in very high regard. But, in this instance, I think that they have made very serious errors. They based their interpretation of the impact of the emissions from industry on a study by Cinderby et al on the impact of industry emissions and air pollution on monuments—on monuments! Even the authors of that study say there is an incorrect use of their work in the interpretation by the Gillett 2008 report—the CSIRO report.

So, we have here a set of conditions that are based on flawed interpretation of data. They were written to guide the monitoring of the plant and the conditions that were put on the plant, which has now already been built on the Burrup. Not only that, but the monitoring process that has been undertaken of the previous conditions from the other plants that are on the Burrup has also been found wanting. It was very difficult at the beginning of this process to get some of the information out of the Western Australian government. That significantly changed when the ALP government came in. However, there's still an uphill battle to get them to recognise the full extent of the impact of this plant, particularly its cumulative effect—in other words, the new plant with the existing gas processing plants that are there and the existing fertiliser plants that are there. They will be having a cumulative impact. One of the recommendation in the Greens additional comments is that a study be done of the cumulative impacts.

The Greens, but specifically Senator Whish-Wilson and I, made 15 recommendations in our additional comments. We recommend that the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 be amended to require the minister or their delegate to consider the cumulative effects when approving decisions, and that's certainly what needs to be done here. They need to be assessing the cumulative impacts. There also needs to be an acknowledgement by CSIRO that the assessment they did was fundamentally flawed, because it was. We also recommend that the Western Australian government prioritise the development and implementation of a new, fully funded independent monitoring program that meets all of the recommendations of the Data Analysis Australia reviews. The problems here were so intense that they had to have an independent review of the data and of the process, and they made a series of recommendations.

One of the key things that we also recommend is in fact that the plant be moved. What also happened in Western Australia is that, a number of years ago—in fact, it was so long ago I was still a coordinator of the Conservation Council and I remember commenting on this proposal—they set up a new precinct for industry a bit south of the peninsula, in the Pilbara, called the Maitland industrial estate so that industry could locate there. That was an area that there was very little fighting over, once they got the basic approvals for locating industry there. This plant could have gone there, and it should be there, because there are ongoing problems with fugitive emissions and with emissions of nitrate that are way over what should be emitted. We've referred to that in our additional comments. We also recommend that the Commonwealth government, in conjunction with the Western Australian government, establish measurements of existing emissions as a matter of priority. We're not even doing that properly. We also recommend that the Western Australian government implement measures to ensure that the emission load on the Burrup Peninsula is reduced. It is critical, because I for one have absolutely no faith in the monitoring results that we have seen, with the evidence that I have heard, that we understand the impact of the emissions on this world-famous rock art of world importance.

The last comment I'll make in my remaining 30 seconds is that Australia should put this area on the tentative World Heritage List, in consultation with the Western Australian government and the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation. We should be putting this on the tentative World Heritage List and then working with the corporation and with the Western Australian government to make sure this is listed on the World Heritage List. This is clearly of World Heritage value. It needs to be listed, and it needs to be listed as soon as possible.

6:19 pm

Photo of Patrick DodsonPatrick Dodson (WA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Indigenous Affairs and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders (Senate)) Share this | | Hansard source

I also want to take note of the Senate Environment and Communications References Committee report on the Aboriginal rock art of the Burrup Peninsula. It needs to be recognised that spiritual connections to land, to country, transcend time and place. The first nations of Australia hold and care for the oldest cultural history on the planet. In my home state of Western Australia, the Burrup Peninsula and the Dampier Archipelago, in particular, are home to one of the largest and oldest collections of rock art in the world. Within this collection is the world's oldest known artistic record of a human face. It is an embodiment of a profound moment in the evolution of our human species, the moment when somebody, now unknown, first had the idea to portray our human selves in art. His or her family descendants still live in this country.

The Australian Heritage Council reported in 2011 that the rock art collection represents a masterpiece of human creative genius and is one of the most exciting and significant collections of rock engravings in the world. There is no denying the immense and irreplaceable cultural and spiritual significance of this rock art to first-nations people. Country is the beating heart of our spirituality, of our culture and of our heritage. The protection of and caring for country, including this magnificent site, ensures a sense of identity and belonging that permeates through the land—the connections of which lead to better outcomes for individuals and families across the nation. As a nation with such a rich history of culture and tradition, it is time that Australia fully acknowledges the vital need to cherish and celebrate the artefacts which reflect our incredible history. We also must not underestimate the international archaeological and heritage value of such a unique site and our responsibilities, as a global citizen, to care for these places.

I'd like to take this opportunity to sincerely thank the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation for their contribution to this inquiry and for their hospitality when I visited there. The report points to some significant issues that relate to the Burrup and to broader Australian politics. The current lack of an effective and realistic approach to consultation is one example of this government's utter failure to address the needs of first-nations Australians. What is often lacking is community control and the direct involvement of first-nations peoples. Labor believes in the absolute necessity of free, prior and informed consent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and communities in resource management and in conservation decisions. This right is guaranteed under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which Australia has ratified.

I'm deeply concerned and disappointed in the finding that the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation was largely left out of decisions on the management of the Burrup. It is concerning that none of the current board, and only a small number of the elders, were invited to participate in discussions on World Heritage listing eight or 10 years ago. I note the concerns of the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation that a World Heritage listing may change or reduce the ability of the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation to manage the area. We believe that the government must fully consult with the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation and the Murujuga Circle of Elders to make sure that any future consideration of World Heritage listing for Murujuga is led by the traditional owners of Murujuga. The Indigenous Murujuga Rangers play an integral and authoritative role in the management and protection of the Murujuga but, regrettably, have no power of enforcement. All enforcement power currently solely lies with the Western Australian national parks rangers. If we are serious about ensuring protection of country, Aboriginal rangers need the authority to act when things aren't being done properly in their country. I note that the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation and the Western Australian government are developing a feasibility study for a multipurpose Murujuga Living Knowledge Centre in or near the park. This is an important initiative which potentially enhances social and economic benefits.

There are significant technical issues, as Senator Siewert raised in her report. In particular, Professor John Black and his colleagues have undertaken a comprehensive review of the CSIRO reports on damage to the sites caused by industrial emissions. Professor Black's findings indicate major flaws in the works undertaken by the CSIRO on behalf of the Western Australian government. The evidence is clear that the analysis of rock art monitoring between 2004 and 2014 did not include adequate statistical analysis and that the measurements that were taken were unreliable. The colour of the rock art has changed some 13 per cent over 13 years—a major concern for the preservation of the significant rock art.

The consequences of disregarding the damage being caused to the rock art are irreversible, and a new monitoring program is overdue. As Labor senators, we believe that this should be a priority for the Western Australian government and, if necessary, for the Commonwealth government as well. The views and recommendations tabled in this report speak to an imperative need to engage in partnerships to protect country that recognise and respect the rights of the first-nations peoples in the region. We have a rare and phenomenal opportunity to take on the obligation to protect, celebrate and cherish these artefacts on behalf of the whole world, including our own nation.

In understanding the importance of protecting the Burrup Peninsula and working towards a united nation that celebrates and benefits from such ancient and wondrous culture, we must learn to talk together, walk together and, beyond all, experience country together. The Burrup Peninsula is home to one of the oldest, most concentrated and culturally significant galleries of rock art on the earth. It captures the contrast between the rampant industrial development and the struggles of first nations to retain Indigenous heritage and to maintain their living culture.

The Burrup is a stunning and powerful place. The vibrant red rocks against the blue ocean and the sky, and the trees that surround it, are reminders of our beautiful country and the role we must play in protecting it. I commend this report and trust it contributes to the protection of this site, this country and the first nations who care for it on our behalf.

6:27 pm

Photo of Dean SmithDean Smith (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

On behalf of coalition senators, I will also make a brief contribution in regard to this particular inquiry of the Senate Environment and Communications References Committee. I'm not normally a member of the committee, but, given the significance of the issue to Western Australia and the Burrup Peninsula, on this occasion I thought I would make myself available.

People will see a couple of things in this report that are worthy of attention. The first is the undisputed nature of a number of elements of the report. The coalition, the Greens and Labor agree on a number of undisputed things. The primary issue there is the very real historical and cultural significance of this particular part of Australian heritage, of Indigenous heritage, and the very special place that this rock art has. That is undisputed. For the record, I will quote into the Hansard what the Senate report says. It makes three particular points. In paragraph 7.4, it says:

The Australian Heritage Council reported in 2011 that the rock art collection represents a masterpiece of human creative genius and is one of the most exciting and significant collections of rock engravings in the world.

That is not disputed by anyone on the committee. Paragraph 7.5 goes on to say:

The committee recognises and acknowledges the vast cultural and historical values of the rock art of the Burrup Peninsula and is of the view that it is critical that the petroglyphs should be protected and conserved for current and future generations.

That is undisputed. Finally, paragraph 7.6 says:

The committee acknowledges the substantial amount of work contained in this report and the information and opinions it contains.

It goes on to say:

Senators have reached differing views on the issues presented and these will be outlined in additional comments. The committee thanks all those who participated in this inquiry.

There are two elements of dispute. Recognising that we are all in agreement on the significant Indigenous cultural value of this particular area and of this particular rock art to not just Australia and Australia's Indigenous people but, I would argue, the history of mankind—as Senator Dodson has remarked, the image of the facial expression is truly remarkable—for our part, coalition senators have focused their contribution on a number of things, particularly the importance of the economic development of the Burrup Peninsula. It is hard to imagine the state of Western Australia in its current form without all the prosperity that's been enjoyed by Western Australian Indigenous and non-Indigenous people as a result of the tremendous amount of economic development in the Burrup Peninsula. That's the first point.

The second point about the committee report is that we made some comments in regards to what we argue is the lack of credible evidence of adverse impacts of emissions on rock art. I'll come to that in a second. We also make some comments in regard to the report by Professor John Black, and that of Mr Rob Gillett. We go on to talk about the adequacy of the existing regulatory approvals and compliance framework. We talk about best practice in monitoring the cultural and heritage value protections, and—if I could be so bold, Senator Dodson, I think this might be what you were alluding to but without specifically referencing them by name, while we do reference them—the conduct of the Friends of Australian Rock Art and the Bob Brown Foundation.

I won't take up too much of the Senate's time, but where the Senate committee is in dispute is around two things. I agree with you, Senator Dodson; the interests of the Murujuga people in regards to the issue of World Heritage listing and the appropriate recognition of this rock art are central. I would argue that, when this inquiry began, that was not of interest to some senators on this committee. That is an area where there must be much greater work and effort because—to use Senator Dodson's words—if we are to give much greater community control and allow for proper, free, prior and informed consent, it may well be that local Indigenous people have their own ideas about the suitability of World Heritage listing of this area. I'd go so far as to say that the interests of the local Indigenous community were initially absent from the committee's consideration or examination of the rock art issue.

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

That's not true, Dean, and you know it.

Photo of Dean SmithDean Smith (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Siewert, the evidence will be clear. I sat in the Perth hearing when the City of Karratha came and the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation joined us. The other issue—and it's no less insignificant—is that the technical evidence is disputed. If you ever want to see the manufacture of a Greens campaign to undermine industrial development in this country, a Greens campaign to impose World Heritage listing on a particular area of this country, this is a test case. You will see in that report the very heavy disputation around the evidence. I don't want to be unkind to Professor John Black, who does have a very strong history as a very senior official in the CSIRO—but is he a Burrup rock art expert? Is he a rock art expert at all? Even you would have to accept that the answer to that is no.

Coalition senators, after very careful consideration—and the technical issues are not issues that are easily understood by senators, who by their very nature have to be jacks-of-all-trades and masters of none—dispute the technical evidence that Professor Black, the Bob Brown Foundation and the Friends of Australian Rock Art are using in regards to this issue. The real danger, if I might say so, is that relying on evidence that lacks credibility, that lacks authority, might in the longer term undermine your argument that this should be preserved—because it should be preserved and great care should be taken.

I encourage people to read the Senate committee report. Pay close attention to the fact that the committee does agree on the substantive issue that the rock art is worthy of preservation, but coalition senators very heavily dispute the level of evidence that's been put before the committee. I will quote this to you, if I have the time available, so that people can be very clear about what the coalition's position is on this matter. I'm going to quote from three paragraphs in our additional comments. We say:

CSIRO's final report concluded that a change in the colour characteristics of the rock surfaces had been identified during 13 years of monitoring the rocks, however, there was no statistically significant difference between the two control sites in Dolphin and Gidley islands and the sites close to industrial activity. CSIRO stated:

It should be noted that the report provides the colour measurements and hence changes in colour. The reasons for the colour changes are not addressed explicitly in this report.

We go on to say:

The committee was informed by CSIRO that the small changes in the colour characteristics of the rock surfaces could be the results of natural weathering or other causes and that:

…while the indication of colour change is important, and warrants closer attention, it cannot be automatically assumed that it represents the impact of pollution from industrial plants. Sites further from the industrial development, included in the study in order to test whether change is more rapid at sites more prone to pollution effects, in fact showed no statistically significant difference from the other sites.

Senator Siewert interjecting

It is interesting that in your opening remarks, Senator Siewert, you said that you've got a high regard for the CSIRO, except in this matter. Is that because its findings do not support your particular world view on this issue? The technical evidence will remain a topic of disputation tomorrow, for the next few weeks and for the next few months, and I don't doubt that Professor Black will continue on his campaign, supported by the Friends of Australian Rock Art and the Bob Brown Foundation in trying to do two things: firstly, to secure World Heritage listing, even if some people are not ready to proceed down that path at the moment, which is true of the Aboriginal corporation; and, secondly, to undermine industrial development on the Burrup Peninsula, which brings significant benefits to your state, Senator Siewert, Western Australia, and significant benefits to Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Western Australia.

I have been on lots of Senate committee inquiries, and none has made me more incensed than this. But the evidence is there and people can pay very, very close attention. The campaign of the Bob Brown Foundation and the Friends of Australian Rock Art has been exposed. Senator Dodson, 'paternalistic' was the word that the Aboriginal corporation used to describe the attitudes of the Friends of Australian Rock Art. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted.

6:37 pm

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

I too wish to take note of the Senate Environment and Communications References Committee report Protection of Aboriginal rock art of theBurrup Peninsula. I say at the outset that the coalition's dissenting report didn't make any recommendations, so I can only assume that they are supporting Labor's recommendations. I too attended the hearing of the committee's inquiry into the Burrup rock art, and I want to focus on the evidence of the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation. I want to thank Senator Dodson for once again so beautifully describing for us that picture of the Pilbara and the spiritual link between the traditional owners, first nations people, and the land and their continuing culture. So thank you for that, Senator Dodson.

I was very concerned that the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation, whilst representing five traditional owner groups, had failed to be consulted appropriately in the lead-up to this hearing—as Senator Dodson and, indeed, Senator Smith have also described—though they did finally get a say at the Perth hearing. They certainly want to see—

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I raise a point of order, because it's very important to correct the record. Murujuga were attempted to be contacted by the secretariat.

Photo of Barry O'SullivanBarry O'Sullivan (Queensland, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

That is not a point of order.

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

That is a point of order, because it's correcting the record. The secretariat tried to contact them and they couldn't. So it's false for people to be saying this.

Photo of Barry O'SullivanBarry O'Sullivan (Queensland, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Siewert, resume your seat. That is not a point of order. Senator Cameron, on the point of order?

Photo of Doug CameronDoug Cameron (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Human Services) Share this | | Hansard source

If that's your ruling, I'm happy with that.

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

The Murujuga were not contacted until very late. In attempting to contact the corporation and make my apologies as a senator for Western Australia that they'd failed to be contacted, it took me quite some time—but I was very determined to make that contact. I think that, when you are dealing with first-nations people who live in remote places, you need to make those allowances. In the end, I managed to contact them, and I put my apologies to them on behalf of Labor senators that they had not been contacted or that the secretariat or whoever hadn't made a great attempt at contacting. So I really want to put their perspective.

At the conclusion of their evidence, they invited all senators to visit the Burrup. I took them up on that invitation to visit the Burrup and to look at the rock art and the site and the sorts of development that they want to see in the Burrup from their perspective. And I have to say that was an amazing visit for me. They welcomed me with open arms. I met with the rangers.

They don't want people climbing on the rocks, and certainly, when we went out there, there were people climbing on the rocks. I have to say that I am really ashamed that there is not better protection out there. If one looks at Stonehenge in the UK, it is fenced and has got proper respect. The Burrup's got some old signs that you can barely read. It's got a bit of a history there but not much. You can just go up to the rock and do whatever. You could take pieces of the rock away. So I think that, if we are passionate about the rock art, whilst we come to it from different perspectives in this place, we certainly should pay it better respect than is currently the case. It needs far better protection than it's currently got. It should be fenced. There should be boardwalks. There should be signs respecting the traditional owners' views that the rocks should not be climbed on.

The rangers there gave me an orientation about the Burrup and their traditional lands. It was quite a different orientation. It had very much a spiritual approach. The rangers were incredibly respectful of the land and at great pains to point out to me that strong cultural link that Senator Dodson referred to in the beginning. They really don't want people visiting the sites without first of all doing the orientation that they presented to me. After we'd done that orientation and I had the opportunity to ask them questions, we went and visited some of that rock art.

Again, I was really privileged to be part of a welcome. When the rangers go to work each day, they speak in language. They speak to the spirits of the place, and they warn them that they're to behave themselves, basically, and that the visitors who are with them are friends and are not going to do any harm. It was an enormous privilege for me, and I thank the Murujuga rangers for taking me on that journey to be part of that welcome, where, in a very stern voice, the head ranger, a traditional owner, warded the spirits off and said we were there to come in peace and to do the work of the day.

Later, I was taken to an area of more significance as well. It wasn't covered in our inquiry but again deserves support, recognition and protection. There was a massacre there, and there are a number of headstones that represent the number of first-nations men, women and children who were slaughtered by white colonialists. Again, that's just out there in an open space that you can trample on if you don't know that it's a respected spiritual place. Again, that should be protected. It is acknowledged by first-nations people as a spiritual place of recognition of the slaughter, so that should also be protected.

But the Murujuga also want to have economic stability. They want to be able to thrive as a corporation representing those five traditional owner groups, and they want economic independence. They have some really solid plans that are properly thought out about developing a living knowledge centre at Conzinc Bay. I think those plans should be respected. I know that, shortly after my visit, Premier Mark McGowan was going up there. I urge the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation to really put pressure on the Premier to look at how we might get money to set up that living knowledge centre. As Senator Dodson outlined, those rangers don't have control over their lands. They can kind of ask people nicely to move on, but if people don't move on they don't have any powers to move them on. I know that Minister Dawson in the Western Australian government is trying to sort that out and give those rangers real control over the land. On the weekends, young people go screaming through the bush in their utes—and we've all done that, and it can be fun. But as you get older you realise it's not good for the bush, and in a spiritual place like that it's certainly not good and it's not respectful.

The traditional owners believe that, if they can develop this living knowledge centre and if they have a road going in and a road going out, they can start to block off and control some of the other dirt tracks there and stop the free-for-all that's currently going on across their traditional lands. Their plans are well developed. There is a business case behind them. I would urge the WA government and the federal government to look at how, in partnership with the Murujuga corporation, we can make those plans a reality. Around that rock art there's a magnificent story to be told, and it could be told from that living knowledge centre. That would also then create tourist dollars for the Murujuga corporation, which would give them some kind of economic independence. It seems to me that that is a project absolutely worth looking at more seriously and getting some serious dollars behind.

We are saying that this rock art is of important value. It is important to first-nations people but it is also important to us. It's a link to civilisation that goes back thousands and thousands of years. So let's make it respectful. Let's fence it, let's put proper boardwalks in, let's detail the history—let's do that with the Murujuga corporation. Senator Smith touched on this in his contribution: the Murujuga corporation are not necessarily opposed to World Heritage; they just want to be consulted. How many times do we hear first nations people saying to us, 'Sit down and yarn with us,' and that's what they're asking to happen in this place. They want details around that, but I think their primary concerns are getting some better control as rangers across their own lands, getting the living knowledge centre set up to give them independence, in an economic sense, and protecting and recognising from a cultural and spiritual perspective the importance of the Burrup rock art. I commend the Labor report to the Senate. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.