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Labor commits to new Indigenous heritage protections but response to Juukan Gorge report angers traditional owners

The federal government will legislate new protections for Indigenous heritage sites, accepting all but one of the recommendations of a report on mining company Rio Tinto’s catastrophic destruction of a 46,000-year-old Aboriginal sacred site at Juukan Gorge.

But the organisation representing the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) traditional owners at the heart of the disaster at Juukan Gorge say they are “angry and disappointed” by the response because they had not been consulted on the content.

Juukan Gorge, in Western Australia’s Pilbara region, was a sacred site which showed 46,000 years of continuous occupation and provided a 4,000-year-old genetic link to present-day PKKP traditional owners.

Rio Tinto blew it up in 2020 to access higher grade iron ore, leading to a global outcry, a shareholder revolt, the departure of three of its most senior executives and a joint parliamentary committee investigation into the disaster.

The committee’s scathing final report in 2020 cited “failures at every level” of government. It made eight recommendations including urgent legislative change to stop the destruction of Aboriginal heritage across the nation.

On Thursday morning, the environment minister, Tanya Plibersek, tabled the government’s official response in parliament, saying it accepted all but one of the recommendations and would legislate for change.

One key recommendation remains unresolved: whether the responsibility for administering Aboriginal heritage legislation should remain with the environment minister or be transferred to the Indigenous affairs minister.

Plibersek said this would be decided in consultation with the First Nations heritage protection alliance, a coalition of key Indigenous organisations formed after the Juukan disaster, as part of the broader cultural heritage reform process.

“These reforms are not about stopping development or halting progress,” Plibersek told parliament. “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 the 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 we listen to all voices.”

Plibersek said the committee’s reports made for “difficult, infuriating and often shocking reading. But it’s important that Australians understand what happened, because we have to remember that this was legal desecration. No laws were broken here. Instead, we have an entire system frustrating the interests of Indigenous history and culture.”

But the PKKP Aboriginal corporation chair, Burchell Hayes, said in a brief statement they were angry at not being consulted. The PKKP had “tasted the devastation and we know what needs to be done”.

Anthony Watson, Paul House and Jamie Lowe stand behind Pat Dodson, Tanya Plibersek, Dr Heron Loban and Linda Burney who are sitting at a round table with documents in front of them. Plibersek and Loban are shaking hands and the others are clapping
Members of the First Nations Heritage Protection Alliance with ministers at the signing of the government’s response to the report on the destruction of Juukan Gorge. Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

“We received an email on Tuesday 22 November from the minister’s office that this was happening with no detail or meaningful follow-up,” Hayes said. “We would have expected the minister would want to meet with us before making a public announcement about our country and cultural heritage.

“It seems like a media event in Canberra is more important than giving PKKP people the respect of asking us what can be done to try and stop something like the destruction of the Juukan rock shelters happening again, or even letting us know what the government is planning.”

The corporation said it would not provide further comment.

A spokesperson for Plibersek said the minister’s office had attempted to engage with the PKKP “on at least four occasions since the response was approved by cabinet on Tuesday”.

“The minister’s office spoke to the PKKP cultural heritage manager,” the spokesperson said. “A meeting between the CEO and the minister was also offered.”

The government’s response is the first major step forward on heritage reform since the report was released under the Morrison government in 2021.

The government agreed that the use of gag clauses in agreements between mining companies and traditional owners should be outlawed. These clauses have long prevented traditional owners from speaking publicly against the destruction of their heritage.

Plibersek also foreshadowed reform of the native title regime. At present, she said, traditional owner groups face a power imbalance in negotiating with resource companies.

“You’ve got not just the imbalance of power in negotiations that occur because of the way the laws are drafted, and that includes some of the issues in the Native Title Act,” she told ABC radio. “But there’s also a massive imbalance in the resources that people bring to the negotiating table if you’ve got very large corporations with very deep pockets, up against, for example, a small prescribed body corporate. It’s, you know, it’s not an easy thing to negotiate in those circumstances.

“Native title holders, for example, negotiating with big mining companies, it makes sense to me that some of those big companies would make a contribution to make sure that the negotiations are taking place on a level playing field.”

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