MP urges stronger cultural site protection

Dorinda Cox says responsibility for cultural sites should lie with the Indigenous affairs minister.
Dorinda Cox says responsibility for cultural sites should lie with the Indigenous affairs minister.

The destruction of the Juukan Gorge rock shelters could have been prevented if responsibility for the protection of the cultural site lay with the Indigenous affairs minister, an Indigenous MP says.

Greens senator Dorinda Cox, Western Australia's first female Indigenous upper house member, also called for a First Nations response to prevent other Indigenous sites from meeting a similar fate.

"We need federal legislation that governs this and provides surety and guidance to state legislation," Senator Cox told the ABC on Tuesday.

"In my home state in Western Australia, we have a draft bill for Aboriginal cultural heritage, and our traditional owner groups from across the state are saying it's not good enough. It doesn't go far enough."

Her comments come in the wake of a parliamentary committee report on the destruction of the 46,000-year-old Juukan caves by mining giant Rio Tinto in May 2020.

The mining giant had legal permission to destroy the caves under WA's outdated Aboriginal Heritage Act but has since conceded it breached the trust of the site's traditional owners.

The report recommended federal laws be urgently overhauled to transfer responsibility for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural heritage matters from the environment minister to the minister for Indigenous affairs.

Environment Minister Sussan Ley said the protection of cultural sites was a national priority.

"Heritage protection for Juukan belonged at a state government level, and the area wasn't listed as a heritage site, although it certainly had values that made it possible," she told ABC radio.

"We've already started on working out how states and the commonwealth can come together so we don't have these gaps in heritage protection."

Recommendations were also made to have stronger overarching heritage legislation co-designed with Indigenous Australians.

Indigenous leader and academic, Professor Marcia Langton, said the report was a good start but it would be challenging for the recommendations to be implemented.

"I'm not sure that the committee comprehends how difficult it would be to achieve all that they aim for, but certainly this is a very important recommendation to the government," she told ABC radio.

"This is a very complicated area."

Australian Associated Press