NSWALC cautiously welcomes Government’s Action to protect Aboriginal heritage sites

NSWALC cautiously welcomes Government's Action to protect Aboriginal heritage sites

 17 April 2009

 The Chairperson of the New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council, Bev Manton, today cautiously welcomed the Government's announcement that it will considerably toughen penalties under the National Parks and Wildlife Act to protect Aboriginal heritage sites.

"The reported introduction of fines of up to $1.1 million and a strict liability offence to prevent developers and others from damaging Aboriginal heritages sites and claiming they were unaware they were committing an offence is welcomed.

"It is long overdue," Chairperson Manton added.

"Although NSWALC has cautiously welcomed the planned legislative changes we have not as yet seen the detail."

"There is still widespread fear by our land councils that it may not go far enough.

 "The existing legislation has made it virtually impossible to successfully prosecute developers who had destroyed Aboriginal heritage sites because they were able to claiming they were unaware they were committing an offence.

"To the best of NSWALC's knowledge there has only been seven prosecutions of knowingly destroying Aboriginal heritage sites in the last three or four years.

"And even when convictions have occurred the fines were miniscule - around the $650 mark"

NSW welcomed the opportunity to be provided with an early copy of the draft new legislation.

"It will be widely circulated to our land councils," Chairperson Manton said.

"It is a pity, however, that it appears the Government does not propose to hold consultations on the proposed changes to the existing legislation.

"In the future there must be provision for the custodians of the country where heritage sites are being vandalized or destroyed to be consulted.

"But let me emphasise that NSWALC sees the toughening of the legislation as a major step in the right direction and applauds the Government for taking this step.

"However, I remind the Government that when the Aboriginal Land Rights Act was introduced in 1983 the then Minister, Frank Walker, emphasized that it lacked one essential element - the protection and ownership of Aboriginal cultural heritage.

"After all, in the last five years the Director General of the Department of Environment and Climate Change (DECC) has approved nearly 900 permits that allow developers to destroy Aboriginal heritage sites.

"The continuing process of "approved destructions" is not transparent and can only be described as indefensible."

"The government committed itself the introduction of an Aboriginal Heritage Commission Bill."

"It has never seen the light of day".

"NSWALC believes firmly that it is now time for the Government to introduce legislation to create an Aboriginal Heritage Commission.

"Only then will our land councils feel some sense that finally our views will be listened to and our sacred sites will have a far better chance of being protected.

"For too long the belief that Aboriginal culture and heritage is somehow different, somehow removed from Australian history and not worth protecting must cease.  Australia should finally readily embrace Aboriginal heritage and culture as uniquely Australian, something that is integral and an important part of Australia's history.

"New South Wales could be a catalyst for this change."

Further information: Peter Windsor  0400 554603