Barnett Strips Dreaming of Heritage Status

In the past two years about 1500 sites have changed from being "registered" to "stored data", meaning they no longer warrant heritage protection. stated Academic, Professor Joe Dortch. Most of those sites are in mining leaseholds belonging to Gina Rinehart and Andrew Forrest.

Steve Grant Herald Online Journal 5 December 2014

The Swan River faces losing Aboriginal heritage protection under a controversial interpretation of statutes by the Barnett government.

Over the past two years WA's Aboriginal affairs department (DAA) has quietly dropped from its heritage register scores of sites across the state.

When asked why, it told the Herald the sites, "were not Aboriginal sites as required by Section 5 of the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972".

A letter sent two months ago from the DAA to the Widi Mob, native title claimants in the Wheatbelt, shows it is targeting sites associated with Dreaming beings such as the Swan River's Waugyl.

The letter from DAA registrar of Aboriginal sites Tanya Butler—which warns the Widi Mob not to reveal its contents to anyone else—notes Mongers Lake is associated with a Waugyl-like serpent known locally as the Beemarra.

"For the place to be considered a sacred area it requires that a religious activity had to occur at this place rather than just a belief or the presence of an ancestral being," Ms Butler told the claimants.

Offering the Widi Mob the chance to argue their case, she warns that staff have recommended to the department's Aboriginal Cultural Materials Committee that Mongers Lake be removed from the register.

The Herald understands the advice follows a review of the Act two years ago by senior departmental legal officer Alex Rorrison. Amendments to the Act are currently before state parliament.

Image adapted and borrowed from a 'Nicholson' cartoon

Anthropologists the Herald has spoken to are aghast at the interpretation, saying it's further evidence the Barnett government is taking Aboriginal heritage back 40 years.

One consultant, who recently had a site knocked back after recommending its registration, is appalled the department is relying on legislation drafted five years after Aborigines were granted the vote.

"What do you reckon the thinking about Aborigines was like back then," said the consultant, who'd speak only on condition of anonymity.

Joe Dortch, whose work straddles consultancy and acadaemia, agrees. He says the government is trashing a system that has evolved over 20 years to overcome the Act's shortcomings.

"What has evolved over 20 years is a detente," Prof Dortch told the Herald.

"Over 20 years we've evolved a system that delivers good outcomes for developers and miners because they get things without a fight."

In a response from the department—to which no-one attached their name—it's claimed the DAA is required to follow legislation, which has been interpreted by a lawyer.

"Far from ignoring the last 40 years, the amendments seek to upgrade the Act to improve protection for Aboriginal sites and to provide a greater voice for Aboriginal people in decision making processes," the anonymous DAA response states.

Prof Dortch also disputes the DAA's claim it's removed just 127 registered sites, saying he has evidence thousands have been stripped.

Every couple of years Prof Dortch downloads the register and he says in the past two years about 1500 sites have changed from being "registered" to "stored data", meaning they no longer warrant heritage protection.

Most of those sites are in mining leaseholds belonging to Gina Rinehart and Andrew Forrest.

The DAA claims the sites never enjoyed protection and had been simply referred by consultants for consideration. The department says no sites in the magnates' tenements have been deregistered.

Prof Dortch says he's heard anecdotal evidence that because of the more restrictive interpretation, consultants are being told by miners and developers not to bother assessing sites because they won't be registered. He says that could result in vast amounts of historical knowledge being destroyed.

The department's stance is being challenged by the QC who launched the late Eddie Mabo's historic native title case in 1992.

Greg McIntyre is representing Marapikurrinya brother and sister Kerry and Diana Robinson, who are fighting to keep Port Hedland harbour on the register. Prof McIntyre told the Herald the town's port authority had not challenged the harbour's heritage status, which almost left the siblings with no-one to challenge. Eventually they settled on WA Aboriginal affairs minister Peter Collier and the DAA's cultural committee.

That case is now before the Supreme Court and Prof McIntyre reckons his case is rock solid, which could pave the way for a swag of costly appeals around the state.

The brouhaha around the register follows controversy about amendments to the Act, now before parliament.

Aboriginal groups, anthropologists, archaeologists, Labor and the WA Law Society have savaged the amendments, saying they effectively sideline Aborigines and leave them with no avenue of appeal, unlike miners ("Short-sited," Herald, September 20, 2014).

The Herald's original story broke the news the Aboriginal Cultural Materials Committee (ACMC) hadn't had an anthropologist on it for two years, as required by the Act. Since then, the Herald has learned the department had rejected three qualified applicants, a fact not disclosed by the department when we made our enquiries.

The DAA refuses to reveal why the applicants were knocked back, saying only the process is "on-going". The Herald understands one of the three had been invited to apply.

Mr Collier says the ACMC relied on information from Aboriginal people with knowledge and cultural authority.

"In addition, DAA has a number of staff with anthropological and archaeological qualifications," he told the Herald.

Despite the conga line of critics he insists the amendments are balanced, pointing to tougher penalties for anyone who damages a site: "The amendments are intended to encourage early engagement and agreement-making between land users and Aboriginal organisations."