Here’s everything you need to know about the WA government’s backdown on its Aboriginal Cultural Heritage laws: ABC News

By Jake Sturmer

YOUTUBEWhat will — and won’t — change after the WA government confirmed it would scrap its new cultural heritage laws?

When Rio Tinto destroyed ancient caves at Juukan Gorge, the world got an unsightly glimpse of Western Australia’s outdated cultural heritage laws.

The WA government’s 2021 changes were supposed to prevent what it described as a “global embarrassment” from ever happening again.

Instead, the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act has left many farmers confused and traditional owners frustrated.

Roger Cook’s popularity was taking a hit as a result of controversy over the new laws.(ABC News: Hugh Sando)

After just five weeks in operation, the government has backflipped — trying to stem the political bleeding that is tainting WA’s new premier and now muddying the waters of the Voice referendum debate.

So what’s changing?

It’s important to remember that any activities that could damage Aboriginal cultural heritage still need approval.

The old-but-soon-to-be-new 1972 act meant the minister had to tick off on every action no matter how minor — known as a Section 18 approval.

The 2021 act created a system of tiers and approvals.

Want to build a fence with no clearing? No approval required.

New mine site with deep excavation? You’ll need a management plan that has to be ticked off by a local Aboriginal organisation at your expense.

But the government acknowledged these tiers have caused massive confusion and will therefore be scrapped.

There were reports the rules would have prevented everything from gardening to installing a swimming pool, building a garage or burying a pet in the backyard.

In fact, such activities were exempt, as were all properties smaller than 1,100 square metres.

So it’s no surprise the biggest outcry came from farmers.

How will another Juukan Gorge be prevented?

When landowners requested to damage or destroy heritage sites, they needed one of those Section 18 approvals from the minister.

If the minister rejected that, developers had a right to appeal but traditional owners did not.

As part of the government’s backflip, it will amend the laws to give a right of appeal to the native title party whose cultural heritage is impacted.

Developers will also have to bring any new heritage information to the government’s attention.

What’s the Voice got to do with it?

Not much, according to WA Premier Roger Cook.

But this controversy is unfolding at the same time as polls show declining support for the Indigenous Voice to Parliament.

Political commentators argue the confusion over the new heritage laws has played a part in the weakening poll numbers, especially in WA.

The man spearheading the ‘Yes’ campaign believed the new laws were an obstacle to the Voice — and was thrilled about their potential scrapping when asked over the weekend.

Federal Opposition Leader Peter Dutton, who has been a key opponent of the Voice, was quick to jump on the backdown, welcoming it as “good news” and highlighting that “because it was legislation … the harm can be undone”.

“But that’s not the case with the Voice,” he told his colleagues on Tuesday.

But not all are happy.

How have Indigenous groups reacted?

The Traditional Owners of Juukan Gorge said they have been betrayed and feel the repeal of the laws is a backwards step.

YOUTUBEJordan Ralph from the PKKP slammed the decision to repeal the laws.

Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) Aboriginal Corporation spokesman Jordan Ralph said he had lost faith in the government’s ability to adequately protect culturally significant sites.

“This is nothing short of a cluster and again, First Nations people are being treated as second class citizens in their own country,” he said.

And in the Pilbara, there is disappointment but also optimism.

Michael Woodley spoke about the repeal of the laws from his hometown of Roebourne.(ABC News: Dan Mercer)

“The key is for this government to find the balance, listen to everyone who has a concern about this and move forward together,” said Yinjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation CEO Michael Woodley.

“I think we can all work together if we’re all on the same page.”

What happens now?

The government has already begun the formal process of repealing the 2021 legislation, which will be replaced with the original laws from 1972, with some key amendments.

Local Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Services bodies, which had been established under the 2021 act to negotiate and facilitate land use proposals, will also be scrapped.

Existing native title groups would be supported to grow their capacity to work with government and industry.

The government will embark on its own project to undertake cultural heritage surveys of land in “high priority” sections of the state, rather than ordinary landowners having to undertake surveys of their land.

The government said the changes to the 1972 laws would not be rushed through parliament, but could be accelerated if the opposition wanted it.