Indigenous heritage laws ‘severely outdated in SA

Tim Dornin

13 June 2023

Aboriginal heritage laws in South Australia are severely outdated and need urgent attention, a state parliamentary committee has found.

In a final report tabled in parliament on Tuesday, the committee made a series of recommendations to establish a regimen “in accordance with community expectations”.

It proposed increased penalties for damage or harm to Indigenous heritage, something the government has already acted on, and recognised the need for more consistent laws across the country.

“A consistent theme in the submissions received was that Aboriginal heritage laws in this state and around the nation are severely outdated and in need of urgent attention,” committee presiding member and upper house MP Tung Ngo said in the report.

“Aboriginal heritage protection is outdated and does not reflect modern community expectations.”

Among its recommendations, the committee called for the definition of Aboriginal remains to be expanded to include all bodily remains, not just skeletal matter.

It also urged a review of the provisions allowing ministerial authorisation for any damage to heritage sites.

The committee said the government should consider ways in which Indigenous communities could be the “ultimate arbiters” on any proposal that would affect their local heritage.

On the question of penalties, it noted the government’s recent move to increase fines and prison terms, but suggested civil damages and expiation notices also be introduced to sit alongside criminal offences.

Last month, the state government proposed big increases from the current fines, which sit at $50,000 for a company and $10,000 or six months in prison for individuals.

These will jump to $2 million and $250,000, with individuals also facing a maximum two-year jail term, if the damage is considered intentional or reckless.

Aboriginal Affairs Minister Kyam Maher said South Australia’s Aboriginal heritage protection laws were failing to protect the state’s ancient cultural heritage.

“By legislating an increase in penalties, we are sending a clear message that Aboriginal heritage is to be both protected and respected,” he said.

The damage to Aboriginal heritage sites has been in the spotlight since 2020, when mining giant Rio Tinto blew up the 46,000-year-old Juukan caves in WA’s Pilbara, devastating the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people and causing global outrage.

Rio had legal permission to destroy the caves under WA’s outdated Aboriginal heritage laws, which were subsequently replaced by new state legislation.