After the destruction of Juukan Gorge, Indigenous heritage protection gets $500k in budget

The Juukan Gorge rock shelters in Western Australia. Source: PKKP AND PKKP ABORIGINAL CORPORATION

The government's federal budget commitment of $500,000 towards improving cultural heritage protection is likely to raise questions over whether it is sufficient to address the concerns raised by Indigenous groups.

The federal budget has promised $500,000 towards improving cultural heritage protection after the destruction of the Juukan Gorge caves in Western Australia placed huge scrutiny over the failure to protect the site.

The government will commit the investment over two years to “improve Indigenous heritage protection" and what it describes as "Indigenous involvement in Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 decision-making processes”.   

It comes after a parliamentary inquiry into the Juukan Gorge incident noted a review into the Biodiversity Conservation Act had identified “serious inadequacies in terms of Indigenous heritage protection”.  

“The committee is interested to see how much of this activity will lead to meaningful change, and how much is simply the result of the spotlight of inquiry and media scrutiny,” the report found. 

Rio Tinto’s blasting of the 46,000-year-old Aboriginal rock shelters in May last year prompted widespread backlash and led to the resignation of the company’s chief executive Jean-Sebastien Jacques.

Rio had approval under WA's outdated Aboriginal Heritage Act but has since apologised and conceded the blast should not have happened.

The events prompted a parliamentary inquiry to be launched into the incident to investigate the role of the mining company as well as federal and state government in failing to prevent the heritage site. 

In an interim report, the inquiry recommended government seek to legislate stronger protections to allow Traditional Owners to publicly raise concerns about heritage protection.

The funding commitment of $500,000 towards addressing heritage concerns is likely to raise questions over whether it is sufficient to address their concerns. 

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said the government was committed to protecting the cultural heritage of Indigenous Australians.

"We're very focused on protecting the wonderful legacy and history of the First Australians so this budget is not the first or the last word on that matter," he told SBS News. 

New jobs program for Indigenous Australians

The federal budget, which was handed down by Treasurer Josh Frydenberg on Tuesday night, also saw the government replace an employment program for Indigenous Australians known as the Community Development Program.

The government will instead provide $111 million over five years for a new jobs program for remote regions and support Indigenous Australians to get into work.

The government said the program will be co-designed with Indigenous Australia to support remote communities in job creation and skills development.

It is also pausing certain mutual obligation requirements currently in the Community Development Program, while the new Remote Jobs Program is being developed. 

Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt said the budget plan would support Australians to overcome barriers to employment.    

“The program will build on the most successful elements of the current Indigenous-specific employment programs, which will be phased out over 2022, and focus on upskilling Indigenous Australians for in-demand jobs and supporting them to gain employment,” he said.   

“Consultations will inform the final design of the package that will provide tailored, place-based investments to suit local labour markets and respond swiftly to emerging employment opportunities in collaboration with states and territories, Indigenous communities, industry and business.”

Mr Wyatt added that Indigenous Australians were “fully part of the government’s plan to secure Australia’s recovery, delivering the support they need to build skills, address barriers and find employment.” 

However, Labor's spokesperson for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney has raised concerns over the budget response, claiming it would deliver no new funding to the government's Closing the Gap strategy. 

"The Government cannot use the refresh of the targets as a pretext for a non-commitment on funding," she said.

"If we want to see real progress on this critical national effort, we need to see it backed by a genuine commitment and adequate funding from this government." 

The government announced an overhaul of the Closing the Gap agreement in July last year, including new targets aimed at reducing disparities faced by Indigenous Australians.

Other budget measures for Indigenous Australians:

- Another $128.4 million over three years will be directed towards a new Indigenous Skills and Employment program to replace existing vocational and employment programs.

- The government has also announced $57.6 million towards working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in response to domestic violence concerns.  

- A further $79.0 million over four years from 2021-22 will implement initiatives under the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention Strategy to provide tailored crisis and support services.

- A total of $630.2 million will go towards improving access to high-quality aged care services for those in regional, rural and remote areas, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and special needs groups.

- More than $28.1 million over five years will go towards the government’s Indigenous Visual Arts Industry Action Plan to support Indigenous arts centres.

- A further $11.6 million over four years from 2021-22 will also be used to expand and create new Indigenous Protected Areas that provide greater coverage of Sea Country and protect marine biodiversity.

- There will be also $185 million in investment for new houses, housing refurbishments and housing-related infrastructure in remote communities in the Northern Territory.

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