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More needs to be done to ensure culture and lore is prioritised in Aboriginal cultural heritage protection legislation, says the Central Land Council.
Sarah Collard

2 Mar 2021 - 3:12 PM  UPDATED 2 Mar 2021 - 3:12 PM

The definitions of what is considered a sacred site needs to be further expanded to include both tangible and intangible cultural heritage, the federal inquiry into the destruction of the Juukan Gorge heard on Tuesday.

The Northern Territory's heritage protection laws are under scrutiny today as the inquiry into the destruction of the 46,000 year old caves continues to investigate the strengths and shortcomings of legislation in other states and territories. 

While the NT is recognised as offering strong protections to First Nations people in terms of cultural heritage protection, the Central Land Council's policy manager Josie Douglas told the inquiry there were still gaps in the legislation. 

"It gives confidence and certainty to Traditional Owners," Ms Douglas told the inquiry via teleconference.

"But we'd also like to see the definition of 'sacred site' expanded so that it can properly incorporate the complex nature of Aboriginal law." 

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Ms Douglas said that legislation must offer some form of protections to both tangible and intangible cultural heritage sites. 

The Central Land Council also raised concerns about a conflict between territory and federal legislation calling for reforms to ensure cultural heritage is better protected at all levels of government. 

The CLC's legal manager Katrina Budrikis told the inquiry there is a tension between the legal frameworks nationally.

"Unfortunately, it's not a clear situation.... if not specified in the NT act, that the minister can't override it to allow the destruction of [sacred sites]. 

The inquiry heard there is growing concerns Indigenous peoples are being forced to offer details of culturally sensitive sites in order to ensure they were granted protection. 

"It is fundamentally unjust to expect Aboriginal people to reveal what is often required to be secret under traditional laws" Ms Douglas said. 

"Aboriginal people do not want to break traditional laws unless the alternative is the destruction of a sacred site."

According to the International Council for Monuments and Sites, which also gave evidence to the enquiry, intangible heritage is a fundamental part of conservation. 

President of the Australian branch of the council, Helen Larder, said it also related to cultural practices and beliefs, not just physical evidence.

"It is a broader understanding of that heritage - so, beliefs, customs, cultural practices, oral traditions, stories – all of these are aspects of intangible cultural heritage," Ms Lardner told the inquiry on Tuesday.  

The parliamentary inquiry handed down its interim report in December last year.

The final report is expected later this year.  

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