• The Juukan Gorge rock shelters in Western Australia in 2015. The 46,000-year-old caves were destroyed by mining giant Rio Tinto in May 2020. (PKKP AND ABORIGINAL CORPORATION)Source: PKKP AND ABORIGINAL CORPORATION
A parliamentary report has issued a scathing assessment of the nation's cultural heritage protection laws which led to the destruction of the 46,000-year-old caves last year.
Sarah Collard, AAP

18 Oct 2021 - 3:30 PM  UPDATED 18 Oct 2021 - 3:46 PM

The Federal Minister for Indigenous Australians should be responsible for cultural heritage protection, according to a new report tabled following the Juukan Gorge blast.

The Northern Australia Committee's final report, 'A Way Forward', comes after more than a year of hearings involving dozens of Traditional Owner groups and other stakeholders and calls for sweeping changes to cultural heritage laws at the federal and state levels.

Rio Tinto was widely condemned after it was legally allowed to blow up the 46,000-year-old caves on Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura Country in May 2020 under WA's outdated Aboriginal Heritage Act.

The Traditional Owners were left devastated while Rio Tinto overhauled its executive team and admitted it breached their trust.

The committee recommended stronger overarching heritage legislation which should be co-designed with Indigenous people, setting out minimum standards for all states and territories and potentially the right for Traditional Owners to veto the destruction of important sites.

The report recommended that laws focus on protecting and celebrating heritage and should emphasise the principles of free, prior and informed consent.

Committee chair Warren Entsch said the reporting showed how a "profound lack of care" for First Nations heritage. 

“The committee saw the gross inadequacy of legislative protection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage protection across jurisdictions, and at a national level," the Liberal MP said.

"In the case of Juukan Gorge, commonwealth legislation, and ministerial and administrative inaction failed to protect this heritage site from destruction.

"But perhaps the destruction can at least be a catalyst for change."

The PKKP Traditional Owners said in a statement to NITV News they still felt a "great sense of sorrow and loss" over the damage and are now considering the report and its recommendations. 

"Actions not words will be the true test," it read. 

They said the events were an unintended 'test case' for First Nations people across the country as well as overseas, and are continuing to work with Rio Tinto to ensure they are part of the decision-making process going forward.

"At its core are the rights of traditional owners when it comes to what happens on our lands," they said.

The eight recommendations from the "damning" report should be implemented urgently, according to WA Labor Senator Pat Dodson.

"We want a standalone piece of law," he told NITV News.

"The federal minister in the Commonwealth jurisdiction should set the minimum standards that the state legislation should measure up to and it should be onerous.

"This is a real lack of respect, lack of acknowledgement, a lack of any empathy for the heritage of the First Nations peoples of this country."

He said the new laws must extend protection beyond physical sites of significance. 

"We are at a watershed, the definition of culture has been problematic in the past, it's tended to be physical things, the intangible heritage is now part of that significance."

Meanwhile, Federal MPs have called for Rio Tinto to face a judicial inquiry and potential criminal charges over its destruction of the ancient Juukan Gorge rock shelters.

The recommendation by West Australian Senator Dean Smith and Nationals MP George Christensen is contained in the final report.

Senator Smith and Mr Christensen rejected the need for stronger Commonwealth oversight which they said could be used as "deliberate weapons against the resources sector:"

They instead suggested Rio Tinto should face further consequences for actions they labelled "disgraceful, negligent and wilful".

"There should be a judicial inquiry into the destruction of the site, investigating if conduct preceding or following the event warrants further action - including criminal charges," they said.

In a statement, Rio Tinto said they continue to work hard to improve the relationship between Indigenous peoples and the mining giant. 

“We know this will take time and there will be challenges ahead, but we are focused on improving our engagement with Indigenous Peoples and our host communities to better understand their priorities and concerns, minimise our impacts, and responsibly manage Indigenous cultural heritage in and around our operations.”

The minister for Indigenous, Ken Wyatt said in a statement to NITV News that he welcomes the report and will continue to work closing with the federal environment minister. 

"Indigenous heritage protections are intrinsically bound to Federal and State environmental laws." Mr Wyatt said. 

He said reforms must be co-designed with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to suit best practices. 

"There is a need for anyone wanting to work on country to do so in partnership with Indigenous communities to ensure sites are not damaged, desecrated or destroyed."

- With AAP

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