Gomeroi Traditional Custodians met with First Nations Members of Parliament on Tuesday to receive a petition signed by more than 100,000 people calling on the Commonwealth to pass a national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act.

Shadow Minister for Indigenous Affairs Linda Burney MP and Greens First Nations spokesperson Senator Lidia Thorpe met Gomeroi Traditional Custodians Aunty Dolly and Uncle Steve Talbott, as well as GetUp First Nations Justice Campaign Director Larissa Baldwin, to receive a petition

Baldwin, who is a Widjabul woman of the Bundjalung Nation, told the National Indigenous Times that an ambitious schedule for reform was needed.

“We can’t do two more years, there are so many sites being destroyed across the country. We need to level the playing field,” she said.

“A lot of the recommendations in there have been floated for 20 years, what we have now is an opportunity to get it done. We can’t squander this opportunity.”

Baldwin said governments had made a series of promises without delivering meaningful change.

“In New South Wales at a state level almost twenty years of promises. At a Federal level there have been two sets of promises – and that was before Juukan Gorge,” she said.

“The inquiry into Juukan Gorge found that the processes in place were not set up to get the local level cultural understanding, in many instances [if consultation is done] it is not with people who can speak for that area. A lot of sites are being destroyed without the Traditional Owners knowing.

“It is a long time coming and as you can see with what is happening in Western Australia, we need some way to sort of accreditation system for the states, because they need to lift their game.”

Traditional Owners called on all parties in Federal Parliament to bring in a National Heritage Protection Act that fully implements the recommendations of the Senate inquiry into the destruction of Juukan Gorge, including:

  • Giving Traditional Owners and Native Title holders primary decision-making power over their cultural heritage;
  • Giving Traditional Owners the right to withhold consent to the destruction of cultural heritage;
  • Giving the Commonwealth the ability to override inadequate state and territory protection laws;
  • Giving Traditional Owners the power to effectively enforce Commonwealth protections through civil action;
  • Developing federal protection laws through a process of co-design with First Nations peoples;
  • Broadening the definition of cultural heritage to recognise both tangible and intangible heritage; and
  • Transferring ministerial responsibility for First Nations cultural heritage protection from the Minister for the Environment to the Minister for Indigenous Affairs

A Federal First Nations Cultural Heritage Protection Act would effectively override any state legislation, including the Western Australian government’s Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Protection Bill, which has been roundly criticised by Traditional Owners, land and Native Title councils, and investors.

Senator Thorpe received the petition one day after her motion to stop a $50million government handout for fracking in the Northern Territory’s Beetaloo Basin was voted down.

“Right now, in this moment, is your chance, Labor. What’s the point of an Opposition that doesn’t oppose? … The Traditional Owners from the Beetaloo are speaking as one. They are the custodians… who have the legal, moral and cultural authority to make decisions about Country. Why won’t you listen to them?” she said in Parliament.

“Both Labor and the Liberals need to stop listening to the oil and gas companies that purchase you and your vote – listen to the people.”

After the vote Senator Thorpe said they had attempted to “stop public money being used to frack and destroy the Beetaloo, like Traditional Owners asked us to”.

“The Government voted it down and most of the Labor party didn’t even turn up to vote. Shameful!”

Polling commissioned by GetUp and conducted by uComm found overwhelming public support for stronger Federal protections for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural heritage:

  • 68 per cent of people view new Federal legislation in line with recommendations from the Juukan Gorge inquiry as important
  • 59 per cent agree that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should have the right to veto projects that will damage First Nations cultural heritage sites
  • 52 per cent agree that Traditional Owners should be responsible for deciding what holds First Nations cultural heritage significance. Just 10 per cent believe that responsibility should lie with Federal Government ministers, and only 3 per cent believe it should rest with corporations and developers
Gomeroi Traditional Custodian Uncle Steve pictured with Senator Thorpe and Larissa Baldwin out the front of Parliament House on Tuesday. Photo by GetUp!

“We’re the most ‘consulted’ people in the world. We’ve been consulted and insulted for more than 200 years, but when it comes to actually giving Traditional Owners power, they don’t want to hear from us,” Gomeroi Traditional Custodians Uncle Steve and Aunty Dolly Talbott said.

“These companies say they’ve been consulting for five years, and that gives them the authority to say what’s culturally significant and what’s not. We’ve been protecting these lands for tens of thousands of years.

“The government’s protecting houses in Sydney that are 50 years old and calling them ‘heritage’, and at the same time they’re bulldozing First Nations heritage that’s tens of thousands of years old.”

“Every day they keep destroying more and more of our culture, what does that tell our kids? That we’re nobody. That we don’t matter. Every day, our kids take that in.”

Baldwin said Traditional Owners “have been fighting for ownership and control over their sacred and culturally significant sites since colonisation began”.

“So much of our heritage has been destroyed and desecrated by mining, pastoral, and fossil fuel companies. So many times, Traditional Owners have been ignored and steamrolled by people more concerned with making money than with protecting what is priceless,” she said.

“If Parliament does its job and brings in a federal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Cultural Heritage Protection Act, Traditional Owners will finally have the power to protect what is left.

“They will be able to withhold consent from projects that would damage sacred sites and destroy cultural heritage. They will be able to hold companies accountable for cultural destruction by pursuing them in court. And they will finally be given primary decision-making power over their cultural heritage . . . Parliament has a responsibility to make sure that companies like Rio Tinto can never commit outrages like the destruction of Juukan Gorge ever again.”

By Giovanni Torre