Western Australia’s new Aboriginal Affairs Minister has named implementing the state’s controversial Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act as his top priority in a wide-ranging interview with the National Indigenous Times.
The long overdue Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act sparked protests and appeals to the United Nations as many Traditional Owners argued it continued an imbalance of power and did not extend enough protection to Aboriginal heritage.
Mr Buti said even with strong criticism, most opponents acknowledged the new Bill was superior to current laws.
“The government’s position was that if you gave a veto right there would be no incentive for agreements to be reached,” he said.
“It is better if agreements are reached that are for the benefit of Aboriginal people and the state as a whole.
“The appeal to State Administrative Tribunal is not going to be used as readily as people may assume it’s going to be used.”
Mr Buti in 1994 began work for the Aboriginal Legal Service WA as a human rights and public policy officer, where he saw first hand the failure of WA’s education system to teach Stolen Generations history.
“I had three university degrees and a diploma and I had been a teacher, I’d heard that there had been some removals, but I never knew it was a systematic policy, which I think was an indictment on the education system that it wasn’t taught,” he said.
“Two years later we would have interviewed about 500 people… including Robert Riley, who had been put in Sister Kate’s, and he told me that he had been raped.
“We produced a report we launched in 1995 telling the story – a compilation of stories – and we launched it at Sister Kate’s.
“Within less than a year (Mr Riley) had committed suicide.”
Mr Buti said that experience had a profound impact on him.
“What we didn’t do as a service was provide counselling for people that came to give their stories, or provide counselling to the solicitors and Aboriginal court officers who took the stories down,” he said.
“When I left the ALS, I basically struggled to do any interviews on anything for the next couple of years.
There was one particular woman who had come to see us, in her late 60s or early 70s, who had been removed to a mission outside Kalgoorlie, and boiled water had been poured over her body.
“I said I don’t think we can make a legal case because of the statute of limitations, and she pulled up her shirt and she had burn marks all over her stomach.”
After his time at the ALS, Mr Buti went to Murdoch University where he undertook his PhD on the Stolen Generations.
“Now to be the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs is fantastic but I also come to it with open eyes knowing that it is a very complex area with a lot of challenges,” he said.
The heritage act is one of several pressing issues facing Mr Buti in his new portfolio. Other key tasks include divesting Aboriginal Lands Trust lands to Traditional Owners, and working on native title settlements.
Mr Buti said he wanted to honour the State Government’s 2017 commitment to divest Aboriginal Lands Trust lands.
“There’s a particular pilot study, Bidyadanga Land Activation Pilot project, looking at how we can ensure that Aboriginal communities, especially remote communities, can use their land in improving their social and economic opportunities, which is connected to other issues like housing and health,” he said.
Mr Buti said reducing deaths in custody and the high rate of incarceration for Indigenous people, particularly youth, would need both short and long-term strategies.
“People have been talking about this for a long time… and if it was easy the solutions would have been put in place,” he said.
“There will never be a solution if people see it as being only government-driven.”