Traditional Owners in Western Australia have said Aboriginal Affairs Minister Stephen Dawson “isn’t listening” to grave concerns about draft Aboriginal heritage laws.

Kimberley Land Council Chair Anthony Watson told NIT requests for Aboriginal people to be at the forefront of assessing the cultural heritage value of sites have not been put into the draft Bill.

“He’s not listening to us. It’s very disrespectful,” Watson said.

“A lot of [Aboriginal] leaders are really, really disappointed with this Minister and he needs to wake up and listen to the people.”

Under the existing Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 (WA), the Aboriginal Affairs Minister holds sole power to approve or decline applications to impact culturally important sites, with no ability for Traditional Owners to appeal the decision once it’s made.

Though the draft Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Bill 2020 provides an avenue of appeal for Traditional Owners, the final decision still rests with the Minister.

Watson is concerned the draft legislation won’t be an improvement on the existing Act, saying it’s not culturally appropriate for the Minister to be making decisions about which sites are culturally significant.

“He can’t make those decisions; he’s not a lore person, he’s not a Traditional Owner, and it’s wrong for him to actually have control over our heritage.”

A spokesperson for Minister Dawson disputed that the new Bill offers no new protections.

“The Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Bill 2021 will deliver historic improvement over the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972, delivering greater protection for Aboriginal cultural heritage than the current legislation,” the spokesperson said.

“Without this new Bill, there will be no change from the status quo for Aboriginal cultural heritage in Western Australia.”

The spokesperson also said efforts have been made to consult with Traditional Owners and the Kimberley Land Council.

“The KLC along with industry and other representatives have been invited to a briefing session on changes to the Bill that have occurred since the draft went out for public consultation,” they said.

Watson called for a three-way discussion with Aboriginal groups rather than the planned briefing sessions.

“If Mr Dawson is genuine about putting Aboriginal people at the centre of decision-making he should allow for industry and Aboriginal people to sit down together to come up with a joint position,” he said.

Watson also said Minister Dawson is misrepresenting the concerns of Traditional Owners in his statements to the media.

“He’s been using words like ‘Traditional Owners want veto [of mining approvals]’. We want to be at the middle of the decision-making, so some of those words are not appropriate for the Minister to use,” he said.

“We’re not stopping mining, we’re happy to have projects, but they need to be guided, to be regulated, and we need to be at the forefront to say what is low, medium and high impact and what is heritage.”

By Sarah Smit