Australia’s most senior native title delegate has criticised inequality in WA’s new Aboriginal cultural heritage protections as discussions get underway on the new Act’s co-design process.

Traditional Owners met with the WA government, industry and stakeholders to get the ball rolling on co-designed implementation of the WA Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act 2021.

It follows Miriwong Gadjerong senior cultural woman Merle Carter’s plea for “good faith” from Traditional Owners when the year-long co-design process was announced.

Preliminary findings from the April workshop found Traditional Owners felt discouraged by their past experiences of consultation as their views were ignored or responses delayed.

Ngalia Traditional Owner and National Native Title Council chairman Kado Muir said “very little” of the current co-design process was equal.

“True partnership and co-design is around the higher level introduction of the legislation,” he said.

“And effectively all they’ve done is have Aboriginal people as another stakeholder, alongside industry and other stakeholders who effectively get permit from government to impact Aboriginal heritage sites.

“What they’re doing is tightening up and fancying up another name for consultation as opposed to co-design.

“Bottom line is there’s no real effective celebration and protection and maintenance of Aboriginal culture in Western Australia.”

Mr Muir said the Act must afford Indigenous people the right to say no to destruction of cultural sites.

He added the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples should be part of the co-design process.

“What [UNDRIP] really does is serve to demonstrate the racially discriminatory nature of the government’s approach,” Mr Muir said.

“Suffice to say in this day and age the government needs to be sensitive to racial discrimination that’s build into its legislation.

“So all the end users of this legislation, whether it’s Rio Tinto, BHP, FMG, all the way down to the small prospector, if you’re relying on this legislation to support your development applications, then effectively you’re participating in a system that’s racially discriminatory.”

WA Aboriginal Affairs Minister Tony Buti also participated in the workshop, taking questions from delegates and providing an update on the current status of the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act.

South West Aboriginal Land and Sea Council chairman Brendan Moore said the co-design process was important to Indigenous people.

“The co-design process is important in preserving Country and identity,” he said.

“For us it’s about having that voice, to try and make things better for our people to ensure we can protect our heritage.”

A full report will be presented to the Minister and members of the newly established Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Reference Group who will oversee the state government’s co-design process in the coming months.