Western Australia has flagged tougher financial penalties for the destruction of Aboriginal heritage and new measures to “protect and respect” Aboriginal cultures, in its draft new heritage legislation.

The draft bill, released on Wednesday for public consultation, does away with the much-maligned section 18, under which traditional owners were unable to lodge objections or to prevent their sacred sites from being damaged.

It will also introduce penalties of up to $10m for any “unauthorised” damage done to sacred and significant sites.

Consultation has been going for two years but the WA government said it would introduce the new bill this year, in the wake of Rio Tinto’s destruction of a 46,000-year-old significant site in May, at Juukan Gorge in the Pilbara.

The draft bill proposes a new Aboriginal cultural heritage council be set up to oversee agreements and advise the minister on the management of Aboriginal heritage, as well as the creation of local Aboriginal cultural heritage services.

“This bill will reset the relationship between Aboriginal people and land users and align our legislation with commonwealth native title laws that respect the right of Aboriginal people to negotiate outcomes for projects and opportunities on their lands,” WA’s Aboriginal affairs minister, Ben Wyatt, said.

“Cultural heritage is central to the health and vitality of Aboriginal communities with knowledge passed from generation to generation, providing a strong connection to their past, present and future.

“We have seen recently how grossly inadequate the current legislation is to protect Aboriginal heritage and the appeals by traditional owners and land users to modernise our system.”

But Greens MP for the mining and pastoral region, Robin Chapple said the bill introduces a “new and complex system” that under-resourced Aboriginal groups in the Pilbara will need time to respond to.

“The whole thing is being incredibly rushed,” Chapple said. “The website says that information sessions for Aboriginal communities across the state will occur in late September 2020 and yet all parties only have until 9 October to make comment.

“The website already notes that consultation is already underway with key stakeholders and industry but Aboriginal people are poor cousins again,” Chapple said.


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