Treatment Of Indigenous Heritage In WA Reflects Shameful Attitudes Towards Indigenous Australians

Words by: Anthony Worrall

Australia’s bloody past in its dealings with its indigenous people has left an irreparable and disgraceful blemish on our proud nation’s history, and while vast social reforms have preceded greater legal recognition of indigenous heritage (e.g. the landmark Mabo native title decision in 1992), Australian law-makers do not seem to be interested in properly confronting and reconciling decades of shameful behaviour towards the rightful owners of the beautiful and scenic land on which we all live on.

This is particularly evident in the Barnett government’s conduct in upholding and preserving indigenous heritage sites around the state, which should be seen as nothing less than a covert attack on the integrity and efficacy of rural indigenous communities and indigenous values, practices and traditions in Western Australia.

As per Tod Jones of theconversation.com, Aboriginal heritage in Western Australia is governed by two main laws: the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972, and the Heritage of Western Australia Act 1990. Between them, these laws essentially establish concepts of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal heritage, which from the outset established substantial inequality between the two, leaning in the direction of non-Aboriginal heritage.

The main evidence for this claim is found in the legislative makeup of the Planning and Development Act 2005, which incorporates the Heritage of Western Australia Act, however features no consideration of the Aboriginal Heritage Act, meaning that Aboriginal heritage sites are essentially not considered when a governmental body is planning and developing civil projects and town planning.

Establishing this fundamental degree of unfairness and inequality between indigenous and non-indigenous heritage sites now gives us a bit of context in which to consider just precisely how much more dire things are becoming for indigenous Australians. Under the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972, a register of indigenous heritage sites was established, which is now represented by an interactive map through the government’s website. What follows is that if any site is removed from the website, as it is the definitive source on these heritage sites, they subsequently lose their legal status as such. This is known as the Aboriginal Heritage Register.

A study released by two senior Western Australian archaeologists in July 2015 has shown that between 2008 and 2015, 3207 sites that were once listed on the register have had their status downgraded, which included 69 mythological sites and 14 ceremonial sites. In other words, this has occurred since the Barnett government was voted in, and, up until this report, to the knowledge of very few, due to changing levels of classification in the Aboriginal Heritage Register.

Thanks to legislation, the Department of Aboriginal Affairs (DAA) aren’t required to even make relevant indigenous elders aware of the changes, which in many cases has resulted in profound cultural, social and practical disadvantage. In addition to this, the DAA are not required to provide any reason for the removal of such sites, which further disempowers any individuals tied to these heritage sites.

This was part of an approach the Barnett government began taking towards the Aboriginal Heritage Act, where several key definitions were redefined, reducing the eligibility of sites across the state under the Act. For instance, in 2012 the word ‘sacred’ was changed to mean “devoted to a religious use rather than a place subject to mythological story, song or belief”, which lead to further deregulation of more sites. Anyone familiar with indigenous tradition would know the importance of Dreamtime stories and how sacred they are to indigenous Australians. Embarrassingly enough, a State Supreme Court Justice later found this definition to be a “misconstruction”.

In its most recent legislative gut-punch to the integrity of Aboriginal heritage, the Barnett government has now introduced an Aboriginal Heritage Amendment bill before Parliament, which, if passed, will establish a maximum penalty for disturbing a non-indigenous heritage site of $2 million and two years imprisonment, as opposed to doing so to an indigenous heritage site, which is up to a $100,000 fine and 12 months imprisonment. Ultimately, this bill threatens to further create a schism between the importance of ancient places sacred to a perpetually marginalised ethnic group in Australian society, and the importance of mostly buildings that are at the oldest a few hundred years old, in the interests of the historically dominant white Australian cultural majority.

Overall, it is not at all difficult to see how the Barnett government regards the state’s indigenous population. Indigenous heritage is of vital importance to the nation’s identity, and of any nation’s identity, and as it stands, the government’s actions make Australia’s bloody, racist past look far more fitting in modern Australia than many would like to think, rather than an era forever associated with genuine guilt on the behalf of white Australians.