Better protection for First Nations heritage

14 December 2021

The destruction of Juukan Gorge involved the loss of cultural heritage of immeasurable value, and it occurred through multiple failures, including with respect to federal laws and Ministerial processes.

Labor has engaged closely with First Nations representatives in response to that tragedy, and we have pursued answers and action in the Parliament.  We are committed to achieving the change that is required.  It should have been delivered some time ago.  It has been badly neglected by the Morrison-Joyce government.

Recently, the Morrison Government has announced it will work with the First Nations Heritage Alliance on a co-design process for considering cultural heritage reform.  This is welcome but the precise scope of work is unknown, the process itself is woefully overdue, and there is no commitment to legislative change.

Remember, the Coalition first promised to review and reform Australia’s federal protection laws for First Nations heritage in 2015.  The review of the Aboriginal and Torres Straight Island Protection Act 1984 (ATSIHP Act) was supposed to occur by 2017.  Nothing was done.  Now we have a co-design process that will not finish until 2023, with no clear path to actual reform.  It is unacceptable.

Labor has consistently argued that First Nations peoples must be at the centre of decision-making, including on heritage protection, in order to advance reconciliation and truth-telling.  Core to that approach we have promised to deliver on the Uluru Statement from the Heart if elected.

The findings of the independent review into the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) demonstrate the critical need to improve national protections for First Nations culture and heritage. Similar recommendations were also included in the interim and final reports of the bipartisan Parliamentary Inquiry into the Juukan Gorge tragedy.

Labor will consider any sensible changes to improve the failed regulatory framework so that First Nations peoples’ heritage is protected in keeping with the principle of free, prior, and informed consent. However, we are not convinced the Morrison- Joyce government is prepared to take serious and urgent action.  This is one more reason why it’s vital that we change this neglectful, do-nothing government.