Calls for new WA heritage laws to protect both Aboriginal and European cultural sites

Press/Media: Press / Media

Period23 Feb 2016

Media contributions


Media contributions

  • TitleCalls for new WA heritage laws to protect both Aboriginal and European cultural sites
    Degree of recognitionInternational
    Media name/outletABC News
    Media typeWeb
    DescriptionTourists wanting to see the internationally significant rock art of the Kimberley are often steered towards the Moochalabra site near Wyndham.

    Scattered with artworks which tell the stories of the Balanggara people from ancient times through to after European settlement, Moochalabra is a place worthy of UNESCO world heritage status, according to archaeologist Sven Ouzman.

    But under WA's two-tier system, Moochalabra is treated differently to other significant heritage sites, such as Fremantle Prison, which was included on the world heritage list in 2010, but protected under different laws.

    Archaeologists and heritage professionals say it is time Western Australia treated all of its cultural heritage in the same way.

    The call comes as the WA Government plans to introduce new heritage legislation which clarifies its position of having one set of rules for Aboriginal heritage and another for European and other cultural heritage sites.

    A draft of the legislation released last year showed the laws would not protect sites "whose cultural heritage significance derives solely from its connection with Aboriginal tradition or culture".

    This means Moochalabra cannot be listed on the State Register of Heritage Places, which the Heritage Council's website says is "reserved for places of state cultural heritage significance and is the highest recognition afforded at the state level".

    Stark difference in heritage protections
    Specifically removing Aboriginal heritage from the legislation is an approach one heritage professional said could look racist.

    Tom Perrigo sits on the executive of Australia ICOMOS, a national body which advises UNESCO on world heritage sites.

    "It appears to be racist," he said.

    "One has to ask the question, why did they do it?"

    As an example of the differences between the laws which protect the state's heritage sites, planned amendments to the Aboriginal Heritage Act would see a person who damaged or destroyed Moochalabra fined $100,000, or sentenced to one year in jail.

    But under the new heritage legislation which governs sites on the State Register of Heritage Places, the penalty for a similar offence is $1 million, with a daily fine of $50,000.

    Archaeologist Peter Veth, the professor of Kimberley rock art at the University of Western Australia, noticed a more stark difference in heritage protections for WA's rock art during a recent trip to France.

    Dr Veth said the government there had spent $70 million to create a replica of the Chauvet cave, one of the world's most important prehistoric rock art sites, so its many tourists did not harm the delicate paintings.

    With team leader Dr Ouzman, he is working on a groundbreaking project to accurately date Kimberley rock art, which some people have suggested could be the oldest in the world.

    "They're given the highest possible protection under the heritage regime in France," he said.

    "Most of them are completely restricted access. The few of them ... available for visitation have to be done by tour guides."

    Archaic legislation 'a joke'
    Aboriginal groups have been critical of the Government's proposed changes to the Aboriginal heritage legislation.

    The Yamatji Marlpa Aboriginal Corporation said it was old-fashioned legislation which did not protect the rights of Aboriginal people.

    "It's archaic legislation, it's a joke," chief executive Simon Hawkins said.

    "But there are elements obviously within the Government that are still caught up in an 'old-world view of Aboriginal Australia'."

    Dr Veth and Dr Ouzman also do not support the legislation.

    They have added their voices to calls by other local archaeologists to treat the state's important heritage sites in the same way, whether European or Aboriginal or from other cultures.

    Dr Ouzman said a single piece of legislation to govern the state's heritage sites which did not privilege European heritage would foster an appreciation for the state's old and new cultural heritages.

    He said it was the way heritage was treated in the post-apartheid era in South Africa, and ensured the legal protection of "a little stone tool and the Sydney Opera House would be exactly the same".

    Mr Perrigo agreed with the academics, saying he could not understand why Western Australia separated its heritage legislation by race.

    "Why do we have a Heritage Minister who does not cover Aboriginal heritage?" he said.

    "We have a heritage system in WA which is dealing with European-built heritage.

    "Why don't we call him the European heritage minister?"

    Heritage Minister Albert Jacob, who declined to be interviewed by the ABC, told the WA Parliament last week that the state was "leading the nation in heritage management".

    In a statement to the ABC, he said the bill did not remove Aboriginal heritage from the Heritage Act.

    "Rather it recognises there already is an act, the Aboriginal Heritage Act, for the recognition and care of Aboriginal heritage sites," he said.

    "Where a site is solely of Aboriginal heritage significance, the Heritage Act will not apply because it is protected under other legislation.

    "This clarifies what has been the practice since the Heritage Act was established in 1990 and ensures no unnecessary duplication of regulation."
    PersonsSven Ouzman


  • Archaeology
  • Australia
  • Rock Art
  • Legislation