By Terri Butler MP, Senator Patrick Dodson and Josh Wilson MP

29 November 2021

Four years after the promised review came and went, today’s announcement that the Morrison Government will partner with the First Nations Heritage Alliance on a co-design process for considering cultural heritage reform is welcome but woefully overdue.

We look forward to learning more about the scope of work to be undertaken by this partnership, and the associated timelines.  We don’t understand why the government hasn’t taken steps to address known failures in the heritage protection framework and processes, including processes within the Minister’s office that failed in the case of the Juukan Gorge tragedy.  A repeat of Juukan Gorge could still occur right now, so there is no time to waste.
Labor has always said that First Nations peoples must be at the centre of decision-making on all the key issues – including heritage protection – if Australia is to make real progress in closing the gap and reconciliation.
It is understandable that First Nations peoples would be sceptical and worried that this announcement is yet another empty promise from a government that has been dragged to action 18 months after the terrible fiasco at Juukan Gorge – a national tragedy that involved the loss of cultural heritage of immeasurable value.
Let’s not forget that the Coalition Government promised in two separate government strategies – back in 2015 – to deliver a review of national cultural heritage protection laws by December 2017.  Earlier this year, Departmental officials confirmed they had not been instructed by this government to commence such a process at any point.
Following the 2020 destruction of Juukan Gorge, Sussan Ley promised to prioritise reform, yet her minimal actions since – namely, a single roundtable with her state counterparts more than 12 months ago – indicate that meaningful change has not been a priority.
This is despite a key recommendation from the Minister’s own appointee – Professor Graeme Samuel AC – who in his final report of the EPBC Act Review said that “a comprehensive review of national level Indigenous cultural heritage protection legislation is needed.”
Similar recommendations were also included in the interim and final reports of the bipartisan Parliamentary Inquiry into the Destruction of Juukan Gorge.
Despite today’s announcement, the question remains: why has it taken the Coalition Government eight years and a national tragedy to step up and start addressing the need to engage First Nations peoples with respect to their cultural heritage?