Finally: protection for Aboriginal cultural sites

For the first time in more than 50 years the WA state government will implement reforms to the legislation protecting Aboriginal cultural heritage sites.

The new Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act 2021 will be implemented on July 1 this year and will give local Aboriginal organisations the authority to speak for Country.

The Act was subjected to more than five years of consultation through a three-phase, co-design development process.

Minister for Aboriginal Affairs Tony Buti says the new laws show the state government is committed to giving Aboriginal people agency in protecting cultural heritage.

“This is yet another example, concrete proof, of the way our government is listening to the needs of Aboriginal people and actively doing something about it,” he says.

About $77 million dollars in state government funding has also been allocated to protecting cultural heritage sites.

Of this, $48 million will go towards creating Local Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Services whose goal is to allow Aboriginal people to be consulted and involved in decision making at a local level.

Dr Buti says the investment in LACHS is a necessary step to integrate the new Act.

“We need a system that is effective, responsive and able to meet the timeframes set out by the new Act to ensure business activities are well supported and progressed and there are no risks to Aboriginal cultural heritage,” he says.

“LACHS will be the mouthpiece – the ‘voice’ – of local Aboriginal knowledge holders.”

The remaining $23 million will go towards the costs of administering the Act, as well as towards already implemented programs to protect Aboriginal cultural heritage sites, including the annual Preserving, Promoting and Protecting Aboriginal Sites grants program.

One recipient of this grant is Aboriginal Corp (JYAC) from WA’s western desert region, which will receive $40,000 this year.

JYAC CEO Tony McCrae says they will use the funding at the Strelley Cemetery in Marble Bar which is the burial ground for members of the Pilbara Aboriginal strike.

“The small grant to JYAC will be used to develop a full concept plan for plot protection and identification, shade, parking and information at the Strelley Cemetery,” he says.

“This is the resting place for many leaders of the Great 1946 Aboriginal Pastoral workers’ strike.”

Mr McRae says protecting and educating people about sites of local Aboriginal history is vital to acknowledging Australia’s past mistakes.

“[The strike] is a story of local, state, national and international importance. It reflects the fight by colonised peoples for justice and equality before the law. It is a story all West Australians should know and can be proud of,” he says.

“Those old people deserve a decent resting place and proper recognition of their courage, wisdom and leadership.”