Parliament Updates

Zali Steggall MP endorses the Juukan Gorge report that pushes for further inquiries and action

2 February, 2021


I rise to speak on the interim report to the inquiry into the destruction of 46,000-year-old caves at the Juukan Gorge in the Pilbara region of Western Australia delivered by the Joint Standing Committee on Northern Australia. The report is appropriately titled Never again. The events—that disregard for such human history—shocked Australia and, I should say, the world.

On 24 May 2020, Rio Tinto detonated explosives in the sacred sites of the Indigenous Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people. The Juukan Gorge rock shelters were the location of their ceremonies and the sacred sites for the storage of artefacts for 46,000 years. This is a great loss to the world and to the history of civilisation. The shelters demonstrated one of the longest periods of continuous habitation on the planet. They showed that Indigenous Australians had lived in that place since before the last Ice Age.

The Juukan Gorge rock shelters were clustered around a perpetual source of fresh water in an otherwise parched landscape. In great symbolism of the intersection of the physical world and the spiritual world of the Indigenous custodians of the land, with the destruction of the cultural sites that occurred, that water source has now run dry.

As Australians, we need to celebrate our rich history. Indigenous Australians, through the Uluru Statement from the Heart, have invited us to share in this history and walk with them on a path to reconciliation. I commend the thorough approach taken by the committee and the unanimous support for the recommendations. It was a shameful day for Australia when this was allowed to happen, and it was a failure of government that there was no step taken along the way that prevented this disaster.

I fully support the seven recommendations in this report and urge the federal and Western Australian state government to implement each of them in full. I urge the mining companies to take heed. I also urge the mining companies to fulfil their responsibilities of restoration and reparation under the report, noting that nothing can ever replace the loss of heritage of artefacts some 46,000 years old. I encourage the mining companies and traditional custodians impacted by this report to engage in productive conversations.

The work needs to continue. It does not end with this report. We know that there are many more sites under risk of further acts of destruction, and so more needs to be done. The report highlights the weaknesses of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act. The authors of the report labelled the latter 'virtually moribund'. To think we have allowed such vital legislation to provide such limited protection for the past 30 plus years is devastating. The report also focuses heavily on the Western Australian legislation, specifically, section 18 of their Aboriginal Heritage Act, where land users may receive permission to destroy sites where they conclude that impact to the site is unavoidable. The report highlights the confusion in governance and accountability for protection of these sites at a federal level, with the overlapping responsibilities between the Minister for the Environment and the Minister for Indigenous Affairs. I know I've raised with both ministers how the Juukan Gorge explosion could possibly have been allowed to happen, and I urge both ministers to do a review and implement the necessary changes to ensure this never happens again.

I also feel there is a deep disregard for the voice of traditional owners under section 18 of the WA Aboriginal Heritage Act, in the gag orders placed on those impacted by section 18 and by the fact that there is no right of repeal. It should be noted that there are currently many, many sites under section 18 approval. So they are at risk of destruction.

Despite this report, less than three weeks after its delivery we learnt of the approval of exploratory drilling in Lake Torrens in South Australia. Described as the South Australian Juukan Gorge by the Native Title Council, an exemption was granted under section 23 of the South Australian Aboriginal heritage laws to permit drilling on the lake, to the understandable outrage of the four Aboriginal nations with claims to the sacred site. Email correspondence obtained by the ABC reveals that almost every Aboriginal person consulted on the project opposed it. This is yet another example where the voices of traditional owners are being ignored and where dangerous exploration and actions are being permitted on traditional land. Interesting also is that the company authorised to conduct the drilling there, in Lake Torrens, received a $320,000 grant to conduct the drilling mid-last year from the government, while the approval was only granted in December, and this was announced quietly between Christmas and New Year's Eve. So there are clearly questions of transparency in the situation with Lake Torrens. I urge the committee, in the next phase of its inquiry, to expand its considerations to other states and territories beyond Western Australia, to consider the interactions between state and federal law in each jurisdiction and ensure we have a best-practice approach to preserving and safeguarding our Indigenous heritage, artefacts and sacred sites. We need to celebrate all of our history.

Part of the issue that we face in Australia is a lack of awareness, respect and celebration of the deep cultural heritage of Indigenous people around Australia. Elsewhere in the world, museums are abound with artefacts of indigenous cultural heritage, yet in Australia we are sorely lacking. There is no national Indigenous museum. Many of the artefacts recovered from mining sites and developments, to date, sit in shipping containers, in the offices of mine sites and companies in capital cities. There is no protocol to ensure they are properly kept and preserved. There is no protocol to ensure that they are returned to traditional owners. We need to store these artefacts properly, highlight their significance, build awareness through education and celebration of our rich cultural history. If they cannot be returned to their traditional owners, there needs to be a national ossuary. Through elevation of the history and stories of Indigenous heritage, we will build respect and learn to take responsibility as a nation for the rich cultural heritage developed over tens of thousands of years.

I call on the Minister for Indigenous Australians to progress how we are dealing with this, for the development of a national ossuary for these artefacts and remains that are not able to be restored to their original country or nation, to develop a set of protocols for the storage and keeping of artefacts recovered from mine sites, for the establishment of a national Indigenous museum, and I say to the minister: we need to progress on the Uluru Statement from the Heart. There is strong support for a voice to parliament.

If this is being held up by voices within the party room, look to the whole chamber for support. It is time for reconciliation to happen. For that, we need to listen to Indigenous people, and they need a voice. I strongly support the Uluru Statement from the Heart and urge the government to act on this.

Debate adjourned.