The Tasmanian Aboriginal community and its supporters were outraged over the Aboriginal Heritage Protection Bill that was rushed through the lower house on November 13.
Brian Wightman, minister for environment, parks and heritage, tabled the bill, which will now proceed to the upper house. This bill is intended to replace the outdated and racist Aboriginal Relics Act.
Unfortunately, it maintains some of the worst aspects of the Relics Act. It devolves decision-making power to the minister rather than an Aboriginal body. This means that the government, which is the largest developer in the state, ultimately determines whether Aboriginal heritage is destroyed for a development to proceed.
This led to the approval of the Brighton Bypass in 2009, which was built over an Aboriginal site that dates back more than 30,000 years. Even though the government was the developer, the minister issued the “permit to destroy”.
The Aboriginal body constituted under this act only has the power to “advise” the minister. This is in contrast to the body for non-Aboriginal heritage — the Tasmanian Heritage Council — which is a statutory body, separate from government, which approves development on heritage listed places.
This is the fifth attempt in the past two decades to reform the act so that it protects Aboriginal heritage. Four Greens MPs supported the new bill, including minister for Aboriginal affairs Cassy O’Connor, but Greens MP Kim Booth voted against it.
In voicing her support, O’Connor said the bill would provide a mechanism for protecting areas from logging. Although forestry operations have posed a great threat to Aboriginal heritage, so has government development through road building.
O’Connor voted for the bill because it is “better” than the existing act. The Aboriginal community has expressed concern that O’Connor is pursuing her own agenda, rather than representing Aboriginal interests.
The Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre launched a social media campaign to call for proper protection of Aboriginal heritage.
Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre state secretary Ruth Langford said: “It is with a heavy heart that the Aboriginal community of Tasmania awake this morning. Last night the Green-Labor government chose to introduce a bill that will further remove the community from our cultural birth responsibility and rights to care for and protect our own heritage and culture.
“We are mortified that our community is being forced into an adversarial position rather than a collaborative inclusive approach. We fought hard to ensure that our community was able to participate in a mutually respectful process with ex-premier Ray Groom, yet what the government presented last night disregarded those fundamental recommendations.
“We had great hope that the new Aboriginal heritage legislation would be progressive and would finally acknowledge the sacred connection and relationship Aboriginal people have with our own heritage and culture.
“We have not given up hope of achieving this. We call on the legislative councillors and the people of Tasmania to engage in a mutually respectful process and support the rightful owners of Tasmanian Aboriginal heritage and culture. We need to ‘kill the bill’.”