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Tuesday, 22 November 2011
Page: 9128

Mining


Senator SIEWERT (Western AustraliaAustralian Greens Whip) (14:21): My question is to the Minister representing the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, Senator Conroy. My question is about the development of the Solomon Firetail mines by the Fortescue Metals Group and the protection of Yindjibarndi sites in the Pilbara in Western Australia. On 11 March 2011, the Yindjibarndi people were notified of the discovery of a cache of skeletal remains in FMG's Firetail mining priority area. The Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation elders visited this site and confirmed the bones were human. On 24 August and on 3 October more remains were discovered. When did the minister first become aware of the existence of these sites and what actions did he take when he became aware of these remains, if he in fact was aware of the remains?


Senator CONROY (VictoriaMinister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on Digital Productivity) (14:21): I thank the senator for her question. I am advised that the federal government will carefully consider the matters raised in the request for it to protect Aboriginal sites and objects within the Fortescue Metals Solomon Hub project area. Under the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984, the environment minister can make declarations to stop activities that could injure or desecrate areas and objects that are of particular significance in accordance with Aboriginal tradition.

I am advised that some Yindjibarndi people have asked Minister Burke to use emergency powers under that act to prevent what they claim is the destruction of sacred sites at the Fortescue Metals Solomon Hub project in the Pilbara. The federal environĀ­ment department will carefully consider the matters raised in that request. As part of the legal process, all interested parties will be consulted to provide natural justice. This will include giving traditional owners, native title holders and the company the opportunity to comment on the evidence that will come before Minister Burke for a decision.

As the application is the subject of a legal decision-making process, it would not be appropriate to comment on the issue further. That includes commenting on specific documentation which may be relevant to the matters raised in the request. Minister Burke will make a decision on the matter when he receives advice from his department. I am advised that the government is not in a position at this point to set a time line for how long that process may take. However, given that the application involves subĀ­stantial documentation, it will take some time to carefully consider the matters raised. I understand that Minister Burke has agreed to meet with the traditional owners to listen to their concerns.


Senator SIEWERT (Western AustraliaAustralian Greens Whip) (14:23): I thank the minister for the outline of the process that will be used. In fact, he has pre-empted my second question. However, he did not answer my first question, so I will re-ask it. When did the minister become aware of the skeletal remains on this site? Was he aware of them before he received that emergency application? If he was not aware, what processes did the department or the minister use to understand his portfolio and these very important heritage related issues?


Senator CONROY (VictoriaMinister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on Digital Productivity) (14:24): I am advised that the application for heritage protection of Aboriginal sites and objects was received on 18 November 2011. A media release from those involved on 7 November 2011 called on Minister Burke to use his emergency powers to protect Aboriginal heritage sites in the Pilbara. Fortescue Metals, in a media release of 7 November 2011, rejected the claims that it is unlawfully impacting Aboriginal heritage. I think that covers most of it, but just in case there is anything additional I am happy to take it on notice and see if there is anything the minister would like to add.


Senator SIEWERT (Western AustraliaAustralian Greens Whip) (14:25): That would be appreciated. Mr President, I ask a further supplementary question. The Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation recently publicly released a letter from the principal archaeologist hired by FMG raising concerns about the veracity of a March 2011 archaeological report. Is the minister aware of this letter? If so, what steps, if any, is he taking to address the issues raised in the letter?


Senator CONROY (VictoriaMinister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on Digital Productivity) (14:25): I take it you are talking about Eureka Heritage. I am advised that the government is aware of this letter, but the environment department does not know at this point whether the letter was included in the request for emergency protection. I understand that the application involved around 500 pages of information and that it will take some time to process that documentation. However, I do understand that at any point the applicants can provide additional information to the department. As the application is the subject of a legal decision-making process it would not be appropriate to comment on the issue in further detail at this point, and that includes commenting on specific documentation which may be relevant to the matters raised in the request. Again, if there is anything further that I can provide, I will take that on notice and see if the minister would like to provide any further information.