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Thursday, 11 May 2006
Page: 43

Senator BARTLETT (12:08 PM) —The Democrats likewise support the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Amendment Bill 2005 [2006] but recognise that it is grossly inadequate to meet what is required to ensure proper protection of Indigenous heritage throughout Australia. I associate myself with the minority report of the Environment, Communications, Information Technology and the Arts Legislation Committee. Although I am not a full member of that committee, I certainly concur with the comments contained in the minority report.

It is worth re-emphasising an aspect of what Senator Carr said, which is that it is nearly three years since Senator Hill, as the then environment and heritage minister, gave undertakings that the bill to improve the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island heritage protection legislation would be brought to the Senate as quickly as possible. The minister said that negotiations and consultations were continuing to take place, that the government recognised the shortcomings in the existing systems and that reform of that was long overdue. If it was long overdue in 2003, it is more than long overdue in 2006. It is hard to see the lack of action in this area as anything other than, at best, an inability to get this area out of the too-hard basket and, at worst, a clear indication of continuing contempt for the heritage of the Indigenous people of this nation.

There is a new politically correct sort of approach to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander matters in Australia, in which if you mention at all the history of what Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people have gone through, you are immediately playing up to the guilt industry, adopting a black armband view or keeping Indigenous people mired in a victim mentality. We get all of those sorts of comments from the new politically correct culture warriors. I acknowledge that it can be unhelpful to do nothing other than continually point to past injustices without looking at what needs to be done in the here and now and into the future, but that simple and undeniable piece of commonsense should not be blown out into a blanket refusal to acknowledge the reality of the history and the damage of the consequences of that history.

There is no doubt that one of the aspects that continues to cause significant trauma to many Indigenous Australians is the destruction of their heritage: not just the dispossession but the destruction of and total lack of recognition and contempt shown towards areas of significance and areas that have great value to Indigenous Australians. The fact that we still have an inadequate process in place for protecting that even today just compounds those errors and those wounds of history. That is not to apportion blame, point fingers, smear the history of our nation or any of those things; it is simply to state the fact that everybody cannot deny that actions done to the Indigenous people of this country over the course of the last couple of hundred years have been mentally harmful and have created immense wounds for those Indigenous people, who have nonetheless survived the colonisation of this country.

As part of that we should also recognise that a failure to do anything now to at least ensure that further damage is not done maintains and continues to keep that harm alive. It is not completely unlinked from the comments and the policy approach of this government about practical outcomes for Indigenous people. I fully support any approach that will improve the practical day-to-day lives of Indigenous people. As I have said publicly a number of times, all parties in this place from across the political spectrum have failed the Indigenous peoples of this country, so none of us have a great deal to be proud about. It is not a matter of political positioning or point scoring. It is not a matter of trumpeting an ideology.

I am fully in favour of anything that will have practical, positive results, and I am quite prepared to park ideologies at the door to achieve that. But, as part of that, it has to be acknowledged that linked to practical, positive improvements for Indigenous people is clearly demonstrating that the harm from the past will not continue to be done. The harm that has been caused and is clearly there for anybody who engages with many Indigenous communities around Australia will continue the feeling of injustice and the sense of dispossession that link to some of the problems of despair that many people reflect on. Some of that—not all of it—links back to our refusal as a parliament and as a country to at least acknowledge, and at least take action to ensure that we will not continue to compound, the harms of the past. We have collectively failed to do that, and this government has clearly failed to do that.

The fact that the then minister, Senator Hill, acknowledged three years ago to this chamber that reform was long overdue and that the existing system has shortcomings yet there has been a failure to act on that is a disgrace. I recall some of those negotiations at the time, because there were ongoing negotiations regarding other environment legislation, and I recall the then minister speaking on the Environment and Heritage Legislation Amendment Bill. The attitude towards this issue was always: ‘We’ll get around to that one. We haven’t quite finished the consultations yet. Let’s put this one through and we will fix that one up later.’ I now feel frustrated for having enabled that at the time and for having accepted the minister’s word that action was being taken and something would be done, and we let that go through on the promise that something else would be done. In that sense, I have to accept some responsibility for not doing more to insist at the time that more concrete things be done.

With regard to this area of the legislation, it is clearly a monumental failure on the part of the federal government. Part of why this is needed is that there is not a guarantee of adequate protection at the state level for some of these areas. I point to the current push from the Western Australian government to deny heritage protection for the world’s biggest collection of rock carvings. According to today’s Australian, the Western Australian government has called for the carvings on the Burrup Peninsula and the Dampier Archipelago to be left off the national protection register. The Western Australian National Trust director likened this to England moving Stonehenge for a mine or Egypt selling its pyramids for oil. As Mr Perrigo from the National Trust says, we have something here in Australia older than both of those sites and we are planning to destroy them or damage them.

One of the comments the Prime Minister made a little while ago that I gave public support to, whilst being a bit dubious about what his underlying intent was, related to the fact that we in Australia do not have a good enough understanding of our history. We do not teach our history well enough in schools. We do not have the fabric of our nation’s history adequately represented through many of the other activities of our society. There is a lack of awareness and a lack of knowledge about many aspects of our nation’s history, which I admit to having myself. A clear and undeniable part of that ignorance and lack of knowledge is our nation’s Indigenous history. When we have something that is so rich, so ancient and so unique but our country—purely through lack of awareness or interest—refuses to become aware of it and make it part of the fabric of our nation into the future, that is horrendously inadequate for us, let alone what it says about our attitudes towards Indigenous people. The positive benefits for our nation of appreciating these sites—let alone what it means for Indigenous Australians—means we should be embracing and magnifying so many aspects of our nation’s Indigenous heritage and history. Of course it has some terrible aspects to it, and they have to be part of that narrative for it to be a genuine one, but the negative parts of that narrative are not the only parts of it; the enormous richness and the continuing survival of many aspects of Indigenous culture and heritage are a plus that our whole nation can share in. Sure, it is first and foremost for Indigenous Australians, but it is for our whole nation as we continue to develop and evolve as a nation into the future. It is just insane that we are not grasping this issue, putting maximum protection over these things and promoting them to the world.

Last year I was fortunate enough to visit Ireland as part of a parliamentary delegation. We went to a very old circle grave there called Newgrange. From memory, it is about 6,500 years old. I think it is the oldest continuing stone structure in the world. We have things in Australia—Indigenous sites—that are way older than that and put that in the shade, yet we have so little awareness of them. On top of that, we have inadequate protection of those sites. The Newgrange site is a World Heritage site. Can you imagine that being bulldozed for oil or being picked up or dug up and put somewhere else? Of course not! Yet we as a country, which in its modern form is so young, have this amazing ancient heritage that we do not acknowledge and, worse than that, do not protect. That is a failure at the state level as well as at the federal level. As I said before, it is a failure by all of us.

While this legislation does some small things to upgrade some aspects and bring Victoria into the same mix as other states, it clearly falls short of what is needed. To be left to one-off decisions on the part of the federal minister on the basis of his views is clearly not adequate. There is no doubt that the heritage aspects of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act give very significant powers to the federal minister. It does give powers to others to undertake court action, which they could not do before. The problem is that that is only if the minister chooses to exercise it. Of course, as Senator Carr said, he has famously exercised it with regard to the orange-bellied parrot. I hope the orange-bellied parrot survives as well, although I wonder why he has not done things about some of the other threats to the orange-bellied parrot, such as land clearing in its habitat. I do not know. Perhaps the Indigenous people, amongst all this rock art in Western Australia, have a painting of an orange-bellied parrot and maybe that will make the minister more keen to act to protect it, but it should not be up to the political currents and movements of the day—whether it is a Labor minister, a Liberal minister or a state Labor government in Western Australia making the decisions.

Part of what adds to people’s cynicism is that the Liberal opposition in Western Australia are saying that this is a magnificent site and that it would be a national shame if it were not protected but, when their former leader, Mr Barnett, was resources minister he did not realise the significance of this art, so he did not do enough to protect it either. But he now says, ‘I would have if I had known.’ It is no wonder people like us get cynical and it is certainly no wonder that Indigenous people get cynical when they have cast-iron promises from the minister of the day in this chamber saying, ‘This is long overdue; it’s urgent; we’re doing something about it,’ and nothing happens. Then you get the federal and state people pointing fingers at each other all the time and whenever they are in opposition saying, ‘This is outrageous’; however, when they are in government somehow or other nothing seems to happen.

It is a consistent story and it is obviously not just in this area. But particularly given some of the enormous continued barriers to ongoing advancement of Indigenous Australians that come as a direct result of many of the atrocities and offences committed against them and offensiveness towards them, this is a small part but a part in our continual refusal to do more. I might say that it not only continues the injustices of the past but also in a quite genuine way constitutes one of a number of barriers to the practical advancement that this government talks so much of.

Even from that purely pragmatic, purely economic point of view and to get value for money from the dollars that are being put into this area—such as some of the new programs in the last budget—action on these sorts of things plays a key part. A failure to act on these sorts of things actually makes it less likely that some of these other programs will succeed. It is in all of our interests—not only purely fiscal interests but also the broader, perhaps more intangible, things that we all recognise as part of why we need to protect the heritage aspects of our nation. When we can value heritage sites in Australia that are buildings that are 100 years old, it is beyond me how we can fail to protect structures, paintings or other areas that indicate the presence of the original peoples of this nation, going back thousands and thousands of years. This is an urgent matter, and I would really like to hear a commitment from the government and this current minister to say that they are going to make this priority No. 1. As I said, it was long overdue in 2003—as even the then minister said. It is well and truly past that now.