Controversial WA cultural heritage laws dumped in backflip

The West Australian government has axed controversial month-old cultural heritage laws following widespread anger among the farming community.

Premier Roger Cook announced the backflip after days of talks with stakeholders that revealed the legislation was too complex.

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“The laws went too far, were too prescriptive, too complicated, and placed unnecessary burdens on everyday West Australian property owners,” he told reporters on Tuesday.

“We will restore the original act from 1972 with some simple and effective amendments.”

Cook apologised, saying the government had got the “balance wrong” and it was time to end the confusion and allow a reset on the issue.

The West Australian government has scrapped controversial laws designed to protect Aboriginal cultural heritage following months of anger among farmers. Credit: AAP

He said the amendments to the old laws would prevent another Juukan Gorge incident.

“Importantly, all property owners can continue to operate and manage their property,” he said.

“Just like they have for the past few years, without any fear of unknowingly disrupting cultural heritage sites.”

Under the proposed changes, the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Council will make recommendations to the Aboriginal Affairs Minister.

Cook said the system would be fairer and simpler and reintroduce section 18 ministerial approvals, with landholders and native titleholders given the same right of review.

“The concept of local Aboriginal cultural heritage services or LACHS will not continue,” he said.

The destruction of ancient Juukan Gorge rock shelters in the Pilbara triggered the legislation. Credit: AAP

The government will also undertake, with landowners’ consent, periodic surveys of unsurveyed areas in high-priority areas of the state over the next decade.

The surveys will then be centrally held and published by the government for the benefit of the state.

It ends days of speculation after the government reportedly foreshadowed the decision at a briefing with big resources companies and Indigenous groups last week.

Cook denied the federal government had pressured it to abandon the new laws but said he had briefed Prime Minister Anthony Albanese about the decision on Monday.

“What I’m trying to do is make sure that we are a government that listens … to the concerns of the community,” he said.

The 2021 Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act laws came into effect on July 1, after the government resisted calls from pastoralists and the opposition to delay their introduction.

The new laws had caused widespread anger among the farming community. Credit: 7NEWS

The new system had abolished the Section 18 approvals process and placed an emphasis on agreements between land users and traditional owners.

But there were deep concerns about the compliance requirements, some of which were only made clear days before the laws came into effect.

The 1972 law allowed the state’s Aboriginal affairs minister to grant land users permission to disturb cultural heritage sites.

Attorney-General John Quigley said the amendments to the 51-year-old laws would be raised in state parliament later on Tuesday.

About 500 farmers rallied on the steps of WA parliament after the decision was announced.

WA Farmers president John Hassell said the decision was a good outcome because the laws were not workable.

‘Terrible outcome’

He said the aim of the 2021 legislation had been to protect Australian cultural heritage but it had turned citizen on citizen.

“That is a terrible, terrible outcome of this legislation,” he said of the 2021 Act.

He said farmers had been fearful to make changes on their land under the laws.

“We should be able to develop our land to do the jobs that we need to do to make a living … whilst still protecting cultural heritage,” he said.

Hassell said the 1972 legislation was also problematic and “there is still a long way to go”.

The 46,000-year-old Juukan Gorge rock shelters in the Pilbara region were destroyed by Rio Tinto in 2020.

The incident, which had ministerial approval, sparked global condemnation and devastated traditional owners. It also triggered the legislation abolished on Tuesday.

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