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Issue #1715      January 20, 2016

Radioactive racism in the wild west

You’d be forgiven for thinking Western Australia was the Wild West. The announcement from the WA government that it planned to close 150 Aboriginal remote communities came hot on the heels of plans to gut the Aboriginal Heritage Act.

Residents from the Aboriginal community of Oombulgurri, which was closed and demolished by the Western Australian state government.

The changes to the Aboriginal Heritage Act have two main objectives: one is to make it easier for Aboriginal heritage sites on the Aboriginal Heritage Register to be delisted; the other is to make it harder to get Aboriginal heritage sites listed in the first place. One of the key factors in a site getting and staying on the register is proving an ongoing connection to the site – a logistical factor made much harder if people are being forcibly removed from remote communities.

Pastor Geoffrey Stokes, a Wongutha man from Kalgoorlie, was out hunting one day near Mt Margaret when he encountered a mining company, Darlex, literally about to dig into a cave – an Aboriginal heritage site. This particular site had been lodged with the Department of Aboriginal Affairs by the Goldfields Land and Sea Council 23 years earlier – but had not been officially registered. The company was about to destroy the site without having gained permission or consulting with the Aboriginal custodians and had no requirements to do so because the site did not appear on the register. On inquiries made to the Department of Aboriginal Affairs (DAA) about this site, it was revealed that something like 10,000 sites have been lodged but never registered.

This is how the system works. Traditional owners can lodge a site with the DAA and the Department may or may not register it – depending on how busy they are over a period of about two decades. Once it is registered, a mining company can then apply to destroy it anyway, but rest assured that if it’s registered you’ll be consulted about the site’s impending doom. However, if you don’t visit the site regularly, under a changed Aboriginal Heritage Act, it’s likely to be deregistered aka no one is coming to talk to you before they destroy your heritage.

I’m reminded of being at a mining conference in WA where the then Minister for Mines and Petroleum gave a keynote presentation. He ended by inviting everyone to stay around for a raffle – “the prize is a free Aboriginal Heritage clearance.” The miners roared with laughter. The Minister re-used the joke when calling the raffle – allowing us to record this sick joke about the religion and culture of Australia’s first people. When played back to him in Parliament, he scoffed and said it was taken out of context.

Mulga Rocks

Just around the corner from Mt Margaret is Mulga Rocks – the site of the latest uranium mine proposal by a company that has recently changed its name to Vimy Resources. Vimy is like an all-star cast with a former Fortescue Metals Group executive as director, a former Liberal MP on the board of directors and generously funded by Twiggy Forrest. Vimy recently submitted a scoping study for Mulga Rocks, which is near Kalgoorlie and adjacent to the Queen Victoria Springs – an A-Class Nature Reserve.

In submissions made to the scoping study, the DAA provided comment in response to the proposal saying the company should minimise impact to Aboriginal heritage, should consult with the DAA and the Central Desert Native Title Service, and suggesting that some sites may “still be under the protection” of the not-yet-gutted Aboriginal Heritage Act. The company responded: “No Native Title Groups claim the areas and no traditional owners undertake any traditional activities in the area.”

That comment was based on a 1982 “study” by an American anthropologist – using a dubious methodology. The anthropologist just asked around in the nearest town (150 kilometres away), a process that identified at least one family who used to go out, and no further inquiries were made about that family. The family survived and live in the area but are yet to be consulted. Neighbouring communities and interested communities are yet to be consulted and the company refuses to consult, stating the project won’t impact anyone so there’s no need.

The closest community to the proposed Mulga Rocks mine is called Coonana and it has been on the government’s hit list of communities to close down for many years. Slowly but surely the WA government has cut all funding to the community, which is now virtually a ghost town. Coonana is a refugee community – people who have been moved from community to community over generations. Known as the Spinifex people, they came across the border from South Australia following the nuclear weapons tests at Maralinga and Emu Field in the 1950s. The government used to kick Aboriginal people hitching a free ride west off the train, but then had a bright idea: give Aboriginal people a free ride west and get them off the atomic bomb testing sites permanently. The dislocation that began during the atomic bomb tests is very much alive today.

The starving of services at Coonana should sound alarm bells about what this government is capable of doing. At Oombulgurri in the Kimberley, the strategy was to demolish houses: no resettlement, no alternative housing, nothing. As the country tries to heal from centuries of displacement and bad government policy, this government is creating another generation of displaced people.

The plans to shut 150 remote Aboriginal communities are much more secretive – the Premier Colin Barnett has promised consultation but refused an invitation from the Kimberley Land Council to join a joint Land Councils meeting about the closures in early 2015. Proposals to use royalties’ money from the mining industry to meet the funding shortfall have been quashed by the Premier. As the mining boom crashes and the government’s focus is on supporting industry rather than communities, we are expecting further attacks on communities and culture to make it easier and cheaper for mining companies to get projects off the ground.

Discrepancies

In addition to proposed changes to the Aboriginal Heritage Act, the WA government last year released a draft Heritage Bill 2015, covering the protection of all WA heritage sites except Aboriginal sites of significance.

Professor Ben Smith, from the University of WA, and a spokesperson for the Australian Archaeological Association (AAA), told the ABC last August that the discrepancies and contradictions between the two proposed sets of changes were “untenable”. He noted that in the new Heritage Bill, the decision to add or remove a site will remain with the minister for heritage, while in revisions to the Aboriginal Heritage Act the decision will be left with a senior public servant. “We have a watering down of the Aboriginal Heritage Act,” Smith said, “whereas we have continued the strength of non-Aboriginal preservation.”

The AAA also raised concerns about a “tiered approach” to fines for those who damage sites. Smith said under proposed changes to the Aboriginal Heritage Act, an individual found to be damaging an Aboriginal site on their first offence will face a fine of up to $100,000: If a corporate body is found to have damaged a registered Aboriginal site, in the first instance they will be fined up to $500,000, with the maximum penalty of $1 million only levelled for repeat offenders. In contrast, the Heritage Act doesn’t make provision for first and second fines – if an individual or a body corporate damages a piece of non-Indigenous state heritage, they instantly face a $1 million fine.

Smith said: “Why would we want a tiered structure? If you damage any piece of Aboriginal heritage, you are committing a crime of great seriousness, just as if you damage any piece of Australia heritage. Why is one subject to a lesser process? It’s extraordinary in an international context. How will these be perceived by UNESCO?”

Phil Czerwinski, chair of the WA Association of Consulting Archaeologists, said all heritage sites should be treated equally. “We seem to want to protect white fella heritage better than we want to protect black fella heritage,” he said.

A petition against changes to the Aboriginal Heritage Act is posted at: aboriginalheritagewa.com under the latest-news section.

Mia Pepper is the Nuclear Free Campaigner at Conservation Council WA, and Deputy Chair of the Mineral Policy Institute.

First published in the Chain Reaction section of national magazine of Friends of the Earth, Australia, edition # 124, September 2015, foe.org.au/chain-reaction

The Beacon

Next article – Indigenous Grandmothers organise against unjust removals

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