Aboriginal Affairs Minister Tony Buti has given us all a masterclass on what not to do when introducing significant and new legislation.
The management of the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act 2021 (ACH Act) has been shambolic from start to finish and is now a threat to the goodwill and engagement between stakeholders that will be needed to make it work.
A quick history lesson. The current Act is outdated, written in the 1970’s and needed to be modernised.
There is no argument from the National-Liberal Alliance Opposition, industry, or key stakeholders on the rationale for modernising the Act.
We should have a modern framework for preserving aboriginal cultural heritage – the nation has moved on from since the 1970’s and so should the Act.
As an Opposition, despite the appalling way the Bill was rammed through the Parliament, we agreed that a new Act was required. A repeat of the Juukan Gorge scenario at any scale should be unacceptable to every West Australian.
However, the consequence of the red tidal wave that washed over Western Australia at the last election is that the Labor Government often uses the Parliament as a big rubber stamp. Despite concerns being raised by the Opposition, Labor arrogantly push legislation through with little care or thought to the ramifications.
I want to be very clear that any adverse or unintended consequences that arise from the appalling way this legislation and regulations have been introduced sits squarely on the shoulders of the Minister, Premier and the Labor Government.
After the Act passed in 2021, the Government set about developing the regulations and guidelines to make the legislation operational.
In the education sessions I have attended around the State over the last month, the Department of Planning, Lands and Heritage conceded it has been a challenge to develop complex guidelines and regulations in under twelve months, which was further exacerbated by many stakeholders having a limited understanding of the current and new Act.
That should have rung alarm bells for the Government – their own Department under the pump trying to draft regulations and documents in a knowledge vacuum was always going to deliver a poor outcome.
Instead, Labor pushed on with its self-imposed start-date of 1st July 2023. These regulations and guidelines were published just before Easter 2023 (two months after the Government said they would be available) and a handful of ‘education sessions’ were booked.
The Minister for Aboriginal Affairs told me repeatedly in Parliament that because of the ‘comprehensive consultation process’ Government had used to develop the regulations and guidelines there would be no surprises for industry and a delay in publishing would make no difference.
How wrong and disingenuous he has been on this issue.
The building blocks for the legislation to work effectively are not in place – there are no Local Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Services, guidelines are still being developed less than a week before the start date, and the IT system will only be live and available on 1st July.
With just a week before the start date the Minister announced that project proponents with existing surveys that are less than a decade old will also have another year — up until July 2024 — to secure an agreement with the relevant “Aboriginal party” that no updated assessment is required.
This last-minute reprieve will predominantly benefit the mining industry (who have maintained public support for the legislation and regulations despite serious concerns being raised behind closed doors).
With just two days before the start date the Minister announced an ‘implementation group’ with stakeholders drawn from the mining, property, agriculture, aboriginal and business community. They are being charged with assisting in working through the mess this Government has made of the regulations.
A six-month delay to the start date would have been the cleanest and safest way to introduce the new rules. The implementation group is Labor admitting they got it wrong and scrambling to address community and industry concerns.
None of this is happening in a vacuum. This latest debacle is the last in a long string of attacks against regional communities by Labor Governments – think live export, changes to animal welfare, industrial relations, closure of the native forest industry, attacks on regional education, attempts to shut down the rock lobster industry and raids on regional funding.
My message to those that may be sitting on the sidelines waiting for the tide of Government to turn in their favour, is don’t.
Like your local footy club, P&C and community groups – political parties and industry groups need participation and engagement to help shape and strengthen their advocacy.
They are there to amplify your voice, advocate for your community, and they genuinely want you to be part of shaping an alternative to the city-centric, idealistic view that Labor brings to Government.
At the next State election, it’s vitally important to think about your vote in the Legislative Council. With a deliberate reduction in regional representation country voters will be the check and balance of a sensible Upper House.
If you are a business, an individual, a Councilor, a community group, please find a way to engage and support those doing this work. Use your voice, your experience, your passion to make a difference.
For more information about the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act visit: https://www.wa.gov.au/organisation/department-of-planning-lands-and-heritage/aboriginal-culturalheritage-act-2021.
For information about the work done by the Opposition visit https://www.nationalswa.com/ach/.
For media enquiries please contact Mia Davies on 9041 1702 (Merredin office) 9622 2871 (Northam office) or email email@example.com