Video: “Baker: Government is ‘undermining the rule of law’ by not consulting MPs” (Evening Standard)
The national body representing hundreds of mining and mineral exploration companies in Australia has told a parliamentary inquiry it would be “overreach” to strengthen federal laws to protect Aboriginal heritage.
But at the same hearing into Rio Tinto’s destruction of a 46,000-year-old sacred site at Juukan Gorge, the Law Council of Australia argued the opposite, saying there was an “an urgent need” for federal government leadership on Indigenous cultural heritage protection.
The law council said the commonwealth needed to ensure state and territory laws enshrined important principles such as self-determination and free, prior and informed consent of Aboriginal traditional owners.
Related: Rio Tinto kept loading explosives at Juukan Gorge after promising to stop, traditional owners say
The Australian Mining and Exploration Council (Amec), which represents more than 275 companies in regional and remote Australia, said the current legal system provided enough protection and could even be streamlined.
Amec’s chief executive, Warren Pearce, said the industry wanted to avoid duplication and the cost of complying with two heritage regimes.
But while Pearce said the federal government should take a hands-off approach to heritage legislation, he criticised its hands-off approach to supporting native title bodies, which has led to “chronic underfunding” and “suboptimal outcomes”.
Pearce was “very aware” that Amec members were reviewing all the current approvals they had been given by the WA government to destroy Aboriginal heritage after the Juukan gorge disaster, in order to re-engage with traditional owners.
“Juukan Gorge was an extreme example,” Pearce said. “In the vast majority of cases that does not take place.
“There are thousands of heritage sites under management, being avoided, and without disturbance, for which [section 18] approvals [which allow companies to interfere with heritage sites] have been given but not actioned.”
When asked whether hundreds of sites that are under s18 – about which traditional owners are unable to speak up due to legacy agreements which contain so-called gag clauses – may have been destroyed, or are still at risk, Pearce said: “I can’t deny that possibility.”
The law council said there was a “wide structural disconnect” between state and federal laws, which have “failed to incorporate recognition of the rights of First Nations peoples to land and waters”.
“These regimes have not kept pace with the paradigmatic change precipitated by the high court’s decision in Mabo,” its president, Pauline Wright, said.
The chair of its Indigenous committee, Tony McAvoy SC, said the commonwealth should “show leadership and adopt principles of free prior and informed consent, and acknowledge native title holders’ right to protect heritage” as a minimum.
But McAvoy also said it may be better to “start