New heritage legislation: "Not for us" says ATSIC
The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission has rejected the Howard government's proposed legislation dealing with the protection of heritage and has demanded changes to protect a broader range of community interests, especially indigenous heritage. ATSIC is gravely concerned that the significance of Aboriginal sites would be assessed against limited and Eurocentric criteria, and that the legislation flies in the face of recommendations from expert government heritage committees. It noted that: "In framing the provisions on indigenous matters, the Bills disregard recommendations flowing from the National Heritage Convention (1998) and the Evatt Review of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act (1966). ATSIC is one of a long list of organisations and individuals who have expressed opposition to the legislation as likely to weaken the existing level of protection for sites and property of significance to Aboriginal people and to a wide range of cultural groupings within the Australian community. Under the new laws, the powers and role of the new Heritage Council would be greatly reduced, compared to those of the existing Heritage Commission. This would affect not only well-known sites of major importance, such as Uluru and the Sydney Opera House, but thousands of other sites that are also important, albeit less well-known or in some cases virtually unknown to the public. Deficient ATSIC is arguing that the Bills are particularly deficient in regard to consultation with Aboriginal people about the framing and operation of the legislation, and that sites of importance to Aboriginal people will be devoid of protection for a period prior to the introduction of the new legislation. ATSIC Commissioner Preston Thomas has noted that in the Kalgoorlie area alone there are 19 sites listed for inclusion on the Register of the National Estate and has expressed concern about the vulnerability of these sites. Since the Howard Government came to power, there has been an increasing tendency for government bodies to hand down responsibility for the protection of important sites to the next level of government. This has led to a general loss of official recognition of the significance of many sites or the deliberate downgrading of legislative protection and, in some cases, loss of physical evidence of the sites altogether. Last year a mayor of one Sydney local government area announced with evident satisfaction that he had removed sixty sites from the list of those within his local government area which were recommended by an expert committee as worthy of protection. Commonwealth responsibility The Commission has called for the Commonwealth to maintain its prime responsibility for the protection of heritage places, and for it to set standards for other levels of government to follow, rather than to abdicate those responsibilities altogether. ATSIC commented that "There is a further erosion of indigenous rights in the proposed handover of Commonwealth responsibilities for indigenous rights to the States and Territories. The Commonwealth must honour its obligations to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples under Section 5.1(26) of the Constitution and maintain adequate standards of accreditation." Finally, the Commission and other organisations have expressed dismay that the new legislation is likely to turn the new Australian Heritage Council into a creature of the Federal Government and the Minister. Under the new regime, decisions on inclusion of sites on a National Heritage List, which are now made by an expert committee, would be made by the Minister alone, who would have wide discretionary powers. ATSIC has called for the legislation to be altered so that entry of places on the Register of the National Estate is not subject to Ministerial intervention and any proposed removals from the Register has to be the subject of Parliamentary assessment and debate. Last week ATSIC stated that "... membership and the qualifications of any members on an Australian Heritage Council should reflect the underlying goal to protect Australia's heritage, the regional nature of indigenous representation and (should) also include elected members of the ATSIC Board and not be limited to Ministerial appointments. The Australian Heritage Council should also be properly resourced to effectively exercise its heritage identification and protection functions impartially. The ATSIC statement concluded: "Unless the Senate Committee can effect major changes to the legislation to overcome these concerns, ATSIC believes there is no option but to call for the legislation to be rejected.