The Guardian March 14, 2001


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.

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