Heritage angst a pre-poll risk

Headshot of Nick Butterly
Nick ButterlyThe West Australian

The battle over a push for an Aboriginal heritage listing for Broome and surrounding areas is a niggling headache for Aboriginal Affairs Minister Peter Collier.

But that headache threatens to become something much nastier for Mr Collier and the State Government as the issue threatens to spill over into the hothouse of an election campaign.

A quick refresher on how we got here. Back in 2013 the Department of Aboriginal Affairs introduced new, narrower rules on what should be defined as a sacred site.

The guidelines were pushed through amid long-running frustration from miners and business about the backlog of protection assessments.

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The new regime came badly unstuck in April last year when the Supreme Court quashed a decision by the department to deregister a site on land and waters around Port Hedland.

In an embarrassing slapdown, the court found the department should have been taking into account the “mythological” significance of a site. As one lawyer quipped at the time, the department had wrongly been assessing sites only on the basis of what a whitefella could see.

The impact of the ruling was major. The department has since been forced to go back and “reassess” 35 sites for potential Aboriginal heritage listings previously struck out because the mythological component was not properly taken into account.

One of those sites was Broome — WA’s winter playground and a town undergoing a significant amount of new development.

Problem was the department stuffed up the notification to the local community that the Broome assessment was to take place.

The department took out an advertisement in this newspaper declaring it was to assess the site named only as LSC11.

No mention was made of Broome, leading to local conspiracy theories that the department was seeking to list Broome “by stealth”.

Adding to the confusion, the recognised traditional owners of Broome, the Yawuru people, expressed surprise and said they hadn’t asked for an assessment.

The call for the listing is thought have been brought on by the neighbouring Goolarabooloo families, who played a central role in the divisive campaign against the James Price Point gas hub.

After an outcry from locals, the department’s Aboriginal cultural material committee — the ruling body on sacred sites — delayed its assessment of Broome.

It now looks mighty unlikely the assessment will be made before the March State election.

An assessment takes time and money. Possibly up to $20,000 to engage an anthropologist to apply for the necessary ACMC clearance — known as a section 18.

Bureaucrats are said to be quietly telling locals simple suburban developments such as building a pergola or installing a backyard pool won’t need a section 18.

But the problem is no one can say for sure what may or may not damage the mythological significance of a site.

The anger over the reassessment process now threatens to spread like a contagion across the State.

As The West Australian has reported, the Liberal MP for Murray-Wellington, Murray Cowper, fired off a furious note to his party colleagues last month saying he had been inundated by complaints from residents fearful of what a recent listing of the Murray and Hotham rivers might mean.

Strangely, he claimed “ministerial staff” had reassured him no listing would take place — a pretty odd assertion given the process is supposedly independent of the minister.

Mr Collier says he only discovered the listing had been approved when one of his staff checked the department’s website.

There are plenty more sites due for assessment, and some Liberals are warning darkly the issue could snowball into an ugly fight before the election.

Those same voices say if the issue is not resolved, it could see the Liberals bleed more votes to One Nation.

So far, Mr Collier has shown little ability to compromise in this space. His Bill to radically rewrite the assessment process by concentrating most power in the hands of the chief executive of the department was considered so extreme — even by the WA Nationals — it festered on the notice paper for several years.

Mr Collier needs to find a way through to be able to state clearly what the impact of a listing might mean over a suburban area such as Broome.

If he can’t, the Government has a big problem.

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