Ex-Rio boss among WA heritage bill critics

Former Rio Tinto CEO Sam Walsh has urged the WA government to withdraw its Aboriginal heritage bill.
Former Rio Tinto CEO Sam Walsh has urged the WA government to withdraw its Aboriginal heritage bill.

Former Rio Tinto chief executive Sam Walsh has backed calls for the West Australian government to withdraw its contentious Aboriginal heritage legislation.

The new Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Bill was introduced to parliament earlier this month and sailed through the lower house days later. It is assured of passing the upper house in coming weeks given Labor's control of the parliament.

Critics say the government has ignored the concerns of Indigenous groups by retaining the ultimate decision-making power on the destruction of cultural heritage sites, as well as limiting the appeal options available to land owners.

More than 100 eminent Australians have signed an open letter urging Premier Mark McGowan to go back to the drawing board and co-design new laws with Aboriginal people.

Among them are leading health researcher Fiona Stanley, former WA premier Carmen Lawrence and Indigenous academic Marcia Langton.

Mr Walsh, who led Rio from 2013 to 2016 and now sits on the board of the Banjima Native Title Aboriginal Corporation, is another notable signatory.

The prominent WA businessman was long gone by the time Rio blew up the 46,000-year-old Juukan Gorge rock shelters last year, although the company's dealings with traditional owners in the preceding years have also been criticised.

He claimed to have instructed colleagues in 2013 or 2014 that the Juukan area should not be mined, although Rio said it found no evidence to support this.

"The law needs to ensure Aboriginal knowledge holders have access to an independent appeal process," Mr Walsh said on Tuesday in relation to the new WA legislation.

Banjima elder Slim Parker said Indigenous people had been "dominated and controlled by racist and discriminatory policy and legislation."

The bill replaces the outdated Aboriginal Heritage Act which enabled Rio's destruction of the Juukan caves.

It removes the old Section 18 approvals process for damaging sites and places emphasis on negotiation through new cultural heritage management plans.

Where agreements cannot be reached, the final say will go to the Aboriginal affairs minister, currently upper house MP Stephen Dawson.

Indigenous groups had only been shown the final legislation the night before its introduction to parliament.

Industry super fund Hesta has also criticised the bill, saying it confirms the need for greater federal oversight of cultural heritage protection.

The federal government this week announced a new working partnership with the First Nations Heritage Protection Alliance, but it's unclear whether it will lead to the strengthening or rewriting of Commonwealth heritage laws.

WA's government insists its new bill will ensure the principles of free, prior and informed consent are embedded in negotiations between land users and traditional owners.

If proponents have investigated alternative options to damaging sites, they must disclose this to land owners.

Miners and other land users must also report any new information that arises about sites.

Australian Associated Press