The Juukan Gorge destruction was not a one-off incident and will happen again unless Australia significantly strengthens cultural protection laws.
Federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek made the call ahead of the government releasing its response to a parliamentary report on the destruction of the Western Australian rock shelters, more than a year after an inquiry recommended a major overhaul of relevant laws.
In May 2020, mining giant Rio Tinto blew up the 46,000-year-old Juukan caves in Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura country, devastating traditional owners.
A global backlash ensued and the company parted ways with its chief executive and other senior executives.
But Ms Plibersek pointed out the mining company had legal permission to destroy the caves under WA’s outdated Aboriginal Heritage Act, although Rio Tinto later did concede its actions breached the trust of traditional owners.
“The destruction of Juukan Gorge was legal under the laws as they exist at the moment and it was completely wrong, but it shows how weak the laws are,” she told the ABC.
“We will sit down with the First Nations Heritage Protection Alliance and co-design stronger laws to give better protection to Aboriginal cultural heritage.”
Last year, the federal parliamentary committee that examined the cultural disaster found there were problems with heritage laws and criticised the WA government for a lack of engagement.
Following consultation with traditional owners and other stakeholders, the committee’s report recommended major changes to federal laws.
The report also urged amendments to laws to give responsibility for all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural heritage matters to the Minister for Indigenous Australians, rather than the environment minister.
“The current law was written in 1984 … There’s been a few changes along the way but certainly not nearly enough to give the sort of cultural heritage protection we need to have in Australia,” Ms Plibersek said.
“When those beautiful Buddhas were destroyed by the Taliban (in Afghanistan in 2001), there was international outcry … the Juukan Gorge destruction is similarly significant, but it happened because of the weaknesses of our laws.”
The government has agreed in principle to seven recommendations.
The committee also called for the mining company to face a judicial inquiry and potential criminal charges.