COMMITTEES - Environment and Communications References Committee - Report

I also want to take note of the Senate Environment and Communications References Committee report on the Aboriginal rock art of the Burrup Peninsula. It needs to be recognised that spiritual connections to land, to country, transcend time and place. The First Nations of Australia hold and care for the oldest cultural history on the planet. In my home state of Western Australia, the Burrup Peninsula and the Dampier Archipelago, in particular, are home to one of the largest and oldest collections of rock art in the world. Within this collection is the world's oldest known artistic record of a human face. It is an embodiment of a profound moment in the evolution of our human species, the moment when somebody, now unknown, first had the idea to portray our human selves in art. His or her family descendants still live in this country.

The Australian Heritage Council reported in 2011 that the rock art collection represents a masterpiece of human creative genius and is one of the most exciting and significant collections of rock engravings in the world. There is no denying the immense and irreplaceable cultural and spiritual significance of this rock art to first-nations people. Country is the beating heart of our spirituality, of our culture and of our heritage. The protection of and caring for country, including this magnificent site, ensures a sense of identity and belonging that permeates through the land—the connections of which lead to better outcomes for individuals and families across the nation. As a nation with such a rich history of culture and tradition, it is time that Australia fully acknowledges the vital need to cherish and celebrate the artefacts which reflect our incredible history. We also must not underestimate the international archaeological and heritage value of such a unique site and our responsibilities, as a global citizen, to care for these places.

I'd like to take this opportunity to sincerely thank the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation for their contribution to this inquiry and for their hospitality when I visited there. The report points to some significant issues that relate to the Burrup and to broader Australian politics. The current lack of an effective and realistic approach to consultation is one example of this government's utter failure to address the needs of first-nations Australians. What is often lacking is community control and the direct involvement of first-nations peoples. Labor believes in the absolute necessity of free, prior and informed consent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and communities in resource management and in conservation decisions. This right is guaranteed under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which Australia has ratified.

I'm deeply concerned and disappointed in the finding that the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation was largely left out of decisions on the management of the Burrup. It is concerning that none of the current board, and only a small number of the elders, were invited to participate in discussions on World Heritage listing eight or 10 years ago. I note the concerns of the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation that a World Heritage listing may change or reduce the ability of the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation to manage the area. We believe that the government must fully consult with the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation and the Murujuga Circle of Elders to make sure that any future consideration of World Heritage listing for Murujuga is led by the traditional owners of Murujuga. The Indigenous Murujuga Rangers play an integral and authoritative role in the management and protection of the Murujuga but, regrettably, have no power of enforcement. All enforcement power currently solely lies with the Western Australian national parks rangers. If we are serious about ensuring protection of country, Aboriginal rangers need the authority to act when things aren't being done properly in their country. I note that the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation and the Western Australian government are developing a feasibility study for a multipurpose Murujuga Living Knowledge Centre in or near the park. This is an important initiative which potentially enhances social and economic benefits.

There are significant technical issues, as Senator Siewert raised in her report. In particular, Professor John Black and his colleagues have undertaken a comprehensive review of the CSIRO reports on damage to the sites caused by industrial emissions. Professor Black's findings indicate major flaws in the works undertaken by the CSIRO on behalf of the Western Australian government. The evidence is clear that the analysis of rock art monitoring between 2004 and 2014 did not include adequate statistical analysis and that the measurements that were taken were unreliable. The colour of the rock art has changed some 13 per cent over 13 years—a major concern for the preservation of the significant rock art.

The consequences of disregarding the damage being caused to the rock art are irreversible, and a new monitoring program is overdue. As Labor senators, we believe that this should be a priority for the Western Australian government and, if necessary, for the Commonwealth government as well. The views and recommendations tabled in this report speak to an imperative need to engage in partnerships to protect country that recognise and respect the rights of the first-nations peoples in the region. We have a rare and phenomenal opportunity to take on the obligation to protect, celebrate and cherish these artefacts on behalf of the whole world, including our own nation.

In understanding the importance of protecting the Burrup Peninsula and working towards a united nation that celebrates and benefits from such ancient and wondrous culture, we must learn to talk together, walk together and, beyond all, experience country together. The Burrup Peninsula is home to one of the oldest, most concentrated and culturally significant galleries of rock art on the earth. It captures the contrast between the rampant industrial development and the struggles of First Nations to retain Indigenous heritage and to maintain their living culture.

The Burrup is a stunning and powerful place. The vibrant red rocks against the blue ocean and the sky, and the trees that surround it, are reminders of our beautiful country and the role we must play in protecting it. I commend this report and trust it contributes to the protection of this site, this country and the First Nations who care for it on our behalf.

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