Aboriginal Heritage Amendment Bill 2015

Written on the 3 May 2016

22 March 2016


Second reading 

GEORGIE CROZIER (LIB - Southern Metropolitan)

I am very pleased to be able to rise and speak to the Aboriginal Heritage Amendment Bill 2015 this afternoon.

I note that it has been some time since the bill was introduced into the Parliament, but nevertheless there is and has been ongoing bipartisan support for acknowledging Aboriginal cultural heritage. Members in the other place have spoken on this bill highlighting the very significant impact that Aboriginal heritage and culture has on not only the Victorian community but also the Australian community.

The purpose of this bill is to amend the Aboriginal Heritage Act 2006 to improve the reporting requirements in relation to Aboriginal cultural heritage, to include provisions regarding Aboriginal intangible heritage, to establish an Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Fund and to further protect and further strengthen Aboriginal cultural heritage.

Many aspects of the bill extend the work that was previously undertaken by the former coalition government in looking at these issues. I would like to highlight one of the speakers who spoke in the Legislative Assembly on this particular bill, the Honourable Tim Bull, who happened to be the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs for part of the coalition government's term. He also represents parts of Victoria where he is very well respected, and he understands the bill's implications for the Aboriginal community which he represents in far eastern Victoria.

Tim Bull was also a member of the Environment and Natural Resources Committee, which undertook an inquiry into the establishment and effectiveness of registered Aboriginal parties. Its report was tabled in November 2012. This bill very much builds on the exposure draft released following the conclusion of that inquiry. I would like to read into this debate the terms of reference around which that inquiry was undertaking its work, because it goes to the heart of what we are talking about this afternoon. The inquiry was asked to consider a number of areas, including:

(a)    Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Council policies in relation to the appointment of registered Aboriginal parties including the factors that should be taken into account by the council in making a decision such as:

(i)    the degree to which traditional ownership is contested in the area the subject of an application;

(ii)   the impact that decisions may have on the community;

(iii)  the capacity of the applicant to fulfil legislative responsibilities if appointed;

(iv)  the process used to determine and identify the successful registered Aboriginal party

known as RAPs

(b)   the support available to the council in making decisions about the appointment of registered Aboriginal parties including:

(i)    membership and structure of the council;

(ii)   council's capacity to inquire into matters relevant to applications, including supporting applicants to provide information needed to fully assess applications; and

(c)    the effectiveness of the established registered Aboriginal parties.

Throughout the writing of this report, as the chair highlighted, the committee undertook significant consultation. It moved around the state, and it received some 70 submissions from Aboriginal organisations, Aboriginal community members, government agencies and various consultants involved in heritage aspects. Committee members also travelled to New Zealand to see the implications of Maori heritage. As someone who has been to New Zealand as many members would have and seen the Maori heritage in New Zealand parliaments and how they undertake the management of Maori heritage, I think it is very commendable. They do it extremely well.

Throughout the report there are a number of very relevant issues around the various processes for Aboriginal heritage protection in Victoria. If you look at the definitions of heritage, it goes back for many, many years obviously; we have had cultural and heritage aspects throughout Australia for tens of thousands of years. Of course in Victoria Aborigines have resided, lived and had communities here for tens of thousands of years. In relation to the definitions of what I am referring to, Aboriginal heritage refers to:

A distinct part of Australian heritage, covering all manner of intangible and tangible heritage forms (including human remains) considered by Aboriginal people to be of significance and worthy of protection and preservation.

The intangible heritage that they are talking about includes 'songs, folklore, oral poetry, stories, languages and customs'. I suppose when I am reflecting on that I automatically think of the Dreamtime and all those stories that you hear from the Aboriginal Dreamtime and the many beautiful aspects that have evolved from the Dreamtime. As we know, that is very significant in northern parts of Australia, but nevertheless it is an interesting element of what cultural heritage means to Aboriginal peoples. It is certainly very significant in respect of the piece of legislation we are speaking about today.

Heritage includes 'places, objects, landscapes and other cultural matters, both tangible and intangible, considered of significance in the present and worthy of preservation into the future'. Tangible heritage can also include things like 'objects, sacred or ceremonial items, buildings, monuments, materials and landscapes'. When we are talking about cultural heritage, it is all those items that need to be considered in this particular piece of legislation.

We do acknowledge the traditional owners on a weekly basis when we are in here, and there are members of our community who expect that to occur and feel very strongly that that cultural heritage is very much a part of their being and their make-up. In terms of what it means to them, it is extremely significant. So giving weight to that acknowledgement, that respect and that understanding has been developed over time, and certainly this bill is building on the 2006 act. As I said, there were many findings in the inquiry back in 2012, when the exposure draft was put out, which are being recognised in the bill we are debating today.

There were a number of concerns and issues that were raised throughout the process of the inquiry in relation to the various elements around the appointment of registered Aboriginal parties, the councils and how that would all be formulated. I think many of those issues have been resolved, but nevertheless there will be some ongoing concerns in relation to how that may be managed in respect of the council having the necessary resources and not being constrained in acknowledging and managing those various cultural elements that they have responsibility for.

The issue was also raised by the Scrutiny of Acts and Regulations Committee (SARC), which undertook some work in relation to this particular piece of legislation as well. I note that SARC asked the minister to provide some clarification on a number of areas, and that that was undertaken. There was quite an extensive review by SARC, which I think was very helpful in providing some clarification around certain elements of the bill, and the minister's response to the committee's chairperson clarified some of those areas that were raised. I refer to the specifics around section 21A to be inserted by the bill, where clarification had been sought. Alert Digest No. 15 of 2015 states:

Section 21A clarifies the intent that secret and sacred Aboriginal objects are no longer able to be lawfully owned by individuals or state entities other than in accordance with Aboriginal tradition.

Much of this is about those various objects and how, if they are found, they are to be appropriately placed in a culturally sensitive facility where that respect and acknowledgement of cultural elements can be rightly identified by Aboriginal persons and be understood by the broader Victorian community. As I said, these objects have significant worth and value, but I do not know how anyone can equate a value with them. In many cases extraordinary Aboriginal pieces can be discovered by mistake, and it is right that they be acknowledged and understood by Aboriginal people and placed in an appropriate museum or culturally sensitive housing so that that particular object can be protected for the future.

In relation to the need for protection of Aboriginal culture and heritage, it is vital to the very existence of Aboriginal people that that culture and heritage be recognised and identified. This is about the sense of belonging to country, and that is why we have welcome to country ceremonies at many formal proceedings and the acknowledgement of Aboriginal heritage is undertaken widely across the country.

I think it is fair to say that we are very fortunate in Australia to have such a unique and extraordinary culture, one of the longest known to civilisation, in terms of our Indigenous peoples. Some reports say that Aboriginal culture goes back tens of thousands of years. When I was reading about how long Aboriginal culture has been in existence I found various claims that the Dreamtime and other serpent mythology have been around for 7000 years, and that can be witnessed in some of those magnificent Aboriginal artworks in northern Australia in Kakadu and other places. The age of those works is quite extraordinary. Those visible works are one part of Aboriginal culture, but of course I have referred to the Dreamtime and the serpent mythology and other beliefs that Aboriginal people have.

This piece of legislation establishes the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Fund, which will provide funds for certain things that need to be undertaken and protected. The funds can be used for the purposes of land management agreements and having various Aboriginal officers in place to be able to oversee what is important to Aboriginal peoples and the broader Victorian community.

The bill goes on to talk about various other elements, such as looking at promoting greater respect for culturally sensitive material. The bill replaces references to Aboriginal human remains with Aboriginal ancestral remains. As I said, various other aspects of the bill go to definition terms or references to how the bill represents and looks at what is important to Aboriginal people.

Going back to what previous governments have done, I know that in the early 1970s some initial legislation was brought in to look at Aboriginal identity and various other elements of cultural and heritage means, and then further work was done in the 1980s. Certainly the Aboriginal Heritage Act 2006, which this bill amends, really gave meaning to the cultural aspects of Aboriginal peoples.

The coalition government obviously was very cognisant of this and, as I said, had done significant work on that. There were some other reforms that were undertaken during the term of the coalition government that particularly relate to Aboriginal Victorians. There was a large degree of consultation across the Aboriginal community, and I think that has been reflected in the debate and acknowledgement by other speakers of the work that was undertaken and the very close relationships and levels of understanding of former ministers. I am sure that the current government is maintaining those relationships to ensure that Aboriginal cultural heritage can be maintained.

Very proudly I think the coalition government undertook some firsts in relation to Aboriginal aspects. It was certainly the establishment of the Victorian Indigenous Honour Roll, which was the first of its kind in Australia. The honour roll recognises the contributions and achievements of outstanding Aboriginal men and women who have made a contribution to the state of Victoria. That was certainly a first, and it was certainly well overdue. It should have been done some time ago, and the coalition very proudly undertook that initiative. There was a significant contribution in the 2014 state budget for the honour roll and for schools, which was an initiative to provide curriculum materials for schools which recognise the positive achievements of Aboriginal Victorians.

The coalition government in 2014 also delivered the Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Council's strategic plan, with recommendations for change. Bringing our Ancestors Home We will not be well until this is done is the name of that report, which outlines the council's recommendations for changes to the Aboriginal Heritage Act 2006, which we are discussing today. It was very important that that particular report look at the issue of ancestral remains, and certainly this bill focuses a lot on that very element. It is about the appropriate placement of those ancestral remains where they should finally be stored or put.

In an area that is my responsibility, child protection, I have to acknowledge the work of the former minister, Mary Wooldridge, in appointing the very first commissioner for Aboriginal children and young people, Mr Andrew Jackomos, who has been doing some very good work in relation to the needs and the particular disadvantage issues that are constantly raised about Indigenous children.

Taskforce 1000, which was set up under the former government, specifically looked at the needs of Aboriginal children and young people in care. As I say that, I note that a review was to take place, and I know the minister has alluded a number of times in this place to the status of that task force. I note that in the house only a few weeks ago in answer to a question about Taskforce 1000 the minister commended the Victorian commissioner for Aboriginal children and young people, Mr Andrew Jackomos, for his tireless work in looking at the outcomes of about 1000 children in out-of-home care. The minister said:

We have hired nine specialist workers to follow through on issues identified by Taskforce 1000.

However, that is still ongoing, I believe, and we are still waiting for a report on what is actually happening with Taskforce 1000. It has been going on for quite some time. The pilot was started under the former coalition government. It was to conclude by now. It was rolled out in various areas across the state, I believe in Gippsland and the Mallee, and parts of Melbourne were also included in the phase 1 stage. It included around 200-odd children. The next few phases were then rolled out across other areas of the state, and then the final phase was supposed to conclude some months ago. It is imperative that Victorians know what has actually happened with Taskforce 1000. What are the outcomes for those children? What are the specific needs that have been identified? We know that in many cases they have severe disadvantages. Many children under the supervision of child protection authorities are looking to improve their outcomes, but is it actually happening? I think part of this Taskforce 1000 pilot is very critical to our understanding of whether it has worked or whether it has not. If it is working, should we be doing more; if it is not working, why not; and what should we be doing to give these children the best possible outcomes that they can have?

I note in a speech recently that Mr Jackomos delivered in Old Parliament House, he was speaking about the concerns he continually raises in his position. He also talked about the very important element of cultural plans. Certainly it was a focus of the former minister of to have those cultural plans in place for children in out-of-home care and to have some monitoring from the department or from other agencies that they have appropriate cultural plans. I note that in that speech that was delivered just a few weeks ago in Canberra, Mr Jackomos says:

the message that government agencies caring for our vulnerable children need to embrace is that culture, their culture, is not a 'perk' for an Aboriginal child it is birth right.

It is vital that the government understands and equips its staff to understand that a cultural support plan is not about just taking a child to a NAIDOC march, or sticking up an Aboriginal flag. Cultural meaning comes from connections, relationships and socialisation with other Aboriginal children and role models who will inspire and support the child as their life unfolds.

I think that is a very relevant and pertinent point made by Mr Jackomos because it is not just the symbolic nature of what he says about flags or marches or being a part of possibly some protests that a child or young person does not fully understand, it is about those connections and relationships that they re-identify with in their culture. That can assist them with their development and, in his words, 'inspire and support the child as their life unfolds'. It is absolutely critical that those cultural plans and the work being undertaken is applied in those elements. Those cultural plans I know that he has very strong views on this he describes as a core human right.

The issue of culture, the issue of understanding the impacts to Victorian Aboriginal communities and what it means is very significant for many people. I think this bill goes toward understanding that, further embracing it, further providing the protections in place for those cultural elements to be included, to be acknowledged and to be respected and providing that should they not be respected there will be consequences for doing that.

I note that a number of new offences will be created within the act to place greater enforcement procedures on those who harm Aboriginal heritage objects and for those who do not comply with Aboriginal cultural management plans or permits. This is a significant move in relation to individuals understanding what is appropriate and what is not; and, as I said, should that be disrespected or should a cultural object be defaced, there are consequences in relation to a number of new offences that will deal with greater enforcement procedures, as I have mentioned.

There are some areas around public land owners, who will now also be able to enter into land agreements with registered Aboriginal parties rather than having to apply for a permit for a low to medium impact land management activity. That is certainly cutting the bureaucracy, the red tape if you like, and then it will allow those agreements to take place in a much simpler form. There are a couple of things that I would like to raise in the committee stage about various issues that I will go into, and I am hoping the minister at the table will be able to answer those questions.

I want to conclude by saying that this bill has bipartisan support. Obviously Aboriginal heritage issues have had that support for some years, but I think this bill goes further in recognising those very significant Aboriginal heritage and cultural elements, both tangible and intangible. The members of the committee of the previous Parliament did some significant work in speaking to so many stakeholders and members of community groups and community agencies that are involved in Aboriginal affairs. Aboriginal people working in this area who understand it thoroughly were able to give that committee some deep insight into what is required. This bill continues the work of the previous government, and it gives greater recognition to those areas around Aboriginal heritage and culture.

I conclude my remarks there and commend the bill.


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