W. Australia says Aboriginal groups will be at centre of new heritage laws

MELBOURNE, June 24 (Reuters) - Western Australia’s government has said that Indigenous groups will be put at the centre of decision-making in new heritage laws, rebutting criticism that the regulations will be little changed from those that allowed Rio Tinto to destroy culturally important caves last year.

Rio’s destruction of the 46,000 year old Juukan Gorge rock shelters led to a leadership overhaul of the company and a national inquiry into how heritage of the world’s oldest living continuous culture is managed.

The Aboriginal Heritage Action Alliance, which represents the state’s senior traditional owners, wrote to Aboriginal Affairs Minister Stephen Dawson last week to express legal and cultural concerns over the draft bill, which is set to be introduced in the state parliament later this year.

“One of the primary objectives of the Bill is to ensure that Aboriginal people have custodianship over their heritage,” Dawson said in a statement. “Both Aboriginal parties and proponents will be afforded the same rights of review for key decisions made under the Bill.”

Western Australia has been redrafting its 50-year-old heritage laws which currently give the minister the ultimate say in whether miners can destroy heritage sites in a process that does not allow traditional owner groups to object.

“The tragic destruction of Juukan Gorge was unacceptable and the event highlighted the deficiencies of the current WA Aboriginal heritage laws,” Dawson said. (Reporting by Melanie Burton; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)