heritage laws

Lessons in Humility as WA Scraps Toxic Cultural Heritage Laws

11 August 2023

3.7 MINS

In the latest embarrassment for Labor’s Voice referendum, the WA government has scrapped its toxic cultural heritage laws.

In a spectacular backflip, the Cook Labor government has scrapped Western Australia’s contentious cultural heritage laws just five weeks after they came into effect.

What began as a state issue soon went national, as Australians already nervous about the upcoming Voice referendum caught wind of what WA landowners were up against.

Anyone on a block of 1100 square metres or more would have required a permit to dig a hole, plant a tree or put up a fence, with costs of up to $160 an hour to be paid to Aboriginal consultants.

Heritage Laws or Hot Potatoes?

The laws were drafted to avoid a repeat scenario of the Juukan Gorge fiasco. In 2020, mining giant Rio Tinto gained approval to destroy culturally significant rock shelters, sparking global outrage.

But in a classic case of Nanny State-itis, reforms that should simply have kept sly multinationals in check came after every man and his dog.

The blunders were many. Some were hilarious.

First, the laws were proposed and established under WA’s ex-premier, dictator-in-chief Mark McGowan. Like so many leaders of the Branch Covidian cult, McGowan mysteriously retired from politics as soon as the excuse for outright tyranny evaporated. Roger Cook, his replacement, was too naive at first to realise McGowan had left him holding the proverbial bag.

Cook began his term like any good Labor Premier, ignoring the pleas of the masses while painting his opponents as racially motivated. “Every time, like a dog returning to its vomit, these guys come out and trot out these straw man arguments,” Mr Cook scoffed in Parliament in June.

By mid-July, he was still smearing the Opposition as “irrelevant” and “clutching at straws”, and telling them to “butt out” of the debate over the cultural heritage laws.

The WA Premier Eats Humble Pie

Cook’s tune only changed when in late July, he learned of a shock poll that tipped a 54-46 win for the Opposition at the next election, despite Labor’s landslide win at the last ballot.

The bad news kept coming.

Not only had the new law’s onerous details only been made public at the eleventh hour, but not a single Local Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Service had been established in time for the law to come into effect.

In a particularly embarrassing incident, two major tree planting events were cancelled after an Aboriginal corporation demanded $2.5 million dollars in return for their approval. As the Spectator quipped, “the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Laws immediately showed how quickly bureaucracies built on race could misbehave and wield their power for self-interest rather than cultural protection”.

The icing on the cake was when another poll came out showing Western Australians’ support for the Voice had cratered, with 58 per cent now intending to vote “No” at the upcoming referendum, and only 29 per cent identifying with the “Yes” camp.

Spooked, Mr Cook urged his cabinet to “be humble”. He and Aboriginal Affairs Minister Tony Buti began hinting they were listening to stakeholder feedback and were considering “immediate” changes if necessary. In the press were whispers of a coming reversal.

The Demise of WA’s Cultural Heritage Laws

The day of the law’s demise, farmers and pastoralists were poised to descend on the steps of Parliament House to demonstrate against the now-doomed legislation.

Then finally the news broke.

“There’s been a lot of confusion surrounding the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act,” Mr Cook told a room full of reporters Tuesday. “Put simply, the laws went too far, were too prescriptive, too complicated, and placed unnecessary burdens on everyday Western Australian property owners,” he added. “As Premier, I understand that the legislation has unintentionally caused stress, confusion and division in the community, and for that I’m sorry.”

The Premier went on to explain everyday landowners were no longer required to undertake their own heritage surveys, adding that the government would carry out its own surveys of high-priority areas in WA.

“By reverting to original 50-year-old legislation we can reset, end all the confusion and importantly strike the right balance,” Mr Cook acknowledged.

WA’s Heritage Laws and the Voice Referendum

The corporate press and Australian state media have been eager to put distance between WA’s now-scrapped laws and the controversial Voice referendum.

“Opponents of the voice to parliament have sought to link the referendum to the heritage laws, despite there being no formal connection between the two,” The Guardian whined this week.

“Peter Dutton continued to try to link the issues today while praising the decision to rescind the law,” sobbed the ABC. In another article, the taxpayer-funded outfit spread rumours the Liberal Party was waging “a scare campaign aimed at fostering divisions ahead of the referendum on the Voice”.

Even so, Yes activists themselves have made the all-too-obvious connection.

National Yes campaign director Dean Parkin praised the “brave decision” by the WA Labor government to scrap the controversial laws.

“From our perspective, it absolutely gives us a clearer pathway from now through to the referendum to be able to focus very closely on that very simple question of recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as the first peoples of this country through a Voice,” he said.

“Unfortunately, some of those issues have become caught up with that debate around cultural heritage in WA,” Parkin added.

Of course, he is correct.

Indeed, pollsters now appear confident the referendum will fail.

A recent RedBridge survey found the “No” case now leads 56 to 44 per cent nationally, with a majority of people in every state and territory intending to vote against constitutional change.

No doubt cynics will take this as further “proof” Australia is a nation of racists.

Good thing most Australians are smarter than that.

Image via Pexels.

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One Comment

  1. C. Paul Barreira 11 August 2023 at 8:52 am - Reply

    “scrapped”—meaning what precisely? Repealed? Not without parliament. So what did the WA Premier actually mean? Set aside until November seems most likely.

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