The chief executive of an Aboriginal corporation who allegedly held up a series of tree planting events in Western Australia after demanding $2.5 million has parted ways with the organisation.
Whadjuk Aboriginal Corporation said in a statement on Monday that David Collard was “the former CEO”, after he was named in media reports about the cancellation of the planting of 5500 shrubs and trees along Perth’s Canning River over the weekend.
Local councils and landcare groups spoke out to Seven News on Sunday, saying Mr Collard had invoked the controversial new Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act to order that any planting at sites of cultural significance along the river cease until a demand for $2.5 million was resolved.
“The employment relationship with Mr Collard ended in July 2023 and this was not related to the Canning River planting,” Whadjuk Aboriginal Corporation said. “The Whadjuk Aboriginal Corporation will not make any further comments in relation to private and confidential employment matters.”
News.com.au has contacted Mr Collard for comment.
In a separate statement, the group confirmed that “a scheduled planting of seedlings was cancelled over the weekend, following a discussion with” Mr Collard.
“The newly formed Whadjuk Aboriginal Corporation confirms that matter is not related to the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act 2021,” it said.
“The Whadjuk Aboriginal Corporation will work in partnership with the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions, and the South East Regional Centre for Urban Landcare to reschedule the planting of 5500 shrubs and trees along the banks of the Canning River.”
Whadjuk Aboriginal Corporation’s chair, who was not named in the statement, was quoted as saying, “The Canning River and its riverbanks are culturally significant to the Whadjuk people because the connection to this land is of central spiritual importance. The planting of seedlings will conserve this important area for our future generations. We support the new Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act 2021, and our focus is to engage in meaningful collaboration with all stakeholders.”
South East Regional Centre for Urban Landcare (SERCUL) said on Facebook that “we will be clarifying this situation this week and hopefully can run our postponed planting sessions in the coming weeks”.
In an email to The West Australian on Monday, the group blamed “sudden problems surrounding the new Aboriginal Heritage Act”, with CEO Amy Krupa saying Mr Collard had threatened to withhold all cultural heritage approvals under the new laws unless $2.5 million of a $10 million federal government grant for Canning waterways restoration was set aside.
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“He’s brought two issues together that shouldn’t be,” she said.
“He did contact one of the groups that we work with and say that there should be no planting on the Canning River until this $2.5 million is sorted out. They are completely separate things. The funding from the federal government has got nothing to do with Aboriginal heritage cultural laws. We should have gone to a meeting, and sat down and chatted about it … it’s all [been] blown way out of proportion.”
Reached for comment by The West Australian, Mr Collard claimed misinformation was “being bandied around at the moment” but declined to elaborate.
“I will not put up with any of this,” he said.
Ms Krupa said the funding was a Labor election promise to SERCUL, the Armadale Gosnells Landcare Group and local councils, and that detailed project proposals were still awaiting federal government approval.
Whadjuk Aboriginal Corporation “were always going to be involved in the [Aboriginal heritage] consultation process anyway, but not to the tune of $2.5 million”, she added.
The state government has reportedly assured the parties that the tree planting does not need approval under the Act as it is categorised as “tier one”, but Ms Krupa said she still felt the rules were “a bit confusing”.
“We weren’t sure what we should be doing so we cautiously decided to postpone until we found out what we could do,” she told The West Australian.
On Sunday, City of Canning Mayor Patrick Hall told Seven News, “We’re standing here today in solidarity with some of these environmental groups saying, somebody needs to clarify this legislation — it has become somewhat of a mess.”
Stephen Johnston from SERCUL warned the seedlings were now at risk of dying. “We’ve got to get them into the ground to make the most of the wet soil,” he said.
“We’ve got a whole lot of land groups across Perth and in WA, whose work is critical to fulfilment of Commonwealth, state and local government environmental objectives. It’s not just a nice thing to have, it is critical.”
Pat Hart from Armadale Gosnells Landcare Group said, “We’ve got four dams on the Canning, it’s under real issues. Time is … we can’t wait. We have to keep going forward.”
The Whadjuk region is one of six Indigenous Land Use Agreements that form the South West Native Title Settlement, which covers major cities and towns including Perth, Fremantle, Joondalup, Armadale, Toodyay, Wundowie, Bullsbrook and Chidlow.
The South West Native Title Settlement is the largest native title settlement in Australian history, affecting an estimated 30,000 Noongar People and encompassing about 200,000 square kilometres in Western Australia’s southwest.
Under the new laws, penalties for damaging a cultural heritage site range from $25,000 to $1 million for individuals and $250,000 to $10 million for corporations, as well as jail time – although the state government late last month announced a 12-month “education-first” approach.
Aboriginal Affairs Minister Tony Buti, who has staunchly defended the new laws despite the widespread confusion, insisted on Monday the tree planting could not have been cancelled under the regulations.
“I want to make it clear — there was no linkage between the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act and the ability to cancel that event,” he told reporters. “It would have not needed approval under the new Act as a tier-one activity and it could have proceeded. It is incredibly disappointing that the event was cancelled.”
Dr Buti insisted the new laws, which came into effect on July 1, were running “very smoothly” despite “some misinformation that has been peddled”.
But Opposition Leader Shane Love blasted the Act as causing “utter chaos” and said Dr Buti should resign. “If anyone should be blamed, it’s Dr Buti and his management of this whole situation as Minister,” Mr Love said, The Australian reported.
“We told him before this came in that the community was not ready and it’s very, very clear in the short time since the introduction of this act that there’s a tremendous amount of confusion and concern around what the regulations actually mean, and how business and community groups and land owners can negotiate their way through this.”