A sea of hundreds of furious farmers and landowners gathered in an Outback shed in remote Western Australia to oppose the state’s controversial new cultural heritage laws.

Labor agricultural MP Darren West admitted the messaging around the divisive laws had been “botched” as he fronted the crowd at the WAFarmers meeting in Katanning on Monday.

The July 1 rollout of the new legislation that seeks to protect culturally significant sites in WA has so far been marred by confusion and outrage.

Key criticisms of the legislation initially passed in 2021 largely revolve around its vague and confusing nature, a fear of accidental breaches and potentially costly land surveys.

As well as the hundreds of farmers and landowners, high-profile politicians and industry representatives were also in attendance at the town meeting.

That included the likes of former federal agriculture minister David Littleproud, Neil Thomson MLC, CEO of Australian Livestock Exporters’ Council Mark Harvey-Sutton, and David Jochinke, the vice-president of the National Farmers’ Federation.

‘Completely botched’: Labor MP’s stunning admission

Mr West, a farmer himself, was the only representative of the current Labor government to attend.

The MLC fronted the crowd seeking to ease the minds of the 500-plus farmers from across the state, reassuring them the laws are “not to be feared”.

According to reports from the frustrated gathering, attendees heckled and pulled the finger at the parliamentarian, with many even walking out before he spoke.

“This law applied more to mining companies that drill, blast and dig, than it does to us (farmers) who predominantly work on top of the ground as we have for a hundred or so years,” Mr West said.

It was then he made the startling confession.

“Now … we’ve botched the messaging, we haven’t messaged this well and we acknowledge that, and we’re working on that.”

Mr West said penalties for violations that are not “blatant” are at this stage unlikely.

Despite being passed with support from WA’s Nationals and Liberal parties, Nationals WA Member for Roe Peter Rundle said on his Facebook Page after the meeting, “to draw such a massive crowd of nearly 600 for this meeting just shows the discontent across the agricultural sector and regional communities; frustrated and wanting answers on how to stop this barrage of legislative changes from both the Federal and State Labor governments.”

Liberal MLC Neil Thomson told the meeting he agreed the heritage law messaging was “botched”.

“Our clear position was not to oppose only because the government rammed this bill into the house under urgent bill provisions, only because it guillotined the bill in the lower house,” he said.

“We are now moving a disallowance motion … to over this so that we can go back to the drawing board and get this right.

“It’s completely botched … I agree with you there.”

‘Betrayed’: Farmer’s fury over heritage laws

David Slade, a livestock farmer from Mount Barker and a member of WAFarmers’ livestock section, was at the meeting and told news.com.au that identifying cultural heritage areas was necessary “for all Australians”, but it was unfair farmers were bearing all the cost of the surveys.

“There were hundreds of people at Katanning on Monday – they were angry, upset and feel betrayed by the government,” he said, adding plenty of farmers felt their voices were not heard during the consultation process.

“If we’ve got a cultural heritage site on our farm, we have to pay for the surveys – well, we don’t get any benefit from it, so why should we pay for their surveys?”

He said he was already aware of survey quotes exceeding $100,000 for otherwise straightforward farm works such as sinking a bore on already cleared land.

“We’re talking on land that’s been cleared for 50 years – (Cultural heritage) is intangible, you can’t see it, you can’t feel it, but someone says it’s there, and you can’t argue about it.

“There’s no recourse on this. You can only go to the high court, which is completely out of the league of any farmer to challenge any ruling.”

“This just drives a massive wedge between everyone.”

Mr West at Monday’s meeting hinted at some leeway regarding the penalties in the roll-out’s early stages

“We’re not gonna charge people on day one unless it’s a blatant disregard for that cultural heritage,” Mr West told the crowd.

“We’re gonna spend the next 12 months working with the agricultural sector.”

He said there will be a “slight change in tack in how we’re gonna roll this out.”

“This bill is not to be feared. It wouldn’t have been passed by me, the Liberals and the Nationals if it was.”

New laws come into effect

WA’s Aboriginal cultural heritage laws took effect on July 1, imposing harsh penalties for damaging sites of traditional significance.

The fundamental change under the new Act is the establishment of Local Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Services, or LACHS, which will determine whether an activity will cause “harm” to cultural heritage.

The law introduces a complex three-tiered system, under which anyone on more than 1100 square metres of land will be required to apply for a permit from their LACHS before carrying out certain activities, such as digging fences, planting trees or clearing tracks.

The landowner will be required to pay the LACHS to assess their application.

Under the fee guidelines, one senior Aboriginal consultant – defined as “an Aboriginal person who is recognised within their community as being senior and as having higher levels of knowledge, expertise, skills and authority in relation to [Aboriginal cultural heritage]” – can charge up to $160 an hour, or $1200 per day.

A LACHS chief executive can charge up to $280 an hour, while “other expert service providers” can charge up to $300 an hour.

An additional 20 per cent loading may apply to very remote areas, while costs such as travel, accommodation and meals “may be included in a fee structure”.

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.

The potential financial penalties and costs were also a point of contention with farmers in attendance.

— With Frank Chung

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