The controversial Aboriginal cultural heritage laws that prompted an army of outraged farmers to rally in an outback hall last month are set to be scrapped, according to new reports.
Western Australian Premier Roger Cook and the state’s Minister for Aboriginal Affairs Tony Buti are expected to make an announcement on the divisive Aboriginal cultural heritage laws early next week, the ABC reports.
The backflip comes after months of confusion and controversy over the new laws, which took effect on July 1 and imposed harsh penalties for damaging sites of traditional significance.
Opposition was led by farmers groups, including WA Farmers and the Pastoralists and Graziers Association, as well as WA’s opposition Coalition, and federal Nationals leader David Littleproud.
It is understood, the ABC reports, that WA will revert to operating under the former 1972 Aboriginal Heritage Act.
The new laws were introduced after “extensive consultation” and to heighten protection of cultural sites following the destruction of the ancient Juukan Gorge by Rio Tinto in May 2020.
The updated laws required some landholders to undertake detailed and expensive assessments through a new Local Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Service (LACHS) to determine whether a project will cause “harm” to cultural heritage.
Under a complex three-tiered system, any maintenance or demolition that involves removing more than four kilograms of material, disturbing more than 10 square metres of ground or excavating to a depth of more than 50 centimetres may require a permit from the LACHS.
An exemption would apply for all residential properties under 1100 square metres and for maintenance and “like-for-like” activities – such as planting crops, running livestock or replacing a fence.
The landowner would be required to pay the LACHS to assess their application – which requires specific consultants that can charge hundreds of dollars per hour.
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.
But despite insisting there were exemptions, WA farmers were quick to criticise the laws, saying the new system was too confusing, too time consuming, too expensive, and possibly open to abuse.
Weeks after the laws came into effect, hundreds of farmers and landowners packed a hall in Katanning, about 277 kilometres southeast of Perth, to voice these concerns at the meeting attended by high-profile politicians and industry representatives including federal Nationals leader David Littleproud.
Mr Littleproud told news.com.au after the meeting that the “anxiety in the west is palpable” and criticised laws for creating a “point of tension and division [farmers and local Indigenous people] haven’t had before”.
He described the laws as a “government overreach” by the WA leadership, and warned of a potential copycat laws to be introduced at a federal level.
WA Labor MP Darren West was the only representative of his party to attend the Katanning meeting, and conceded to the farmers the government had “botched” the messaging about the laws.
Despite the laws passed in 2021 with support from WA’s Nationals and Liberal parties, the opposition parties say it is a move they have come to regret.
WA Liberal leader Libby Mettam said the state Labor government’s potential backflip on the divisive laws was a “great win for landowners”, calling them “shambolic from the start”.
“We understand the Labor government will backflip on the Aboriginal cultural heritage act laws that they introduced earlier in the year,” Ms Mettam told the ABC.
“We‘ve always committed to scrapping the cultural heritage act and going back to the drawing board.
“They were quite clearly an overreach on private property rights. They went way too far.”