NSW increased fines for damaging Aboriginal sites

Louise Hall Sydney Morning Herald April 23, 2010

Poster from the NSW Aboriginal Land Council's 25th land right anniversary celebrations.
Artist: Chips Mackinolty
Source: www.nit.com.au

Developers and farmers who unwittingly damage an Aboriginal object or site will face fines of up to $1.1 million under a controversial overhaul of laws designed to protect Aboriginal cultural heritage.

In an attempt to shore up the green vote, the NSW government says the hefty penalties will decrease the widespread destruction of indigenous artefacts by landholders who have claimed ignorance or chosen to pay fines, currently as low as $5500.

But indigenous groups say the amendments to the National Parks and Wildlife Act do not go far enough, as officials can still issue permits authorising the destruction or removal of items such as skeletal remains, middens, stone artefacts, rock shelters and carved trees.

Permits are issued at the rate of three a week to developers, mining companies and government departments such as the Roads and Traffic Authority. Yet the government successfully prosecuted just 10 cases of wilful or flagrant destruction or desecration by those without a permit between 2005 and 2009.

The Minister for Climate Change and the Environment, Frank Sartor, said the new rules would ''reduce red tape for land-owners who do the right thing'' by establishing a code outlining how to check if Aboriginal items might be present. Farmers will have to search a database to see if any Aboriginal sites have been recorded in the area and consider whether landscape features such as rock shelters indicate the presence of Aboriginal objects.

Certain industries or types of activity such as mining will be exempt provided companies stick to their own codes of practice. ''The provisions … ensure that everyone in NSW takes Aboriginal cultural heritage into account when owning, managing or using land,'' Mr Sartor told Parliament.

The opposition accused the government of bungling the amendments - introduced, but not enacted, 10 years ago. Its environment spokeswoman, Catherine Cusack, said NSW had the weakest system for protecting Aboriginal cultural heritage. ''It is a disgrace that we are still regulating Aboriginal cultural heritage under a law designed to deal with flora and fauna,'' she said.

Mr Sartor said he would commission a working party to consider an Aboriginal cultural heritage bill within two years but the amendments were an ''important first step''.

The NSW Farmers Association said the penalties were excessive. Individuals found guilty of a strict liability offence - damaging an Aboriginal object without intent - face $110,000 or six months in jail. Those proven to have ''knowingly'' damaged an object face $550,000 or two years' jail. Corporations will be fined up to $1.1 million.

The NSW Aboriginal Land Council welcomed the tougher penalties but said the government had not consulted Aborigines.