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Speech: Sandon Point

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 11 Sep 2012

Adjournment speech, Tuesday 11 September 2012

The community campaign to stop the unacceptable destruction of Indigenous heritage at Sandon Point on the New South Wales South Coast is outstanding. Sandon Point is a site of enormous cultural significance to local Aboriginal people. This is an inspiring story, but also a tragic one that epitomises the failures of both the state and federal governments to meet their responsibilities to protect and preserve our unique Indigenous cultural heritage.

The Indigenous cultures of Australia are the oldest living cultures in the world. Aboriginal cultural heritage in the Illawarra is rich, diverse and irreplaceable, as it is across much of Australia. In principle, each level of government recognises the enormous value of Australia's Indigenous cultural heritage, but in practice those heritage values are being slowly eroded by weak and decentralised heritage planning and conservation laws. Countless Indigenous heritage sites such as Sandon Point, and artefacts found at these sites, have been destroyed in the name of progress and development.

The Greens are increasingly concerned about the lack of leadership shown by the federal government when it comes to protecting Aboriginal cultural heritage and the weakening of state laws. For over a decade the federal government has been handing over control of Aboriginal heritage to state governments, often with disastrous results. Protection now lies primarily with the states and there is no consistency in the laws to protect nationally significant sites. In New South Wales the only protection for objects of significance to Aboriginal communities comes from the National Parks and Wildlife Act. In other states and the territories, the protection of Aboriginal heritage comes from heritage legislation or even from specific Indigenous heritage legislation. New South Wales is the only Australian state or territory in which Aboriginal cultural heritage is dealt with in the same legislation as that which protects flora and fauna. Protection offered in New South Wales legislation has been hopelessly ineffective for the conservation of Sandon Point, a coastal plain north of Wollongong that is revered by local Aboriginal people as a home of many magnificent cultural artefacts, including midden grounds, burial sites and sacred initiation sites.

Local Yuin elder Uncle Guboo Ted Thomas renamed the site Kuradji to acknowledge the remains of a kuradji, or Aboriginal clever man, discovered there in 1998. Archaeologists estimate that the man's remains are somewhere between 800 and 6,000 years old. After scientific examination, they were reburied at Sandon Point. Both the original burial site and the reburial site are registered as Aboriginal sites.

The archaeological and anthropological significance of Sandon Point cannot be overstated. In 2002, Dr Peter Hiscock, an Australian National University professor of archaeology, attested that the several million artefact fragments located at Sandon Point would likely provide very significant scientific information about Aboriginal history—more than could be obtained from most other sites in New South Wales. He warned that these artefacts would be irreparably damaged by the developments being proposed on the site.

The land at Sandon Point is owned by Stockland Development Pty Ltd. There has already been substantial development, with significant destruction of Aboriginal artefacts and disturbance of Aboriginal sacred sites. There is no way of measuring the damage that has already been done. Both the former Labor New South Wales government, who approved the housing development, and the current coalition government, who are allowing it to expand, have blatantly disregarded the cultural heritage of Sandon Point. They have prioritised developer interests ahead of community, cultural and environmental concerns. Stockland has been a huge donor to both the major political parties in New South Wales, donating nearly half a million dollars between 1999 and 2008 during the life of the Sandon Point project.

In 2007, part of the site was declared an Aboriginal place under the New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Act, but this has not guaranteed its preservation. Sites listed as Aboriginal places in New South Wales can still be developed, allowing recognised culturally significant artefacts to be destroyed through the issuing of Aboriginal heritage impact permits in cases where 'harm to an Aboriginal object or Aboriginal place cannot be avoided'. These permits have replaced the old section 90 approvals, also known as 'consent to destroy orders'. The Sandon Point development has been granted consent to destroy orders, giving approval for bulldozers and earthmovers to move in, regardless of what Aboriginal heritage treasures lie in their path. At one stage, the developer had promised that an Aboriginal keeping place would be created at Sandon Point to house and protect artefacts found on the site. This promise has been recanted and the current approved development proposal does not include an Aboriginal keeping place.

The development of Sandon Point is also wreaking havoc on the environment. Creeks, trees and vegetation that provide valuable habitats for wildlife, including endangered species, are being destroyed without consideration of the impact on the ecosystem.

For well over a decade, local Aboriginal groups, environmental and community organisations have been fighting to protect the Aboriginal cultural heritage at Sandon Point. I have been privileged to campaign alongside these many people. The Sandon Point Aboriginal tent embassy was established in December 2000, soon followed by the Sandon Point community picket in March 2001. Protesters have faced considerable harassment, including a number of arson attacks, but they continue to stand strong. Today the Sandon Point Aboriginal tent embassy is a permanent feature in the Illawarra.

Together with my former Greens colleagues in New South Wales, I have highlighted problems with the government's approach to the Sandon Point development. The Greens have called for a halt to this unlawful development that has had devastating environmental impacts and done irreparable damage to the Aboriginal heritage. There have been many legal battles over Sandon Point, with a number of successful challenges to development proposals. However, each time, developer interests have won out over community concerns. The New South Wales government has approved a massive development that includes nearly 200 residential subdivisions and a large retirement village. The development underlines the serious problems with planning laws in New South Wales.

So what can be done to protect Sandon Point in the face of the state government's refusal to safeguard the Aboriginal heritage of the site? Many people look to the Commonwealth to intervene under the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act. This act allows intervention in special cases where there is not effective state legislation to protect an area or objects from the threat of injury or desecration. I am writing to the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, Mr Tony Burke, to ask him to trigger the protective provisions of the act through a ministerial declaration.

In recent years we have witnessed a watering down of Commonwealth protections, with the federal government relinquishing its responsibility to promote and protect Australia's Aboriginal heritage. For example, the Register of the National Estate used to protect natural, Indigenous and historical heritage places throughout Australia. This register was frozen in 2007 and its statutory basis has now been removed. The Commonwealth has justified abandoning these important national protections, claiming that each level of government should be responsible for protecting its own heritage sites.

It was the 1983 Tasmanian dam case when the High Court confirmed that the Commonwealth has constitutional power to make laws protecting Aboriginal cultural heritage. That power has been used to implement some legislative protections such as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984. Federal intervention is urgently needed, not just in the case of Sandon Point but for a number of other nationally significant sites also at risk. It could stop the proposed mining of Tasmania's Tarkine forest, a site that cradles priceless Aboriginal heritage. It could stop the devastation of James Price Point in the Kimberley where communities, led by local elders, are fighting to keep their culture alive in an area targeted by the Western Australian Premier, Colin Barnett, and Woodside for a gas hub.

It is time for the Commonwealth to step up and take responsibility for the catastrophic destruction of Australia's Aboriginal cultural heritage and protect the many nationally significant sites currently at risk. In the case of Sandon Point it is time to put heritage protection ahead of developer interests. I hope the minister will use the authority of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act to ensure that this unique site, once brimming with important cultural artefacts, is not completely destroyed in the name of progress.

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