Government Response to the Inquiry into the Destruction of Juukan Gorge

I begin by recognising that this parliament meets on the home of the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people.

I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land and pay my respects to their elders past and present.

This is, was, and will always be Aboriginal land.

Today, the Australian Government is formally tabling our response to the interim and final report by the Joint Select Committee on Northern Australia into the destruction of Juukan Gorge, on the 24th of May 2020. 

I want to thank all the members of parliament, from different political parties, who worked on these very thoughtful reports. 

Most of all, I want to give my deepest thanks to the traditional owners who participated in this inquiry. 

A particular gratitude is owed to the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people, who are the traditional owners of Juukan Gorge.    

I can only imagine how painful it was to give your testimony. 

And I know how unfair it must have felt that it was us – as envoys from the state that allowed this destruction – who were asking you to relive your pain in public. 

I also understand why First Nations people don’t always trust the intentions of government or have much faith in our ability to listen and to learn. 

But please know that your testimony was received as the gift that it was. 

And the only way we can honour that gift is to listen to you, to work with you, and to reform our laws to make sure this never happens again. 

As the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people wrote in their submission to this enquiry:

‘The Juukan Gorge disaster is a tragedy not only for our people. It is also a tragedy for the heritage of all Australians and indeed humanity as a whole’. 

We can feel the scale of this loss when we hear the way traditional owners described it in their testimony. 

This place was an ‘an anchor of our culture’.

It was a ‘museum of heritage’. 

It was a site of ‘profound’, ‘sacred’, ‘unique’ and ‘ancient’ power. 

Juukan Gorge is one of the oldest sites of human occupation in Australia – with 46,000 years of continuous culture, traditions, practices and stories. 

When the site was excavated back in 2014, archaeologists were amazed at what they found:

  • A 4,000-year-old hair belt 
  • A 28,000-year-old bone tool – one of the oldest of its kind ever found in Australia
  • And a whole collection of ancient grinders and stone tools – some of the oldest ever seen on this continent  

That’s the scope of history we’re dealing with here. 

It is unthinkable that we would ever knowingly destroy Stone Henge, or the Egyptian pyramids, or the Lascaux Caves in France. 

When the Bamiyan Buddhas were destroyed in Afghanistan, the world was rightly outraged. 

But that’s precisely what occurred at the Juukan Gorge. 

And what made it even more insulting – that this happened in the days before Reconciliation Week, when elders were planning to take their young people to the sacred caves, to teach them about their culture and their ancestors. 

These reports explain how we reached that shameful moment. 

They make for difficult, infuriating, often shocking reading. 

But it’s important that Australians understand what happened. 

Because we have to remember – this was legal desecration. 

No laws were broken here. 

Instead, we had an entire system frustrating the interests of Indigenous history and culture. 

These reports tell the story of Juukan Gorge. 

But they also tell the much bigger story of our national failure on Indigenous cultural heritage.

There were partnership agreements signed under gross inequalities of power, and that were only ever really understood by one party. 

There were gag clauses, meaning traditional owners were not allowed speak out publicly without permission from Rio Tinto. 

There was a corporate culture that never took the company’s obligations seriously. 

There was poor communication. 

There were weak state laws. 

And there was federal legislation that was only ever designed as a last resort – and that was confusing, difficult to access, and ultimately ineffective. 

This was not an isolated mistake, or an example of one company going rogue. 

What’s clear from this report is that our system is not working. 

Which is why, at the election, the Labor Party promised to reform the system, with a standalone piece of Indigenous cultural heritage legislation, co-designed with First Nations. 

That was our commitment – and today is the first major step in that journey. 

This morning, our Government signed an agreement with the First Nations Heritage Protection Alliance. 

This partnership will guide the reform process – to ensure that Indigenous voices are present at every stage, in every room, and in every decision we make. 

Members of the Alliance are here in the chamber today – and I want to thank them for their ongoing work and dedication. 

Mr Speaker, the committee report identified eight recommendations for reforming Australia’s cultural heritage. 

We have accepted seven of them, and we are working through the final recommendation with the Alliance, which is whether ultimate responsibility for cultural heritage protection should sit with the Indigenous Affairs Minister or the Environment Minister. 

As I said, these are thorough and considerate reports – and the recommendations speak to the principles and priorities that will shape our legislation. 

Free, prior, and informed consent. 

Truth telling and open dialogue.

Genuine partnership – the kind that can only be entered into by equals. 

And wrapped around it all, a new respect for Indigenous culture and history, enshrined in our national law, honoured by business and civil society, and celebrated in communities right across this country. 

The Alliance and I are working closely with Minister Burney and Senator Dodson to make sure we get these laws right. 

Just like we are working closely with the states and territories, to make sure our rules are harmonised across the Commonwealth. 

And we will work closely with business – who have already shown a great willingness to learn from past experience and to grow.

These reforms are not about stopping development, or halting progress. 

They’re about redressing an imbalance – our oldest imbalance.

We're protecting Indigenous cultural heritage for the same reason we're supporting the Uluru Statement of the Heart and the Voice to Parliament. 

We are always a better country, more unified and confident and secure in ourselves, when we give everyone a seat at the table, and when we listen to all voices. 

There’s never been a better moment to take this step. 

As the Prime Minister said in his speech to Garma earlier this year: 

In our lifetime, ‘there has been an extraordinary and joyous change in the way Australians from all walks of life have embraced the privilege we have to share this island continent with the world’s oldest continuous culture’.

We've got the momentum behind us – and with it, I truly believe, the good will of the Australian people. 

We are so lucky to live in this country, with an endlessly rich culture to draw on, to learn from, to love and to value and to cherish.

That’s why I’m very proud to table our response to the enquiry into the destruction of Juukan Gorge today.  

We acknowledge we have to do better. 

We are committed to doing that, in true partnership with First Nations people.