Speech to the Murujuga World Heritage Symposium

Thank you for having me here this morning, on the home of the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation.

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

And I extend that respect to all Indigenous people at this symposium.

For our international guests joining us today, this is a big week for our country.

We’ve just officially commenced a referendum campaign, to recognise Indigenous people in our constitution, and to set up a formal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander advisory body in our political system.

It’s a campaign for reconciliation, for consultation, and a better future for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people.

And I’m very proud to represent a government that will give it our full support over the next six weeks.

To our hosts: the Circle of Elders and the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation.

Thank you for organising this important symposium today. 

And thank you for all the energy, all the knowledge, all the hope and passion you’ve poured into this World Heritage nomination.

We submitted the application together, but you were leading this process, before there was a process to lead.  

You sparked the idea. You kept it alive for more than twenty years.

And when the time came, you held the pen on Australia’s formal nomination. 

You wrote the documents, you organised the endorsements, you made the argument.

It was your cultural knowledge that formed the backbone of our case. 

And when it succeeds, as it deserves to succeed, our victory will be your victory.

Earlier this year, I had the tremendous honour of visiting the Traditional Owners in Murujuga, to announce this nomination. 

When you get to Murujuga, you notice two things immediately: first the heat, and then the colour.

It feels a bit like stepping into a painting, with the deep red earth melting into that bright blue ocean.

It’s an experience I’ll never forget, an experience I'm keen to revisit.

And I encourage members of the World Heritage Committee to take the time to see it firsthand, to hear what the Traditional Owners say about their home.

Because the physical landscape is just one layer of meaning at Murujuga.

There’s the natural beauty. And then there’s the cultural history written across it.

You’ve got the petroglyphs, of course, more than a million of them.

One of the largest collections of rock art anywhere in the world.

That alone would merit World Heritage recognition, as evidence of the deep history of this continent, and of the ancient culture of the Ngardi Ngarli people.

But it goes deeper than that.

As the Circle of Elders showed me, the cultural landscape also tells the stories of the Ngardi Ngarli and their Ancestors.

It’s not my place to explain or retell these stories.

But I was impressed by the power and significance of this place.

And I was struck by the knowledge of the people who hold it.

One of the really special features of Murujuga is how the petroglyphs travel across the land and down on to the ocean floor, from back when the seabed was still dry land.

I know archaeologists have mapped out some of these underwater sites.

But I'm also aware that this cultural knowledge is held by Ngardi Ngarli Elders. 

And when I was there in February, I had the great honour of hearing some of these stories, from the Elder Pop Tim, who generously shared them with me.

This included places that were submerged under the ocean for thousands of generations, places that are held by Elders in song.

There’s something truly humbling about these experiences.

The Elders you hear from today are telling stories that their people have held in a continuous chain, for thousands of years, for longer than I can comprehend.

When you come across cultural knowledge like that, when you see it up close, no one can deny its power.  

It can’t be downplayed, or patronised, or disrespected.

But it’s also where some of the challenges with World Heritage come in.

Because these lines of Indigenous cultural history haven’t always sat comfortably on western maps.

And these models of Indigenous knowledge haven’t always flowed easily through western minds.

That has made the World Heritage process difficult for many Indigenous people, including our First Nations here in Australia.

If you look at the Murujuga dossier, it’s not a simple piece of work.

It contains over three hundred pages of information. 

And it has a difficult job – of translating these Indigenous concepts to a set of criteria that emerged from a completely different cultural tradition.

And we should be fair to be both sides here.

It’s always going to be hard for people who aren’t Traditional Owners to comprehend the complexities of this cultural knowledge.

That knowledge is real and palpable and alive.

But it’s often etched into the landscape, danced into the earth, sung into the wind.

It’s in the pattern of the stars, but also the space between the stars.

And its boundaries are not usually restricted to the land, or to rivers or to oceans. 

They reach out across these places, as was the case with Murujuga.

There's a journey we all need to go on, as we nominate more cultural landscapes for World Heritage protection.

To adapt our thinking, to be more flexible in our processes, to value different ways of being.

That applies to the international community and the global heritage bodies.

But it also applies to how we deal with World Heritage here in Australia.

And that is what our government is trying to do.

To incorporate more Indigenous history into our World Heritage estate, to make the system more welcoming to different values and perspectives.

To learn the lessons that need to be learnt.

The first way we’re doing this is bringing Indigenous people into the nominations process, as project leaders, from the earliest possible moment.

The benefits of this approach would be clear to everyone here today.

And I want to also acknowledge the Gunditjmara people here, the Traditional Owners of Budj Bim, who were pioneers in this area.

They showed that it was possible to translate unique cultural values into the global language of heritage.

And they demonstrated why we need to have Traditional Owners leading these processes from the front.

It’s the only way.

Who else could relay this history, who else could express those important connections, if not the people who possess its stories and its customs?

It’s difficult enough for Traditional Owners – to communicate these ideas across the distances of language and culture.

But it would be impossible for someone like me, someone who doesn’t know the stories, and wasn't raised in the tradition.

Someone who doesn't know what can be shared and what must be kept private.

That’s why we need Indigenous people to be leading these projects, driving the campaigns, and showing the world their outstanding universal value.

The second thing we’re doing is revisiting our existing World Heritage sites, to add Indigenous perspectives to the current estate.

Which is what we are in the process of doing for the Tasmanian World Heritage Area.

When the Tasmania Wilderness was assessed back in the early eighties, it referred to the Tasmanian Aboriginal population as ‘extinct’.

Which we know is both untrue and incredibly painful for the Tasmanian Aboriginal community.

A community who survived colonisation, showing great resilience.

Thankfully, I raised this matter directly with the heritage bodies, and when the IUCN became aware of it, they removed the reference immediately.

We are working to correct this record and have submitted a retrospective statement for consideration at the next World Heritage Committee.

But it’s an important reminder – that much of the World Heritage estate was developed in previous generations, based on outdated attitudes and knowledge.

We want to rectify that.

Which is why we committed $5.5 million in the last budget for a new grants program to add First Nations heritage values to existing National and World Heritage listed areas.

I expect to open the new grants program later this year.

And I encourage you to apply if they think it’s relevant to your community.

Because many of these sites carry more than one heritage value – natural, cultural, First Nations, colonial, or military.  
And these grants will help us give a more accurate picture of our history.

Which leads me to the third thing we’re doing, which is investing in the active management of these special places.

Securing a heritage nomination is never the end of the line. It’s just the start of our next phase of protection.

We need to actively manage these sites, to keep out weeds, to stop invasive species, to prevent vandalism, to restore damage, and to keep these places at their best.

And one of the most effective ways to do that is to draw on First Nations expertise.

That is why our government is doubling the number of Indigenous Rangers by the end of the decade.

And it’s why we’re expanding Australia’s Indigenous Protected Areas, with nominations for ten more being opened up last month.

We’ve got First Nations rangers managing Kakadu, the wet tropics, Uluru and the Great Barrier Reef.

They’re on country, employing their expertise, protecting our special places.

And they’re delivering deliver better outcomes across the board.

That means stronger protection for native plants and animals, more employment for local people, greater economic opportunities for remote towns, and a more resilient connection to culture and history.

Which is why this will continue to be a strong priority for me as Minister.

And finally, we have to emphasise Indigenous history when we make future nominations.

This is on those of us in government. We make the decisions. We set the priorities. We determine the profile of our heritage estate.

As Minister, I’m committed to diversifying that profile.

With the Murujuga nomination, but also with the work we’re doing to progress nominations for Cape York and West Kimberley and the Flinders Ranges.

In the end, we have to make the choice.

We have to prioritise this crucial part of our world’s heritage.

We have to value it. We have to learn from it. We have to do the work to preserve it.

And that is what I’m committed to doing as Minister.

I’m committed to working with First Nations people, to working with you, in true partnership. 

To protect more of what’s precious, to restore more of what’s damaged, and to manage our world heritage for the sake of our kids and grandkids.

Thank you.