Rio Tinto: Tanya Plibersek to respond to Juukan Gorge inquiry

New protections for Indigenous heritage sites will be legislated, the federal government has promised, more than two years after Rio Tinto’s destruction of the sacred Juukan Gorge.

Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek said new protections will be implemented for thousands of sites across the country.

There will also be an overhaul of how native title operates after the mining company blasted the 46,000 year-old site in May 2020 to expand an iron ore mine despite warnings from traditional owners.

The government will on Thursday table a response to the Juukan Gorge report, the final product of a parliamentary inquiry into the incident.

Ms Plibersek said under the laws of the time, the destruction of the sacred rock shelters in the Pilbara was legal.

She said one of the clear findings of the two inquiries into the gorge’s destruction was that it wasn’t a one-off incident, and there were significant flaws in the laws protecting Aboriginal culture.

“It was completely wrong, but it shows how weak our laws are,” she told ABC Radio.

“There’s absolutely a sense of urgency to ensure that this sort of cultural heritage destruction doesn’t happen again.

“But a very strong message from the First Nations Heritage Protection Alliance is also that they genuinely want to sit at the table and work through these issues in partnership and co-operation.

“So we’ve got to balance the urgency with really thorough and thoughtful consultation with First Nations people around Australia so that it is a genuine co-design process.”

Ms Plibersek said she was unable to “put a timeline” on when the enhanced protections might come into law, noting the complexities of the issue.

“The Attorney-General has also said that there are areas of the Native Title Act that he would like to examine in more detail in the future,” she said.

The government has agreed to pass all recommendations bar one – whether ultimate responsibility for cultural heritage protection should sit with the Indigenous Affairs Minister or the Environment Minister – that is still being determined.

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