Western Australia's Aboriginal Heritage Regime: Critiques of Culture, Ethnography, Procedure and Political Economy

By Herriman, Nicholas | Australian Aboriginal Studies, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

Western Australia's Aboriginal Heritage Regime: Critiques of Culture, Ethnography, Procedure and Political Economy


Herriman, Nicholas, Australian Aboriginal Studies


Abstract: Western Australia's Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 (WA) and the de facto arrangements that have arisen from it constitute a large part of the Aboriginal "heritage regime' in that state. Although designed ostensibly to protect Aboriginal heritage, the heritage regime has been subjected to various scholarly critiques. Indeed, there is a widespread perception of a need to reform the Act. But on what basis could this proceed? Here I offer an analysis of these critiques, grouped according to their focus on political economy, procedure, ethnography and culture. I outline problems surrounding the first three criticisms and then discuss two versions of the cultural critique, I argue that an extreme version of this criticism is weak and inconsistent with the other three critiques. I conclude that there is room for optimism by pointing to ways in which the heritage regime could provide more beneficial outcomes for Aboriginal people.

Introduction

The main objects and purposes of the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 (WA) (the AHA) make it unlawful to disturb Aboriginal heritage sites and objects in Western Australia. The AHA and the de facto arrangements that have arisen from it constitute a large part of the Aboriginal 'heritage protection regime'. The legislation was ostensibly to protect Aboriginal heritage but has come under scholarly criticism and public protest as having negative and destructive effects on the sites and objects the AHA was meant to protect. Thus, many people interested or involved in Aboriginal affairs perceive that the AHA requires reform. In this paper I outline the basis on which reform might proceed by analysing four critiques of the AHA. Although separating out and considering the different critiques can be analytically useful, no author, to my knowledge, has attempted this. Also, while most studies have considered only the negative aspects of the arrangements, I argue that the Aboriginal heritage regime in Western Australia can also offer benefits to Aboriginal people.

I begin by describing Western Australia's Aboriginal heritage regime. Then the four critiques are outlined. I subsequently argue that the 'cultural critique', in its two versions, is inconsistent with the others, and, in its extreme form, is the weakest. By contrast, the critiques of political economy, procedure and ethnography provide a clearer insight for reform of the overall heritage regime. Finally, I consider possible benefits of the heritage regime in terms of what they do offer Aboriginal peoples. By considering both the benefits and the weaknesses of the criticisms, this analysis is intended to contribute to a more nuanced understanding of the benefits and shortcomings of the heritage regime in Western Australia and to point to ways in which reform might develop in that state and elsewhere.

Context of the Aboriginal Heritage Act

Western Australia has attempted to protect the heritage of Indigenous people through the AHA, which makes it unlawful to disturb Aboriginal heritage sites and objects without ministerial approval. The AHA created three new offices: a Minister responsible for the administration of the Act, including deciding on developers' applications to disturb Aboriginal heritage; the Aboriginal Cultural Materials Committee (ACMC), advising the minister on such applications; and the Registrar, who records Aboriginal heritage sites and objects. The law and its offices have given rise to a number of formal and informal institutions and practices in Western Australia amounting to what could be referred to as the 'Aboriginal heritage regime'.

All laws operate in a social context, and the social conditions of Western Australia's Aboriginal population provide part of the AHA's contemporary context. Since the 1829 founding of the English colony in Western Australia, Aboriginal people have fought, been massacred, dispossessed and displaced, have assimilated and struggled against colonisation, and have resisted the state's separation of children of mixed descent from their Aboriginal mothers (HREOC 1997). …

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