POWER SHIFT? Corporate vandals face $1.1m fine for cultural destruction

BY AMY MCQUIREAPRIL 7, 2011

 Originally published in Tracker Magazine. 

CEO of the Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council Paul Morris at the heritage site in Cromer.

NEW SOUTH WALES, April 07, 2011: Within weeks of NSW parliament strengthening laws to protect Aboriginal heritage, a state government owned corporation has trashed a significant site, and is now facing penalties of more than $1 million. But the Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council has found the government less than willing to act to enforce its own legislation, reports AMY McQUIRE.

It is an otherwise ordinary street in Cromer, on Sydney’s northern beaches. A line of cars are banked up against the curb along the strip of road, next to a fence guarding parkland. People are going about their daily business, quiet and undisturbed.

To the untrained eye, there’s nothing to indicate this scene is anything but average. To the Aboriginal community however, this is a special place.

Until late last year, there was a large carving of a footprint in hard stone on this street. It lay under a tree, halfway between the fence and road.

It was one of the most significant Aboriginal artefacts in the area, a carving with origins stretching back thousands of years, and one of the most well-known of its kind on the northern beaches.

It was proof that the culture that lived here was thriving. It was also an enduring reminder that this land is Aboriginal land, and that our heritage could not be easily forgotten.

Today, however, there’s precious little left of it.

The carving has been all but destroyed, save for a small rounded etching. There is only a broken portion of the stone left.

Late last year, a subcontractor for Energy Australia was laying underground power lines near the site. In the process, workers cut their way straight through the carving. The extent of the damage can be seen in pictures supplied to Tracker.

Energy Australia knew the site existed.

Its location and importance to the Aboriginal community was identified in the Aboriginal Heritage Impact Permit (AHIP) granted prior to construction.

But the damage is now irreparable, and when Tracker visited the site last week, there has been barely any care taken to ensure what little is left will be preserved.

CEO of the Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council (LALC) Paul Morris is incensed.

“If it were a gravesite of a well known non-Aboriginal person there would be outrage, there would be uproar, people would be jailed,” Mr Morris says.

“But when it comes to Aboriginal history, and how people value Aboriginal history and how they value Aboriginal people, this blatant disregard is shown.”

The tiny shred of good news in this saga is that this damage could end up costing Energy Australia, or its subcontractor, a hefty price.

If the Department of Environment, Climate Change and Water (DECCW) decide to prosecute, it would be the first case trialled under new amendments to the National Parks and Wildlife Bill 1974.

Under the amendments, a new “strict liability” offence has been created, which enables DECCW to prosecute over the damage of an Aboriginal heritage site, even if the site was damaged unknowingly.

It also increased the penalties. Now, an individual could be charged up to $22 000 for damage of an Aboriginal site.

A corporation can be fined up to $1.1 million. However, that is if DECCW decides to prosecute.

The department was informed of the damage late last year by concerned members of the community.

It then informed the Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council, who visited the site in early December last year. But there has been little action since.

There has been no word on when, or if, DECCW will prosecute either Energy Australia or the contractor.

Mr Morris is angry at the delay and says DECCW should take action against those involved as soon as possible.

“I was pretty emotional to see a site like this, that’s thousands of years old and is completely disregarded by contractors for a multi-million dollar company like Energy Australia,” Mr Morris says.

DECCW have told the Metropolitan LALC that it is still investigating, and that the fact it involves a sub-contractor has complicated it.

DECCW were unable to comment to Tracker at the time of press.

But Mr Morris says the delay in prosecuting is unacceptable.

Metro LALC legal adviser Michael Vassilli says he’s concerned that the possibility of a successful prosecution has already been hindered.

“There appears to be, from a prosecution point of view a lost window of opportunity.

“For prosecution you have to act very quickly.

“We have seen they haven’t even preserved any evidence currently here….

“Our case would be as good as the evidence that they’ve gathered. I have some grave concerns that they have done their job properly in terms of gathering evidence.

“You can see they’ve made no attempt to preserve the remainder of the site.”

Mr Morris says the incident casts doubt on whether the recent changes to protect Aboriginal heritage will work at all.

“An act is just words on paper. We have to put that into action, and until we see that action that’s all it is… words on paper,” Mr Morris says.

“We need to see some action so people can take these new legislative changes seriously, so the Aboriginal community can have a bit of faith that we are being respected as a people, and that our history is being respected and valued by the mainstream.”

Mr Morris said he is concerned the lack of action from DECCW could lead to further desecration of Aboriginal sites in the area.

“It makes you question how many times this is going to happen?” he said. “Especially around Sydney and the northern beaches and the north shore area because there are a lot of sites around here and this is only one known case.

“There are probably countless others that have been destroyed or disturbed that weren’t reported.”

Mr Morris said despite DECCW’s apparent disinterest, the Metropolitan LALC will not let the matter simply rest.

“We will look at other legal opportunities and other options,” he said.

“We’re not going to be quiet about this, it’s completely disrespectful and it won’t be tolerated by the Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council or the local Aboriginal community.

 

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