Sydney rock art destruction case stalled

BY AMY MCQUIREJUNE 1, 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:Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH) is still dragging its feet on whether to prosecute a major energy company over the destruction of a significant Aboriginal heritage site on Sydney’s north shore, predicting it won’t finish its investigation until later this year.

The damage occurred after contractors – Macaya Electrical Services – cut directly through a rock carving in a suburban street in Cromer while laying underground power lines.

It was one of the most significant rock carvings in the area.

Ausgrid, formerly Energy Australia, is also being investigated over its role in the destruction, but claims it is not liable because it had simply approved the work at the site, and had warned Macaya about the rock carving.

The Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council says Ausgrid may still be liable, and that they will not let the issue rest.

An OEH spokesperson told Tracker in a written statement that the decision over whether, and who, to prosecute, won’t be made until later in the year.

“The investigation is ongoing and is complicated by the fact that there are a number of parties involved,” the spokesperson said.

“Legal investigations of this nature are complex as they involve multiple parties and questions of culpability and liability.

“The OEH continues to investigate this matter and all parties are assisting OEH with its inquiries. The OEH anticipates a decision in late 2011.”

The Metropolitan LALC is becoming increasingly frustrated at the delay. CEO Paul Morris says that the fact Ausgrid may be liable could play a part in the time delay.

If Ausgrid were found to be responsible, it could face a $1.1 million penalty under recent amendments to the National Parks and Wildlife Bill 1974.

If the matter makes it to court, it will be the first case trialled under the new amendments, where a new “strict liability” offence has been created that enables the OEH to prosecute over the damage of an Aboriginal heritage site, even if that damage was made unknowingly.

But the Metropolitan LALC is not confident an answer will be given anytime soon. An OEH investigator visited the LALC earlier this month, shortly after Tracker sent questions to the department. But the land council’s legal adviser Michael Vassilli said it felt like a public relations exercise.

“We asked some specific questions which were pretty basic, like what was the section of the act they were relying on (to prosecute),” Mr Vassilli said.

“If they couldn’t answer that question – and they couldn’t – you’d have little confidence that they have half a clue what they are doing.

“They thought they’d just waltz in and say ‘We’re listening to you’… but it was clearly a PR exercise which had little to do with any prosecution.”

The Metropolitan LALC says it will consider launching independent legal action if the OEH does not prosecute.

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