Radioactive Racism in the Wild West

Mia Pepper

You’d be forgiven for thinking Western Australia was the Wild West. The announcement from the WA government that it planned to close 150 Aboriginal remote communities came hot on the heels of plans to gut the Aboriginal Heritage Act.

The changes to the Aboriginal Heritage Act have two main objectives: one is to make it easier for Aboriginal Heritage Sites on the Aboriginal Heritage Register to be de-listed; the other is to make it harder to get Aboriginal Heritage Sites listed in the first place. One of the key factors in a site getting and staying on the register is proving an ongoing connection to the site – a logistical factor made much harder if people are being forcibly removed from remote communities.

Pastor Geoffrey Stokes, a Wongutha man from Kalgoorlie, was out hunting one day near Mt Margaret when he encountered a mining company, Darlex, literally about to dig into a cave – an Aboriginal Heritage Site. This particular site had been lodged with the Department of Aboriginal Affairs by the Goldfields Land and Sea Council 23 years earlier – but had not been officially registered. The company was about to destroy the site without having gained permission or consulting with the Aboriginal custodians and had no requirements to do so because the site did not appear on the register. On inquiries made to the Department of Aboriginal Affairs (DAA) about this site, it was revealed that something like 10,000 sites have been lodged but never registered.

This is how the system works. Traditional Owners can lodge a site with the DAA and the Department may or may not register it – depending how busy they are over a period of about two decades. Once it is registered a mining company can then apply to destroy it anyway, but rest assured that if it’s registered you’ll be consulted about the sites impending doom. However if you don’t visit the site regularly, under a changed Aboriginal Heritage Act, it’s likely to be deregistered aka no one is coming to talk to you before they destroy your heritage.

I’m reminded of being at a mining conference in WA where the then Minister for Mines and Petroleum gave a keynote presentation. He ended by inviting everyone to stay around for a raffle – “the prize is a free Aboriginal Heritage clearance.” The miners roared with laughter. The Minister re-used the joke when calling the raffle – allowing us to record this sick joke about the religion and culture of Australia’s first people. When played back to him in Parliament, he scoffed and said it was taken out of context.

Mulga Rocks

Just around the corner from Mt Margaret is Mulga Rocks – the site of the latest uranium mine proposal by a company, which has recently changed its name to Vimy Resources. Vimy is like an all-star cast with a former Fortescue Metals Group executive as Director, a former Liberal MP on the Board of Directors and generously funded by Twiggy Forrest. Vimy recently submitted a scoping study for Mulga Rocks, which is near Kalgoorlie and adjacent to the Queen Victoria Springs − an A Class Nature Reserve.

In submissions made to the scoping study, the DAA provided comment in response to the proposal saying the company should minimise impact to Aboriginal Heritage, should consult with the DAA and the Central Desert Native Title Service, and suggesting that some sites may “still be under the protection” of the not-yet-gutted Aboriginal Heritage Act. The company responded: “No Native Title Groups claim the areas and no traditional owners undertake any traditional activities in the area.”

That comment was based on a 1982 ‘study’ by an American anthropologist – using a dubious methodology. The anthropologist just asked around in the nearest town (150 kms away), a process that identified at least one family who use to go out, and no further inquiries were made about that family. The family survived and live in the area but are yet to be consulted. Neighbouring communities and interested communities are yet to be consulted and the company refuses to consult, stating the project won’t impact anyone so there’s no need.

The closest community to the proposed Mulga Rocks mine is called Coonana and has been on the government’s hit list of communities to close down for many years. Slowly but surely the WA government has cut all funding to the community, which is now virtually a ghost town. Coonana is a refugee community − people that have been moved from community to community over generations. Known as the Spinifex people, they came across the border from South Australia following the nuclear weapons tests at Maralinga and Emu Field in the 1950s. The government used to kick Aboriginal people hitching a free ride west off the train but then had a bright idea: give Aboriginal people a free ride west and get them off the atomic bomb testing sites permanently. The dislocation that began during the atomic bomb tests is very much alive today.

The starving of services at Coonana should sound alarm bells about what this government is capable of doing. At Oombulgurri in the Kimberley, the strategy was to demolish houses: no resettlement, no alternative housing, nothing. As the country tries to heal from centuries of displacement and bad government policy, this government is creating another generation of displaced people.

The changes to the Aboriginal Heritage Act are due to be debated in the WA Parliament in August/September 2015. The plans to shut 150 remote Aboriginal communities are much more secretive − the Premier Colin Barnett has promised consultation but refused an invitation from the Kimberley Land Council to join a joint Land Councils meeting about the closures in early 2015. Proposals to use royalties’ money from the mining industry to meet the funding shortfall have been squashed by the Premier. As the mining boom crashes and the government’s focus is on supporting industry rather than communities, we are expecting further attacks on communities and culture to make it easier and cheaper for mining companies to get projects off the ground.


In addition to proposed changes to the Aboriginal Heritage Act, the WA government has released a draft Heritage Bill 2015, covering the protection of all WA heritage sites except Aboriginal sites of significance.

Prof. Ben Smith from the University of WA, and a spokesperson for the Australian Archaeological Association (AAA), told the ABC on August 13 that the discrepancies and contradictions between the two proposed sets of changes were “untenable”. He noted that in the new Heritage Bill, the decision to add or remove a site will remain with the minister for heritage, while in revisions to the Aboriginal Heritage Act the decision will be left with a senior public servant. “We have watering down of the Aboriginal Heritage Act,” Smith said, “whereas we have continued strength of non-Aboriginal preservation.”

The AAA also raised concerns about a “tiered approach” to fines for those who damage sites. Smith said under proposed changes to the Aboriginal Heritage Act, an individual found to be damaging an Aboriginal site on their first offence will face a fine of up to $100,000. If a corporate body is found to have damaged a registered Aboriginal site in the first instance, they will be fined up to $500,000, with the maximum penalty of $1 million only levelled for repeated offenders. In contrast, the Heritage Act doesn’t make provision for first and second fines − if an individual or a body corporate damages a piece of non-Indigenous state heritage, they instantly face a $1 million fine.

Smith said: “Why would we want a tiered structure? If you damage any piece of Aboriginal heritage, you are committing a crime of great seriousness, just as if you damage any piece of Australia heritage. Why is one subject to a lesser process? It’s extraordinary in an international context. How will these be perceived by UNESCO?”

Phil Czerwinski, chair of the WA Association of Consulting Archaeologists, said all heritage sites should be treated equally.  “We seem to want to protect white fella heritage better than we want to protect black fella heritage,” he said.

A petition against changes to the Aboriginal Heritage Act is posted at:

Mia Pepper is the Nuclear Free Campaigner at Conservation Council WA, and Deputy Chair of the Mineral Policy Institute.

Antony Hegarty supporting Martu Traditional Owners

Antony Hegarty from Antony and the Johnsons recently visited Australia to support Martu Traditional Owners in their struggle to stop the proposed Kintyre uranium mine in the WA Pilbara from proceeding. Hegarty joined Martu artists at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney for the opening display of ‘Kalyu’ (water), a painting by nine Martu artists to depict the risks the proposed mine poses to the region’s precious ground and surface water.

“The painting is our home, our country. It is part of us. Our country, our homelands are under serious threat from uranium mining,” said artist Ngalangka Nola Taylor. “We need to tell people that those paintings only exist because of our obligation to our country, it is not a choice to look after it, the country is us − we just have to do it”.

Hegarty said: “My current trip to Australia has been very much motivated by my desire to help the Martu campaign against this uranium mine plan. I was honoured to be welcomed by the Parnngurr community and artists and I want to lend my voice and support to help protect country that is very important to my friends there.”

Martu resettled Parnngurr community in the 1980s as a protest camp against uranium exploration. The community remains opposed to uranium mining in the area.

“It will remain like that, with no mine. That poison is no good,” said artist Karnu Nancy Taylor. “You can’t reverse what the old people have said. We’re going to stop it!”

Published in Chain Reaction, national magazine of Friends of the Earth, Australia, edition #124, September 2015,