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‘I am a survivor’: Australia’s newest senator on fighting for Aboriginal women and sacred sites | Australian politics

Australia’s newest senator, Noongar Bibbulmun Yamajti woman Dorinda Cox, strode into federal parliament last week to say she comes from a long line of powerful matriarchs and high on her agenda is an inquiry into missing and murdered First Nations Australian women.

“We are 35 times more likely to experience violence and 10 times more likely to be killed,” Cox told the Senate said in her opening speech, wearing a kangaroo skin cloak with black cockatoo feathers.

Dorinda Cox sworn in as first Indigenous senator from Western Australia – video
Dorinda Cox sworn in as first Indigenous senator from Western Australia – video

“I am a staunch Blak feminist, a single mother of two daughters, someone who has experienced poverty and lived in social housing during my lifetime, a business owner who was disproportionately affected, particularly over the course of this global pandemic, and I am a survivor and campaigner against family violence and discrimination.”

Undamaged caves of the Juukan Gorge in the Pilbara region of Western Australia
Undamaged caves of the Juukan Gorge in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. Photograph: Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura

As the Greens spokesperson on mining and resources, Cox was sworn in the same day the federal inquiry handed down its report into Rio Tinto’s destruction of a 46,000-year-old archaeological and cultural site at Juukan Gorge in the Pilbara.

Rio obtained ministerial consent to destroy or damage the sites from the Western Australian government under that state’s outdated Aboriginal Heritage Act. The explosion led to an international shareholder revolt, cost the jobs of three senior Rio executives and sparked a federal inquiry, which said new federal laws were needed to set the standard for states and territories to uphold. It said those new laws should give traditional owners the right to withhold consent over developments on their country.

Cox issued a warning to her home state that the demolition of sacred sites will keep happening unless the government halts the passage of its new heritage bill and goes back to talk to traditional owners in light of the inquiry’s findings.

“We have a once in a lifetime opportunity to actually change legislation, to actually provide consent to the traditional owners to say yes or no in the destruction of cultural heritage,” she says.

“Consent is without coercion; it’s free, prior and informed. That means it’s not a suitcase of cash that comes in, delivered and put on the table and then you’re asked about whether we can mine on your country or even do exploration. What that means, in relation to the resources industry, is understanding that people have a choice to say no and actually be able to exercise their human rights in relation to that.”

The WA government says it has spent the past year consulting on the new bill. The Aboriginal affairs minister, Stephen Dawson, says the current draft has more than 100 amendments based on feedback from more than 100 workshops and information sessions attended by more than 1,400 people, and is “stronger” as a result.

Protesters are seen during a rally outside the Rio Tinto office in Perth, Australia, 09 June 2020
Protesters rally outside the Rio Tinto office in Perth last year. Photograph: Richard Wainwright/AAP

“The bill embeds the principles of free, prior and informed consent in its agreement-making process. A proponent must obtain informed consent from Aboriginal parties for Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Management Plans to be approved by the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Council,” Dawson said.

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But Kimberley Land Council (KLC) officials say they still haven’t seen the new version.

“We still don’t know what legislation we will end up with, and we are not confident the proposed legislation gives Aboriginal people the right to withhold consent over damage to or destruction of cultural heritage on their country,” CEO Tyronne Garstone says.

“The last time the draft bill was made available was over a year ago.”

Dorinda Cox is sworn in during a ceremony in the Senate in Canberra
Dorinda Cox is sworn in during a ceremony in the Senate in Canberra. Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

Cox says the lack of transparency means the government is “not working in the best interests of the people”.

“Miners and the resource sector are saying they need much more assurance and surety around the process, but they certainly don’t want us at the front of that process. They’re happy for the government to give endorsement and give consent on our behalf, which is not good enough.”

But Dawson says the government will push ahead.

Kimberley Watson, a Nyikina traditional owner from the Kimberley region, at a march in Perth calling on the WA government to protect Aboriginal heritage
Kimberley Watson, a Nyikina traditional owner from the Kimberley region, at a march in Perth calling on the WA government to protect Aboriginal heritage. Photograph: Isabella Moore/The Guardian

“Our focus is on the finalisation and introduction of the Aboriginal cultural heritage bill. Better protection for Aboriginal cultural heritage will absolutely be achieved once the new ACH bill becomes law.”

Cox says shareholders and other Australians must lend their voices to the fight to protect Aboriginal heritage.

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“Come out and publicly support First Nations people who are saying they are getting a raw deal from this. Come and stand beside us, come and talk to us about how do we fix this process,” she says.

“It needs to be led by First Nations people, and we can’t do that if governments keep intervening in the process, governments keep maintaining control to keep us out of those discussions.”

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