Date: 30th April 2021
Today was a further directions hearing in the Northern Territory Local Court in relation to an alleged breach of section 34 of the Northern Territory Aboriginal Sacred Sites Act by Parks Australia in the World Heritage listed Kakadu National Park.
The Northern Territory Aboriginal Sacred Sites Act currently represents the strongest legal protection for places of Aboriginal cultural heritage in Australia.
Under the Act, work must not be carried out on a sacred site without an Authority Certificate, issued by the Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority (AAPA).
In considering an Authority Certificate application, AAPA consults Aboriginal custodians to understand what conditions must apply to proposed works to ensure the protection of sacred sites.
The prosecution alleges that Parks Australia constructed a new walking track on the sacred site at Gunlom against the wishes of the Traditional custodians, without an Authority Certificate, and close to a key feature of the sacred site that is restricted according to Aboriginal tradition.
At today’s directions hearing the criminal proceeding was adjourned until 4 June to enable further consideration of the constitutional issues raised by the Director of National Parks (DNP).
In sum, the DNP’s position is that either it is immune from prosecution under the Sacred Sites Act according to the principles of Crown immunity, or that because of certain Commonwealth laws that apply in respect of Kakadu, the Sacred Sites Act has no operative force in the Park.
While these further delays are an unsatisfactory result for both AAPA and the Gunlom custodians, the constitutional questions must now be resolved.
Chief Executive Officer of AAPA, Benedict Scambary, said this challenge to the strength of the Northern Territory Aboriginal Sacred Sites Act seems extraordinary at a time when the Federal Government is conducting a Parliamentary Inquiry into the destruction of the Juukan Caves and the adequacy of current protections for Aboriginal cultural heritage.
“These are serious matters that have far reaching implications for the protection of sacred sites in the NT, namely the application of the Sacred Sites Act in Kakadu and Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Parks.
They must be answered in court to restore the confidence custodians across the NT can have in the law, and its ability to protect sacred sites.”
Chairman of AAPA, Mr Bobby Nunggumarjbarr, said the custodians of the Gunlom sacred site, and Kakadu Traditional owners more broadly, have made it clear that if sacred sites cannot be respected and protected under law, they may close parts of Kakadu National Park.
“Goodwill and nice words are not enough to look after this place the proper way.
“Traditional custodians want to work with Parks, but their actions show nothing but disrespect.”
Following custodians voicing their concerns about the proximity of the track to the restricted area of the Gunlom sacred site, in 2020 Parks Australia applied for and were issued an Authority Certificate by AAPA approving realignment of the track away from the restricted area. Despite the ongoing court matters it is hoped that Parks will commence this remediation work as a matter of urgency.
The parties must now await a response from the Commonwealth, State and Territory Attorneys-General regarding their interest in intervening in the proceedings to ensure the constitutional issues are resolved.
Media Contact: Kate Sieper : 0466 745 615
THE ABORIGINAL AREAS PROTECTION AUTHORITY (AAPA) IS AN INDEPENDENT STATUTORY ORGANISATION ESTABLISHED UNDER THE NORTHERN TERRITORY ABORIGINAL SACRED SITES ACT, AND IS RESPONSIBLE FOR OVERSEEING THE PROTECTION OF ABORIGINAL SACRED SITES ON LAND AND SEA ACROSS THE WHOLE OF AUSTRALIA’S NORTHERN TERRITORY.