Massive jump in penalty for defacing Tasmanian Aboriginal relics

Updated March 16, 2017 13:42:03

The penalty for deliberately damaging Aboriginal relics will jump from $1,570 to a maximum of $1.57 million under new legislation tabled by the Tasmanian Government.

The Aboriginal Relics Amendment Bill 2017, which aims to remove or amend outdated elements of the 1975 act, also removes the 1876 "cut-off" date for what is considered Aboriginal heritage.

The date marks the death of prominent Aboriginal woman Truganini, inferring that anything made after that date had no heritage value.

Under the changes, a new Aboriginal Heritage Council will be established and the time available for commencing prosecutions will be extended from six months to two years.

The Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre (TAC) chief executive Heather Sculthorpe welcomed parts of the bill, but said it did not go far enough.

"There are two good things about the Relics Amendment," she said.

"One is they have removed 1876 as the cut-off date beyond which there can be Aboriginal heritage, and secondly, they have significantly increased the penalties for offences under the act," she said.

"But on the other hand they have removed the offences of strict liability and they have enabled only two years for a prosecution to be brought — that is better than the six months that it was, but we have urged the Government to say that there should be no time limit."

Ms Sculthorpe said it was "contradictory" of the State Government to introduce stronger protections for Aboriginal relics, while also trying to reopen four-wheel drive tracks in the Arthur-Pieman Conservation Area on Tasmania's west coast, an area of Indigenous significance.

"What they have not done is look at all the other ways Aboriginal heritage needs to be protected," she said.

"On the one hand they are amending the relics act, then … they are determined to let four-wheel drive vehicles run amok in takayna [Tarkine].

"Then they are acquiring land to put a cable car on kunanyi [Mount Wellington], as well as to cut down trees and destroy much of the pristine nature of takayna."

The TAC called on the State Government to increase penalties under the Aboriginal Relic Act 1975 last year, after vandals defaced "priceless" Indigenous rock art believed to be up to 8,000 years old in Tasmania's Central Highlands.

The ancient ochre paintings in a rock shelter had been scratched with a rock.

Ms Sculthorpe said charges had still not been laid.

Under the current legislation, the maximum penalty for offences against the act is 10 penalty units ($1,570) or up to six months' jail.

Under the changes, maximum penalties for deliberate acts related to harming relics will be 10,000 penalty units ($1.57 million) for companies and 5,000 penalty units ($785,000) for individuals .

The maximum penalties for reckless or negligent offences will be 2,000 penalty units ($314,000) for companies and 1,000 penalty units ( $157,000) for individuals.

For "lesser offences" the maximum penalty will be 100 penalty units ($15,700) for companies and 50 penalty units ($7,850) for individuals.

Driving over middens to attract fine

Tasmanian Regional Aboriginal Communities Alliance (TRACA) co-chair Rodney Dillon said the changes were overdue and would better protect Indigenous sites under threat from four-wheel drives.

"This act will support us in stopping those sites from being destroyed. If people are going to drive over middens these penalties apply," he said.

Heritage Minister Matthew Groom said if the legislation was enacted it would be the most significant advancement in the protection of Aboriginal heritage in 40 years.

"It has resulted from consultation with the Aboriginal community," he said.

"We recognise up front that there will be many people that will think this legislation does not go far enough.

"But what we have seen time and time again where previous governments have sought to do this in one go is that it has failed."

Government showing 'two faces': Greens

Greens leader Cassy O'Connor said the Government was showing "two faces" on Aboriginal heritage.

"You have got this Government with two faces; it says it wants to reset the relationship with Aboriginal Tasmanians and protect Aboriginal heritage, but it wants to unleash four wheel drives in the Tarkine," she said.

"It just does not make sense, and Aboriginal Tasmanians are not buying it."

Mr Groom said the Government stood by its position on the Arthur-Pieman Conservation Reserve.

"We have stated very clearly that we believe that there should be access to the Arthur-Pieman but that it should be done in a way which is consistent with the proper protection of natural and cultural values in that area," he said.

In February the ABC reported volunteers from the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre (TAC) and the Wilderness Society found middens, artefact scatters and stone tools in the wilderness region in Tasmania's north-west.

Following the find, the TAC called for the area to be declared a national park to better protect the sites.

The legislation is expected to be debated next month.

Topics:indigenous-aboriginal-and-torres-strait-islander, aboriginal, indigenous-culture, indigenous-policy, tas

First posted March 16, 2017 06:20:45

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