NSW government grilled over big jump in applications to harm Aboriginal heritage sites

The number of applications to harm or interfere with Aboriginal heritage sites has dramatically increased in the last year, and the Aboriginal Affairs Minister has confirmed he won’t be able to deliver the Aboriginal heritage protection reforms he previously promised by the end of the year.

Minister Don Harwin told a parliamentary Budget Estimates hearing on Friday that 211 Aboriginal Heritage Impact Permit (AHIP) applications were made in the 2020/21 financial year.

Don Harwin, pictured at an earlier hearing, detailed the rise in applications.Credit:Steven Saphore

“It’s important to note that Aboriginal Heritage Impact Permit applications are rarely refused outright, the majority of Aboriginal impact permits are, in fact, approved with conditions,” he said.

At a previous estimates appearance earlier this year, Mr Harwin told MPs that it took five years to approve more than 400 of them, and was unable to say if any had been knocked back.

Labor’s environment spokeswoman Penny Sharpe pressed Mr Harwin over the permits.

“Minister, that’s a massive increase over the average since 2016, I mean over 200 in a year is pretty significant,” said Ms Sharpe.

Labor MP Penny Sharpe, pictured at an earlier hearing, pressed the Minister on Aboriginal Heritage Impact Permits.Credit:Dominic Lorrimer

But Mr Harwin argued that most permits were negotiated between proponents and the Aboriginal community it would affect, to try and mitigate impacts on heritage sites.

He also confirmed that since July 50 additional AHIP applications had been made with 46 of them having already been approved.

In that same period, 142 referrals were made to Heritage NSW by the Department of Planning, Infrastructure and Environment (DPIE) for projects and developments of state significance, which are exempt from requiring an AHIP. However, Mr Harwin was unable to confirm how many of those referrals had been approved.

“State significant development and state significant infrastructure projects are approved under the EPA Act and are exempt … however state significant development and state significant infrastructure projects are generally required to follow the same Aboriginal cultural heritage assessment and consultation processes,” he said.

Labor has now used the figures to accuse the government of destroying heritage sites around the state.

“Through this planning pathway there are three times more applications to destroy Aboriginal cultural heritage that you don’t necessarily get a say in, are you concerned about that?” asked Ms Sharpe.

Mr Harwin replied that "there is ongoing consultation with the Heritage Council and Heritage NSW which provide comments to DPIE at multiple stages of the major project approval pathway."

Meanwhile, long-awaited reforms to Aboriginal heritage laws have been delayed yet again after Mr Harwin confirmed he would not be able to release a draft bill until at least next year.

“Obviously before I’m able to release the bill it is required to go through Cabinet processes … it’s my hope that I will have a bill which can be put out for consultation not too long after Christmas,” he said.

He had previously promised to enact reforms by the end of 2020 at least year’s Budget Estimates and again promised to do so by the end of this year in March.

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