As the Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Council (Council) has progressed broad community consideration of the practical application of the Aboriginal Heritage Act 2006 (the Act), its failures and successes, Council has been forced to reassess the commitment of both the community and the government to self-determination.
This program of rigorous consultation and review has been undertaken through two Papers developed by Council in 2020 and 2021:
- Taking Control of Our Heritage – Discussion Paper on legislative reform of the Aboriginal Heritage Act 2006 (Discussion Paper) released in June 2020; and
- Taking Control of Our Heritage – Aboriginal People caring for Aboriginal Heritage Recommendations for selfdetermined reform of the Aboriginal Heritage Act 2006 (Proposals Paper) released in April 2021
Overall, the responses to both the Discussion Paper and Proposals Paper were considered and appropriate but, across some sectors, the overwhelming considerations were that Aboriginal Peoples cannot responsibly undertake the function of the Aboriginal Heritage Act 2006 (the Act). It is our ancestry, our genetic makeup, our connection to Culture that makes us resilient, informed and consultative Peoples. These are the same things that some consider render us unable to manage the functions of the Act that are often in the hands of bureaucrats, non-Traditional Owners and other entities whose Culture it isn’t.
It is essential that, as a society, we truly understand that Traditional Owners are the only comprehensive knowledge holders of their Cultural Heritage. Once we understand that single, fundamental truth, then the recommendation for Traditional Owners to manage their own Cultural Heritage becomes clear and purposeful. Such understandings are in step with the international benchmark set by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (the Declaration). Together with the Act, they provide some of the greatest protections for Traditional Owners in the country. However, there is still much to be done in realising a fundamentally self-determined and tangible ownership of our Culture, Heritage, History and Country.
Since the Act was assented to in 2006, a seismic change has happened in the way that Traditional Owners’ rights, responsibilities, knowledge and voice is considered and appreciated in the broader community. Government’s own policies of self-determination for Victorian Traditional Owners are reactive of this change but it is time that they are implemented in legislation as, whilst the Act is good, it can be better. The time has come for Traditional Owners to do more than play a part, they must realise their rights to control their Cultural Heritage through the law that governs the protection and management of that Cultural Heritage. It is essential that in recommending change, we also call for Aboriginal legislators to be included in drafting these changes.
Council’s ambition is that these recommendations will be implemented and Victoria’s Aboriginal Cultural Heritage legislation will set a benchmark at both national and international levels. This can be achieved through incorporating a national set of best Practice Standards and fully realising the Declaration.Through strong leadership and constructive conversations, we will help others better understand that the positive contributions we put forward are not only just, but are what is needed to ensure the uniqueness of Victoria’s Aboriginal Cultural Heritage is not further eroded.
Our Cultural Heritage is best understood through demonstrating respect for Traditional Owners – our knowledge, our skills, our appreciation of our Heritage. The practicing of our Culture and Traditions makes us stronger and this strength offers us all an opportunity to value, understand and celebrate the unique Cultural Heritage we care for on behalf of all Victorians. We all have a part to play in ensuring our Peoples’ rights to self-determination, our Culture and Country.
We invite you to walk beside us to ensure that the statutory protections our Peoples have for their Culture is commensurate to over 40,000 years of connection to Country.
Chairperson Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Council