Letter | Address Aboriginal heritage study concerns for cohesion’s sake

RE: “Fury over bills – councillors upset by $500,000 for Aboriginal heritage studies” (Western Advocate, August 27).

We should like Bathurst Regional Council to answer the following: one, over what period of time was the $500,000 of the headlining “$500,000 for Aboriginal heritage studies” spent; two, from where did these funds originate; and, three, what part of the reported $182,570 was spent on the survey for the go-kart track?

Is council able to provide details of how this money was spent, preferably via release to the Bathurst community of all relevant reports and accountings?

The opening paragraph of the referenced article states: “A number of councillors have spoken out about the spiralling cost of Aboriginal heritage surveys on Mount Panorama ...”.

We are reliably informed that all councillors were afforded the opportunity to vote on the expenditure for these surveys a considerable time prior to such surveying, and as such were well informed about the (potential) costs involved.

The National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974 (NSW) (‘NPW Act’) requires council to exercise due diligence; as such, Aboriginal Heritage Information Management System (AHIMS) ‘site cards’ must be registered in relation to proposed land developments.

An AHIMS site card records Aboriginal heritage objects and sites of cultural significance (tangible and intangible).

We have been informed by local traditional owners that the development application for the proposed go-kart track was amended approximately 18 months ago.

It was this amendment that first brought whispers of the development proposal to the attention of local traditional owners, who came forward to oppose construction of the go-kart track due to the proposed site’s cultural sensitivity and significance.

Traditional owners note they were not consulted regarding the original DA, despite council’s legal requirement of due diligence.

Traditional owners were only told to check the council website for any current development applications upon subsequent inquiry with council; this is the means by which traditional owners became aware of the issue. Upon doing this, traditional owners became aware of the amended DA for the go-kart track.

(We note that such non-transparent practice by council contravenes council’s own documented best practice. We also note that a separate DA for a go-kart track in Kelso was rejected by the Kelso community due to noise and environmental pollution concerns.)

In reference to the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Assessment report, all councils in NSW are required to provide this report under the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979.

Additionally, there are a number of processes, requirements and considerations that council must satisfy in relation to local development under state and national legislation, including Local Government Act 1993 (NSW); Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1993 (NSW); Native Title Act 1993 (Cth); Heritage Act 1977 (Cth); National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974 (NSW); and Constitution Act 1902 (NSW).

We should also like to refer council to international and national conventions, protocols and treaties, including The International Council on Monuments and Sites, the UN declaration of the rights of Indigenous Peoples, the Burra Charter, etc.

Traditional owners take issue with Cr Warren Aubin’s comment regarding the 200 people having to wait for the DA to go ahead for the go-kart track, noting that 200 people represent approximately 0.005 per cent of the total population of Bathurst Regional Council area, and that 99.9pc of that population will not directly benefit from the proposed development.

Traditional owners commend councillors Monica Morse and John Fry for their efforts to resolve the matter in line with council’s documented best practice protocols. We wonder at Cr Aubin’s confidence in assuring developers that this project shall go ahead, unimpeded.

Regarding councillor Alex Christian’s statement that “this survey has found no Aboriginal objects”, we suggest he (re)reviews the reports within his possession.

Perhaps council should consider releasing such reports for ratepayer scrutiny and to promote transparency?

Further to this aim, may council assure ratepayers and the public at large that no conflicts of interest, pecuniary interests, or other issues of prejudice or bias exist within the council in relation to this development?

We are reliably informed that, on multiple occasions, local traditional owners and elders extended council an opportunity to become informed of all significant cultural sites within the local government area – free of cost and at council’s convenience.

This would have avoided the so-called “spiralling” waste of ratepayers’ money. Furthermore, council was provided documented information by traditional owners, on multiple occasions, of the fact that the National Native Title Tribunal has a mandate to assist council in the negotiation and implementation of an Indigenous Land Use Agreement (Ilua) – free of cost.

The Federal Government also advocates that whenever possible, local and state governments should avoid Native Title claims where there is a willingness by traditional owners to enter into an Ilua agreement – as was the case in this (and other) instance(s).

As a precursor to current negotiations, traditional owners prepared a preliminary memorandum of understanding (MoU).

To date, neither of the aforementioned approaches appear to have been seriously considered by council.

May council please address the above concerns and considerations in the interests of transparency and community cohesion?