Go broke or go to jail—that’s what the farmers, pastoralists and landowners believe they’re facing under WA’s Labor government’s Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act. They also know that this is a direct attack on their property rights. What I as a farmer am seeing and hearing is the palpable anger and extreme frustration that they’re feeling. Activities that now have to be considered include social, spiritual, historical, scientific and aesthetic activities as well as intangibles such as songlines, and these can change at any time.
The process farmers, and anyone with a block over 1,100 square metres, are forced to use is complicated, contradictory, confusing and expensive. I understand this will affect around 450 pastoral leaseholders, 5,700 farmers and 60,000 small landholders. No wonder we’re seeing a paralysis in farm work and the community. A tree-planting ceremony was stopped. An individual demanded $2.5 million. A public art trail around Lake Claremont was stopped. I recently heard that in the South West nine people charged $3,000 apiece, $27,000 in total, to assess a 15-square-metre site where no heritage was found. There is also the revised WA water act. I think this will place even greater Aboriginal cultural heritage impositions and requirements on landowners with property on waterways and water bodies. And, as we know, the federal Labor government is planning even more aggressive federal heritage laws. There is no doubt that this is a continuation of state and federal Labor governments’ divisive approach. There’s also no doubt that the act and regulations are unfair and unjust, particularly if they are misused by activists, with due-diligence assessments under a complicated three-tier system involving extensive, lengthy, costly consultation and survey responsibilities with local Aboriginal cultural heritage services, as well as any other interested individual or group.
I read the guidelines. They’re an absolute nightmare, as are the fees and costs. There are also no comprehensive or exhaustive cultural heritage maps, and the maps are constantly changing, so farmers can have no confidence that the work they’re doing is within the law. The minister and the department talk about like-for-like activities for farmers, but there’s absolutely no mention of this term in either the legislation or the regulations. I suspect that this will be determined, ultimately, by a court. The like-for-like constrains the farmer to live and work in the past: you can only do what you’ve always done. It doesn’t consider the fact that we constantly change, adapt and innovate and that what we do on farm has to change constantly. But now, to make those changes, they face the extended and expensive legal requirements under the act or else face significant financial penalties and possible prison terms. This is land that, in many cases, farmers are working their hearts out just to pay off, and they are very concerned about what this will do to reduce the value of their properties. I suspect the new standard question when buying and selling will be: is there cultural heritage on this property? We’ve already seen in Western Australia the hit on farming businesses from Labor’s ban on live sheep exports.
I also want to raise the issue of the role of inspectors, who can come onto farmers’ and landowners’ properties. They do not need a warrant. They have, essentially, more powers than the police. They can enter a place that’s not a dwelling. They can stop, enter and detain or move vehicles, using any means reasonably necessary to do so, at a level limited only to actions not likely to cause death or grievous bodily harm, whether or not the person is in the vehicle. They can use any of the farmers’ or landowners’ vehicles, equipment, facilities or services. I just wonder who will pay for any damage. I can only imagine what will happen if a farmer with a tractor and header worth about $1.5 million is expected to do so. Inspectors can inspect and open any package, compartment, cupboard or container and inspect records; enter, at any time, any place except a dwelling; direct the owner to give a copy of records; use the owner’s computer; and demand codes or passwords—I’ll give you passwords!
You’re forced to answer questions with no legal representation present. There’s a fine of $20,000 for obstructing an inspector. All of this is based on the fact that inspectors only have to reasonably suspect something at a given time, even if those grounds are subsequently found to be false or non-existent. They certainly don’t have to show their identity card immediately. There are a lot of things that are not exempt. No wonder there is great concern in Western Australia.