Sacred sites: the review we have to have?

By ERWIN CHLANDA

 

Sacred sites issues rear their heads from time to time, usually highlighting the black – white divide.

 

Recently the seemingly laughable demand was made that traditional dancing must not take place at the Overland Telegraph Station, and then Steve Brown, an elected member of the Town Council, demanded a review.

 

Deep breath now. The final say in all matters of protecting Aboriginal sacred sites does not rest with Aboriginal custodians but with the Minister who of course is a Member of Parliament elected by the people of the Northern Territory and answerable to that Parliament and ultimately, to all the people of the NT. (See Sections 10, 19 and 32 of the Northern Territory Aboriginal Sacred Sites Act.)

 

This, clearly, ensures an ultimately democratic process in the decision making in all sacred sites matters. The Minister at present is Bess Price who lives in Alice Springs. You’ll see her down the Mall.

 

Having gotten this off our chests we can now take a constructive look at what needs to be done during the current review of the Act.

 

Firstly, it’s not clear what the breadth is of that review. It was ordered by Alison Anderson before her banishment to the back bench. Is it just dealing with some minor nitty gritty or some broad issues?

 

Earlier statements by pollies signal profound confusion, fuelled in part by Opposition claims that the Chief Minister wants to sack the Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority (AAPA) board and replace it with mates.

Ms Anderson said yesterday that the objective of the review she ordered was merely to streamline the issuing of certificates.

 

When one has been issued for a site that certificate would then remain in place even if the land is sold or transferred to another owner, so that the new owner doesn’t have to go through the same rigmarole all over again.

 

Ms Anderson says she hasn’t been told what is happening with that review – although she says she specifically requested a briefing. (She and Ms Price were once close. Are they still?)

 

Ms Price seems to say it’s not her review, but she looks forward to looking at the outcome. She has promised an interview with the Alice Springs News Online. AAPA CEO Ben Scambary did not respond to a request for comment.

 

Should this be a review about minor detail or the entire functioning of the Act?

 

The Full Monty seems to be called for given the unsavoury recent clash between the AAPA and the Mbantua Festival, and that controversies of this kind keep erupting from time to time, fuelling racist sentiments.

 

It seems that the town’s four big lobbies, the Town Council, the Chamber of Commerce, Tourism Central Australia and the Arid Lands Environment Centre need to get a wriggle-on, starting with consultation with their members and ratepayers about sacred site issues, lifting them out of the realm of racist bickering and rumour mongering.

 

What should the review be looking at? Some thoughts.

 

Precisely on what occasions have sacred sites been a worry? This should disclose what losses (put a dollar figure on each) and inconvenience they have created.

 

Conversely, what benefit has the town received from sacred sites? After all, they are the day to day manifestation of the world’s oldest living culture.

 

Sub-questions here could be: What do tourists say to us about this? And secondly, what have we done to benefit from these cultural assets that world-wide are the kinds of reasons for which people spend lots of money to visit far-away places.

 

That further begs the question why Aboriginal people themselves don’t make something of the commercial opportunity in that: it could be a nice little earner. Given its availability, why is the taxpayer expected to continue welfare support at the current massive level?

 

And then, what is a reasonable way of showing respect to sacred sites, bearing in mind that not just Aboriginal people have them. Anzac Hill – a notorious place for illegal drinking – is a “whitefeller” sacred site.

 

Does walking on one constitute desecration? Looking at it? Talking about it?

 

And then there would be the big questions: how many lives would need to be saved for the custodians to allow a flood mitigation dam?

 

To what degree should cultural demands be allowed that shoot real estate prices through the roof, as has been the case, or the development of public infrastructure are blocked?

 

Make your views known. Bess Price will thank you. The buck stops with her.

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