19 May 2023
High Court to hear appeal against NT Supreme Court ruling that the Commonwealth is free to damage sacred sites
Today the High Court of Australia agreed to hear an appeal by the Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority against the decision of the Full Court of the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory which found that the Director of National Parks (DNP) cannot be prosecuted for offences under the Northern Territory Aboriginal Sacred Sites Act 1989.
In September last year the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory found the Director of National Parks was not criminally liable for interfering with a sacred site at Gunlom Falls in Kakadu because the Commonwealth Government is not bound by the Territory’s sacred sites laws.
Dr Benedict Scambary, AAPA Chief Executive Officer said it is important the appeal proceeds, not just for the Aboriginal custodians of Gunlom but for all Australians who value our nation's incredible cultural heritage.
“It is hypocritical for the Commonwealth to be developing stronger legislation to protect Aboriginal heritage, following the destruction at Juukan Gorge, whilst also claiming they are above the law.
“There is no question that work was done on a sacred site against the wishes of custodians and without consultation with the Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority, but the Supreme Court ruling means the Director of National Parks cannot be held to account under the Sacred Sites Act.
“The Supreme Court ruling also increases the risk of damage to sacred sites across the whole of the NT, as Commonwealth agencies consider themselves safe from prosecution.
“The Authority welcomes the opportunity to be heard by the High Court and to resolve once and for all the issue of Crown immunity.”
AAPA Chair Bobby Nunggumajbarr said that custodians need to know their sites are safe.
“Kakadu is an important place for the whole nation. It is meant to be cared for under joint management between Traditional Owners and the Commonwealth Government, but custodians feel disrespected.
“We hope the High Court will see that it is important that everyone, all people, all corporations and all government entities, including those of the Commonwealth, respect and preserve our sacred sites.”
THE ABORIGINAL AREAS PROTECTION AUTHORITY (AAPA) IS AN INDEPENDENT STATUTORY ORGANISATION ESTABLISHED UNDER THE NORTHERN TERRITORY ABORIGINAL SACRED SITES ACT, AND IS RESPONSIBLE FOR OVERSEEING THE PROTECTION OF ABORIGINAL SACRED SITES ON LAND AND SEA ACROSS THE WHOLE OFAUSTRALIA’S NORTHERN TERRITORY.