Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council CEO Paul Morris with legal advisor Michael Vassilli at the damaged site at Cromer.
NEW SOUTH WALES: Ausgrid, formerly Energy Australia, will most likely “get off with a modest fine” over the destruction of a significant Aboriginal site on Sydney’s north shore, the NSW Greens say.
Greens MLA David Shoebridge yesterday slammed the state Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH) and minister Robyn Parker over the damaged site in Cromer.
In December 2010, workers for Macaya Electrical Services cut through a large carving of a footprint, situated on the side of a road while laying electrical cables.
It was one of the most significant Aboriginal sites on the north shore. It has now been completely destroyed, and the site has not been preserved.
Ausgrid sub-contracted the work to Macaya but has denied any liability over the damage.
OEH has consistently claimed it is investigating the incident, frustrating the Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council, who earlier this year accused it of “dragging its feet” on the issue.
It was revealed in budget estimates recently that a prosecution had commenced against Ausgrid in the Land and Environment Court, due for first mention on December 14.
The case is particularly significant because it is one of the first cases to be tested under amendments made in 2010 to the National Parks and Wildlife Bill 1974 which introduced a new “strict liability” offence.
This enables the department to prosecute over damage to an Aboriginal heritage site, even if the site was damaged unknowingly, and has also substantially penalties for offences under the Act.
An individual can be fined up to $22 000 for damage to an Aboriginal site, while a corporation can be fined up to $1.1 million.
OEH is prosecuting under section 86(2) of the National Parks and Wildlife Act for harming an Aboriginal object.
This means that the maximum penalty if convicted is $220,000, rather than $1.1 million if it was charged under section 86 (1) of the act.
Mr Shoebridge said today the “OEH has effectively protected Ausgrid from full accountability”.
He said it indicated the O’Farrell government was not serious about Aboriginal culture and heritage.
“OEH has only acted on this issue after significant pressure from the community,” Mr Shoebridge said.
“Significant damage has clearly been done to this Aboriginal heritage site and these actions must have serious consequences.
“One of the reasons that Aboriginal cultural heritage continues to be undervalued in NSW is the failure to adequately prosecute even in the face of wanton destruction like this.
“Minister Parker had the opportunity to correct some of the injustices of the past in relation to Aboriginal heritage.
“Unless the penalties for damaging Aboriginal heritage are serious, corporate actors will see the cheaper route as ignoring the law and paying any small fines as a cost of business
“If these sites were in Rome, Paris or London they would be given plaques, extraordinary levels of protection and national respect.
“But in Australia we have sites that are thousands of years old being destroyed for things like fast food outlets – it’s simply a crime,” Mr Shoebridge said.