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Working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples

Protection of Indigenous Cultural Heritage at the Commonwealth level

Indigenous AffairsCulture and Capability
Wednesday, 06 October 2021
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Publication abstract:

Applications for Indigenous cultural heritage protection

Applications for protection of Indigenous cultural heritage under the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984 (ATSIHP Act)

An Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person or their representative can apply to protect a significant Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander area or object from threat of injury, damage or desecration.

Applications under the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984 (ATSIHP Act) can be made to the Commonwealth Minister for the Environment. To make an application, contact the Australian Government’s Indigenous heritage hotline at the Commonwealth Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment (DAWE) at 02 6275 9450 or by sending an email to atsihpa@awe.gov.au.

Protection of Indigenous cultural heritage at the Commonwealth level

Protection of cultural heritage that is significant to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia is primarily the responsibility of state and territory governments. The Commonwealth Government has only a limited role in the protection of Indigenous cultural heritage.

The role of the Commonwealth Government is defined in three Acts of the Australian Parliament: the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984 (ATSIHP Act); the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act); and the Protection of Movable Cultural Heritage 1996 (PMCH Act).

The ATSIHP Act gives the Commonwealth Minister for the Environment the power to take action where a state/territory government’s laws fail to protect Indigenous cultural heritage. This Act gives the power to protect areas and objects that are of significance to Indigenous Australians in line with Indigenous cultural traditions.

An Indigenous person/s (or their representative) can make an application to the Commonwealth Minister for the Environment to make a declaration to protect a significant Aboriginal area or object from threat of injury, damage or desecration.

The EPBC Act provides protection for Indigenous cultural heritage sites, where they have been included on the World Heritage List, the National Heritage List or the Commonwealth Heritage List as places having significant heritage values.

The PMCH Act gives protection from export of movable objects (e.g. artworks, traditional and sacred objects, and ancestral remains). This includes movable objects significant to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

DAWE administers the ATSIHP Act and the EPBC Act on behalf of the Minister for the Environment. The Office for the Arts in the Commonwealth Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications administers the PMCH Act.

The Commonwealth Minister for Indigenous Australians has no statutory role in Indigenous cultural heritage protection. The Minister for Indigenous Australians works with the Commonwealth Minister for the Environment to provide advice, where appropriate.

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