7 December 2007Peter Garrett MP, AM
Minister for Environment, Heritage and the Arts
Level 6 806-812 Anzac Parade
Maroubra, NSW 2035

Dear Minister,

My most sincere congratulations, not only for your appointment as the Federal Minister of this important portfolio, but also for the decisive electoral success of the Labor team.

Permit me to revisit a matter that had been the subject of correspondence or discussions with all your three predecessors. On 23 August 2002 I wrote to Dr David Kemp, proposing that the world’s largest corpus of rock art, in the Dampier Archipelago of Western Australia, be heritage listed. At that time, the national heritage bills were being considered in the federal Parliament. Dr Kemp not only approved of the idea, he encouraged me to pursue this submission (see his letter 21 Oct 2002, copy enclosed).

On 16 March 2004 (copy enclosed), Dr Kemp acknowledged my efforts to pursue both National Heritage listing and World Heritage listing, and, having at long last secured the agreement of Judy Edwards (then his counterpart in the WA government), invited me to submit the Nomination Form for National Heritage. However, my nomination of 22 March 2004 was then strenuously opposed by the state government, and Dr Kemp was eventually succeeded by Ian Campbell, whom I took to Dampier sites (see enclosed DVD of the film Sacred Stones, by the 60 Minutes program). Mr Campbell seemed to favour listing of the monument, but was apparently also overruled by John Howard. It took another Heritage Minister, Malcolm Turnbull MP, after I petitioned him, to strike a compromise with Woodside and the state government. He eventually listed the Dampier monument, but excluded parts earmarked for industrial development. The land area I had submitted was 270 km2, of which he included 241 km2 on the National Heritage this July.

The question of World Heritage listing therefore remains unresolved. In principle there should be little objection from the state government or Woodside, except that this would place greater emphasis on federal control: the Commonwealth would be responsible for submission and protection of the Dampier monument. The state government may resist, but it is crucially important that the federal government becomes involved. The state government has already designed one proposal to develop the now protected area into a Disneyland-type tourist park that has been roundly rejected by literally all commentators. This proposal alone demonstrates that the WA state government simply lacks the expertise and the appropriately equipped structures to manage a sensitive cultural heritage asset of this magnitude. Already incredible mismanagement has occurred at Dampier, for instance a road loop and parking area specifically for tourists were constructed last year near Dampier Port, and in the process dozens of megalithic stone arrangements were bulldozed and many petroglyphs were removed. This is a fair indication of the competence of the people currently involved in managing this property.

I have been the instigator of, and have been involved in, the nomination of another World Heritage property, that of Bhimbetka in central India, so I am well aware of the complexities of the process. The Bhimbetka nomination took almost six years to succeed. As you know, a nomination may only be made by a national government, and must demonstrate to Unesco a genuine commitment to perpetual management. Two years ago I spent a week with the Cultural Heritage Branch of Unesco in France, to gauge the support a nomination of Dampier would have. As a result of these detailed discussions the people who would process this nomination are very aware of the circumstances and have been well briefed about this property. I can assure you, Mr Minister, that Unesco would almost automatically approve a nomination of the Dampier Rock Art Precinct — the largest art gallery in the world. Of course we still have to fulfil the conditions of documentation and commitment, but the approval of this nomination would be a forgone conclusion.

Since the land in question has already been excised from industrial development, this proposal could only raise concerns over a perceived diminishment of the influence of the state government. But now that both governments are by Labor, surely this one obstacle could be overcome by constructive dialogue. Your announcement, Mr Minister, that you will seek nomination of Australia’s largest cultural heritage monument, would be welcomed as a significant statement by the new government, not only for heritage, but also as a prelude to changes in Indigenous issues. Let us not forget the tragic fate of the creators of the Dampier monument. After all, the genocide of an entire tribe in a single police action (February to May 1868) is unique in Australia, and probably unheard of elsewhere. We cannot change history, but we can atone for it by appropriately honouring the incredible heritage the Yaburrara left us.

Please find enclosed a copy of my book about the Dampier monument: how I re-discovered it exactly a century after these terrible events, only to witness its steady degradation over the subsequent four decades. My first appeal to nominate it to World Heritage was made in 1994 to Robert Tickner, then the federal minister for indigenous affairs (and to three other ministers), who also favoured the idea. Would you please be the one that takes this matter to its proper conclusion, and in doing so help this nation heal itself.

Thank you for considering this grave matter. Australia is big enough to treat its greatest cultural monument as it would be treated in any civilised nation.

Yours sincerely,
Robert G. Bednarik
Convener/CEO of IFRAO

THE MINISTER’S RESPONSE IS DATED 22 DECEMBER 2008, i.e. over a year later. In it he states that Australian nominations for World Heritage listing are developed collaboratively by the Australian and relevant state or territory government, and invites the writer to raise the merits for inclusion of the rock art sites with the Western Australian Government. Robert G. Bednarik has been asked by the Premier of Western Australia to meet him in February 2009, to explore the matter further. This will be the first positive government step towards the listing of Dampier after 15 years of campaigning.

See earliest published request for World Heritage listing.

9 February 2011
Submission to Senator Dr Bob Brown, Leader of the Australian Greens:


Despite being the smallest continent, Australia is also the rock art richest. This is the result of a favourable climate and geology, as well as an absence of historical iconoclasm. However, the latter factor no longer applies: in the last decades, Australia has become the world’s leading country in rock art destruction. Whereas in the rest of the developed world, and in large parts of the underdeveloped world, the earliest cultural heritage tends to be well protected and often highly valued, in Australia heritage vandalism has become epidemic. The underlying reasons are the following:

1. Protective legislation is ineffective, or not effectively enforced, or easily circumvented.
2. Protective legislation is not uniform across different states.
3. In some states, the relevant legislation prescribes cultural apartheid, in that it treats historic and prehistoric heritage very differently.
4. Practices have been developed in some states that involve the recruitment of archaeologists to facilitate the destruction of heritage sites.
5. The degree of practical protection of heritage sites varies greatly according to location and jurisdiction.
6. Specific government agencies responsible for sites under their jurisdiction are inadequately informed about their obligations, about existing instruments of protection, and about relevant best practices.
7. In some cases, the responsible state or federal authority avoids its prescribed responsibilities in order to appease influential corporate or other interests.

These issues are illustrated with three specific examples which I consider typical of the wider problem.

Tasmanian rock art vandalism
Intended to reform the legislation in this state, the Tasmanian Aboriginal Heritage Legislation Steering Committee has for several years served various successive state governments but has produced nothing of any substance. The existing legislation is completely outdated and anachronistic; for instance it provides a maximum fine of only $1000 for damaging pre-invasion heritage, when the corresponding fine for damaging post-invasion heritage is $500,000. In the context of the corresponding provisions in the other states, this has become an absurdity.
This inequity and the correspondingly inadequate protection of ancient cultural heritage in Tasmania have had significant consequences. About one half of the state’s rock art sites have been vandalised, many of them severely, and some have been destroyed completely (Sims 2006). This percentage is vastly greater than in any other state, or indeed, as far as can be ascertained, in any other country. No effective action has ever been taken by the authorities when such vandalism was reported, and as a result of this inadequate state of management, the general public does not value Indigenous heritage either. Some of the rock art vandalism is believed to be perpetrated by religious fundamentalists whose attitudes belong into the 19th century or with the Taliban. Resentment against anything connected with Indigenous heritage remains widespread, particularly in the northwest of the island, where the Circular Head Council has opposed National Estate listings of rock art sites at Copper Creek and Sumac Rivulet, and Aboriginal management of cultural sites. In one recent case in the northeast, a submission for National Heritage listing was rejected twice by the federal minister, despite the admission that the site was “likely to have National Heritage values”. Most recently, on 23 December 2010, the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre has had to place an indefinite ban on all archaeological surveys for Aboriginal heritage “until such time as decent legislation protecting Aboriginal heritage is put in place”. This is an expression of extreme frustration and illustrates the intolerable situation in Tasmania.
It is to be expected that the public’s perception can only reflect the attitudes of the agencies whose responsibility the protection of cultural heritage is. If the performance of these agencies is as inadequate as that of Tasmania, it is hardly surprising that Tasmania, on a percentage basis, is the worst rock art vandal in the world. Every effort to effect a change in the state government’s attitudes to Indigenous cultural heritage has been in vain so far (see, for example, letter by the International Federation of Rock Art Organisations to the then Premier Paul Lennon of 3 February 2006).

Protecting Australian cave art
Australia has the good fortune of possessing the second-largest body of cave art in the world (i.e. rock art in deep limestone caves). A few of these known fifty sites occur near Perth, on the Nullarbor and in Tasmania, but the bulk of them have been found in the limestone karst between Millicent and Portland. This fascinating corpus, much of which is of the Ice Age, has been protected rather effectively by a policy of the researchers of not revealing site locations publicly. Most of these cave art sites are known only to the members of the Parietal Markings Project, a group of researchers within the Australian Rock Art Research Association. However, in recent years a number of matters have arisen that demand a reassessment of the protective regime. For instance caves in the Southeast of South Australia attract interest from many groups, such as speleologists and cave divers, who are unconcerned about the rock art’s preservation. The historical practice of filling in caves with rocks, rubbish and animal cadavers is still continuing, and over the years three cave art sites have been lost in this way. The recommendations of the most comprehensive management plan for the karst province (Grimes et al. 1995) are not being implemented. For instance this authoritative blueprint recommended that concerning those caves that contain rock art, “advice should be sought from AURA re priorities” (ibid: 3), yet in the 15 years since, this has never taken place. Uniformity in protection is rendered particularly difficult by the question of jurisdiction: part of the rock art corpus is located in western Victoria, where different legislation applies and different agencies are involved. In both states, Aboriginal bodies, softwood forest managers (such as Forestry South Australia) and the relevant state departments of heritage management are among the stakeholders (and on the Victorian side also the National Parks and Wildlife Service), and on both sides of the state border many of the cave art sites occur on privately owned land (grazing land).
None of the appointed managers of these cave art sites has the required understanding of the relevant instruments of management. In Australia, all rock art sites are subject to the conditions laid down in the Burra Charter, which is the Australian version of UNESCO’s Venice Charter, prescribing the minimum management conditions applying to cultural heritage properties. Therefore we have the absurd situation that government agencies supposedly managing these sites, which regularly secure federal and/or state funding to manage them, have in fact no relevant expertise, nor do they solicit such expertise. If these conditions were apparent in any other developed nation, such as in Europe, dramatic remedial action would occur. France, for instance, spends tens of millions of dollars annually to preserve cave art sites, and has best-practice policies in place. Australia has no such policies at all, and spends literally nothing on preserving Ice Age rock art.

The trouble with Dampier
The Dampier Cultural Precinct is acknowledged to contain the world’s largest concentration of rock art, as well as Australia’s greatest corpus of stone arrangements. But it is also the site of one of the country’s principal concentrations of industry, which includes its greatest air polluter. This region, the Pilbara, has a very low population density and there are countless alternative places to establish harbours and petrochemical complexes, and yet these two huge assets, one cultural and one economical, have been forced to share the same location. According to the President of the International Monuments Fund, Bonny Burnham, this unfortunate combination occurs nowhere else in the world. It is attributable to the 1960s government agencies lacking any comprehension of the scale of the cultural monument — which is the largest art gallery on the planet — and any understanding of their obligation to preserve such a treasure. Therefore incompetence in planning is the only reason for the present dilemma.
As a consequence, some 95,000 petroglyphs and thousands of stone arrangements have been destroyed over the past 45 years (Bednarik 2007: 234-236). This large-scale state vandalism is still continuing into the future, irrespective of Australia’s obligations under the UNESCO Declaration concerning the Intentional Destruction of Cultural Heritage of 2003. Although the Dampier Precinct has received National Heritage listing in 2007, pillage of the rock art continues unimpeded as there is not a single measure of protection in place, and the promise of Premier Colin Barnett to establish a National Park remains just a promise. But more importantly, the enormous acidic emissions from the LNG and ammonia plants (soon to exceed 30,000 tonnes per year), combined with the iron-ore dust from the ship-loading facilities (14,000 t/a) threaten to obliterate most of the rock art by the end of this century. Since 1999, the area has been subjected to acid rain, according to CSIRO data (CSIRO 2006), and the acidity of precipitation continues to increase as emissions of nitrogen oxides are set to rise further in the next years.
A former federal minister for the heritage, Dr David Kemp, strongly supported the nomination of the Dampier Cultural Precinct for World Heritage listing, yet his successors have procrastinated over it for years. The undersigned has had no less than three meetings with the Cultural Heritage Branch of UNESCO in Paris, and that organisation has been expecting Australia’s submission of the Dampier monument for years. Former federal minister for the heritage, Peter Garrett, has suggested it is Premier Barnett’s responsibility, who in turn, quite correctly, pointed out that only the federal minister can make the nomination. Thus the issue of Dampier’s World Heritage listing continues to remain in limbo.

These three examples of the present state of rock art management differ in various details, but it is the underlying similarities that should help in determining appropriate reforms. A particular stumbling block is the widespread attitude that the immovable pre-invasion cultural heritage is a purely Indigenous issue, which ironically but unintentionally is reinforced by the aspirations of the Indigenes. Cultural heritage of world significance is the inheritance of all humanity, and its territorial location is incidental. The state does not own it, merely managing it on behalf of humanity, and in this it is answerable to humankind, through the relevant international instruments intended to ensure the preservation of such heritage. The sharp division in Australia between “their” and “our” cultural patrimony does not apply in most of the world, being a feature of racial discrimination, and deriving from historically imposed mindsets. Therefore the most obvious reform required is to prompt Australians to embrace all major cultural heritages on our territory as that of all Australians, irrespective of who created it. This is the way of thinking in those nations where heritage protection is successful.
Of particular concern are the practices of large corporate entities to employ archaeological consultants for facilitating the destruction of cultural heritage sites (through sometimes excessively lucrative contracts), or to offer financial inducements to economically impoverished Indigenous communities to allow the destruction of heritage. This issue can be resolved easily by legislating to render the archaeological or anthropological consultants independent of their employers. The consultants can only be independent if a government agency rather than the companies themselves lets their tenders. This correction is easy to effect, yet it would have major consequences. It would end the symbiotic relationship that has been allowed to develop between powerful resources companies and compliant consulting archaeologists (Moore 1999: 232; Ritter 2003; Chaloner 2004), and it would provide genuine independence (and thus impartiality) to consultants. As Moore (1999: 248) perceptively observes, consultants cannot be independent when they are in the employ of the developers.
Also, the ability of state ministers to override the cultural heritage commission recommendations is being excessively exercised in some states, most particularly in Western Australia where the minister rejects recommendations in over 99% of Section 18 applications (1972 Aboriginal Heritage Act). This renders the protective legislation and the prescribed review process farcical.
Based on these observations the following reforms are required to bring Australian practices of managing the country’s immovable pre-colonisation heritage into the 21st century:

a. Immovable pre-British cultural heritage needs to be the subject of specific protective legislation. This might cover sites of Macassan and early Dutch evidence, but needs to be specifically addressed to Aboriginal heritage, with special consideration of rock art and stone arrangements.
b. Such legislation would need to be uniform across states and territories, it would be implemented by a federal authority, and several key stakeholders need to be involved in its design. The present discrepancies between states serve no useful purpose, but help preserve anachronistic attitudes, such as that evidenced in parts of Tasmania.
c. The practice of archaeological consultants being hired by developers and resource companies to facilitate their aspirations needs to be abolished, and replaced with a similar system implemented by a suitable government authority (e.g. indigenous affairs department, heritage office or similar, or even a newly established federal agency) which determines scope and requirements of all environmental impact assessments that involve immovable cultural heritage aspects, invites tenders and awards them. This authority would work closely with the research community in heritage conservation and management.
d. The prerogative of state ministers to intervene in cultural heritage protection applications needs to be curtailed in such a way that it meets the intent of the relevant provisions: to intervene only in “exceptional” cases. It is clear that 99% of all cases cannot be exceptional; a rate of, say, 1% may more reasonably meet that description.
e. Australian cave art is among the most fragile cultural remains in the country, and needs to be protected by legislation specifically tailored to its very particular conservation prerequisites. To formulate these it is recommended to form a steering committee involving the relevant Indigenous interests, the research community and the several relevant land managers. It would be charged with producing relevant recommendations that are acceptable to the stakeholders and that can assure the preservation of these irreplaceable sites in perpetuity.

Robert G. Bednarik
Convener and Editor, International Federation of Rock Art Organisations (IFRAO)
Secretary and Editor, Australian Rock Art Research Association (AURA)


Bednarik, R. G. 2007. The science of Dampier rock art. Rock Art Research 24: 209-246.
Chaloner, T. 2004. The Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972: a clash of two cultures; a conflict between two laws. A parliamentary internship, a co-operative arrangement between The Hon. Robin Chapple MLC of the WA State Parliament and Murdoch University.
CSIRO 2006. Burrup Peninsula air pollution: final report. http://www.dampierrockart.net/Media/2006-10-16%20Burrup%20final%20report.pdf
Grimes, K. G., E. Hamilton-Smith and A. P. Spate 1995. South East karst province of South Australia. Australian Caves & Karst Management Association, 110 pp.
Moore, P. 1999. Anthropological practice and Aboriginal heritage: a case study from Western Australia. In S. Toussaint and J. Taylor (eds), Applied anthropology in Australasia, pp. 229–254. University of Western Australia Press, Nedlands.
Ritter, D. 2003. Trashing heritage. Studies in Western Australian History 23: 195-208.
Sims, P. C. 2006. Rock art vandalism in Tasmania. Rock Art Research 23: 119-122.