Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act 2021: A New Era

August 4, 2023

Transforming Heritage Protection in Western Australia: Honouring the Custodians of Aboriginal Land


Australia’s vast landscape has always been, and will always remain, Aboriginal land. It’s a living testament to a rich history that’s been shaped and nurtured by the Indigenous communities that have resided here for over 65,000 years. Today, a new chapter begins in Western Australia with the enactment of the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act 2021 (WA). This monumental legislation represents more than a legal turning point; it symbolises a renewed commitment to protect, respect, and celebrate the unique cultural heritage of the Traditional Owners of the land.


Respecting and Protecting Aboriginal Heritage


The ancestral lands of Australia’s Indigenous communities are sacred, resonant with history, wisdom, and an enduring connection that transcends time. In response to the tragic destruction of Juukan Gorge in 2020, a call for justice and reform reverberated across the nation.

The answer to this call is the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act 2021, a transformative piece of legislation that signals a fresh beginning in Western Australia (WA).

The new Act is not merely a response to a tragedy; it’s a bold step towards a future where Aboriginal heritage is cherished and guarded with the dignity it deserves.

Here’s a look at what this means:

  • Embracing the Full Spectrum of Heritage: Unlike before, the Act recognises and protects not only physical sites but also the intangible elements that breathe life into Aboriginal culture.
  • Empowering Aboriginal Communities: The local Aboriginal people are not just participants but leaders in decisions that impact their heritage. Their voices are not only heard but amplified and respected.
  • Streamlining Guidelines for Activities: With a structured four-tier system, the Act brings clarity and responsibility to various activities, ensuring alignment with the cultural values at stake.
  • Implementing Stringent Penalties: Respect for Aboriginal heritage is not optional. Those who violate these sacred principles now face severe consequences, including imprisonment, reflecting the gravity of their actions.

This Act is more than a legal document; it’s a promise, a commitment to honour and uphold the rights of Traditional Owners. It’s an acknowledgment that their heritage is a treasure to be preserved with the deepest respect and care.


Transformation of Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Legislation in Western Australia

The Aboriginal cultural heritage landscape in Western Australia has seen remarkable changes over the last few years, leading to the full reform of the outdated Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 (WA).

With the initiation of the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act 2021, a significant shift in the way Aboriginal cultural heritage is protected and managed in the state has been realised, paying heed to the wisdom and wishes of the Traditional Owners.


The Road to Reform: Key Factors


  1. Increased Focus on Indigenous Rights: The world’s eyes have turned towards recognising and preserving Indigenous rights, including those of Australia’s Traditional Owners.
  2. Heightened Importance of Social Licence to Operate: Trust and respect between business operations and local communities, especially regarding Aboriginal cultural heritage, have become paramount.
  3. Destruction of Juukan Gorge Rock Shelters in 2020: This devastating incident emphasised the need for a robust legal framework to protect and honour Aboriginal heritage.


The New Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act 2021: Fundamental Changes including Management Structures:


  1. Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Council (ACH Council): This peak body is now in charge of guiding heritage matters, responsible for issuing ACH Permits, and ensuring that the voice of the Traditional Owners is heard.
  2. Local Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Services (LACHS): These can serve as single points of contact for cultural heritage in an area, streamlining communication and ensuring respectful handling of these matters.


Four-Tiered System of Activities


The Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act 2021 introduces a structured four-tiered system, each with a tailored process for authorisation, ensuring that the Aboriginal cultural heritage is protected with utmost care.


Got a Project? Here’s What You Need to Know:


If you’re considering activities on lands that echo with Aboriginal history, heed these pointers:

Relationships Are Key: Foster trust with Traditional Owner stakeholders.
Update Your Processes: Ensure alignment with the new respectful rules.
Check the Guidelines: Familiarise yourself with the key principles that govern actions.
When in Doubt, ask: Engaging with the proper channels can clear any fog.


Some Handy Tips


Tread thoughtfully through new rules with these practical guides:

Integrate the Rules into Your Workflow: Streamline your respect for the heritage.
Train Your Team: Spread understanding of what has changed in honoring Aboriginal culture.
Clear Communication: Keep all stakeholders in the loop.
Reach Out for Help: Don’t hesitate to seek professional guidance.


Final Thoughts


The Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act 2021 heralds a respectful new era in Western Australia. By resonating with global pressures and societal changes, it offers a comprehensive framework to ensure that the Traditional Owners’ cultural heritage is celebrated, protected, and deeply respected.



  1. What does the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act 2021 mean for Western Australia? The Act sets new respectful standards for protecting and managing Aboriginal cultural heritage.
  2. How will the new Act prevent tragedies like the destruction of Juukan Gorge? Through stringent investigations and guidelines, the Act ensures protection and honour.
  3. What are the implications for businesses operating in Western Australia? The Act mandates compliance with processes that recognise and preserve Aboriginal cultural heritage.
  4. How does the four-tiered system of activities work? It categorises activities with distinct authorisation processes, reflecting respect for Aboriginal cultural heritage.
  5. What are the implications of broader offence provisions and increased penalties? These provisions serve as a stern reminder of the importance of preserving Aboriginal cultural heritage.

Feel free to contact us and to continue the conversation. Together, we tread a path that acknowledges and honours Australia’s first people.



The material contained in this publication is of a general nature only and it is not, nor is intended to be, legal advice.


AMK Law acknowledges the Traditional Owners of the land on which we are fortunate to live and work. We pay our respects to Elders, both past and present and further acknowledge the important role that Indigenous people continue to play within our communities.

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