NSW Government washes its hands of responsibility for protecting the Butterfly Cave

In Parliament | 08.05.17

The NSW Opposition asked the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs Sarah Mitchell what steps the Berejiklian Government was taking to protect the Butterfly Cave in West Wallsend, given recent allegations of spying and installation of CCTV cameras around the site.

Under questioning in the NSW Parliament (see transcript below), the Minister redirected all questions and concerns to the local council and the developer, refusing to outline what the Government was doing to protect the site and the women who use it.

The Butterfly Cave was formally declared an Aboriginal Place on 17 May 2013 to ensure its recognition and protection as a place of special significance to Aboriginal culture, with the cave being used as a traditional ceremony and meeting place for Awabakal women for thousands of years.

The Minister for Aboriginal Affairs admitted she was aware of the many issues of concern about the proximity of a new residential development and possible damage to the cave, yet refused to take any action from within the State Government.

The best the Minister could offer was to encourage all parties – all except the State Government – “to work together to determine if a resolution of the community's concerns can be reached”.

The Government’s failure comes amid claims of CCTV being installed in locations near the cave, with local women seriously concerned for the potential invasion of privacy that this may bring when visiting the cave.

Labor has previously thrown its support behind the Awabakal people who are trying to keep this special place protected, and the Opposition will continue to support attempts to ensure the cave remains sacred.

Quotes attributable to Shadow Environment Minister Penny Sharpe

“It is clear the Government has washed its hands of any responsibility to protect this special place, giving the lie to any appearance of respect for conserving culture and heritage important to local communities.

“I know the local Awabakal community and the broader community in the Hunter will condemn the Government’s disregard for ensuring that the Butterfly Cave is adequately protected and conserved.

“So called heritage protections for Aboriginal Cultural Heritage mean little given what is happening to the Butterfly Cave.

“Reforms to Aboriginal heritage laws have been stalled for years under this government, so I call on the Premier to rekindle those reforms, bring them to public exhibition as matter of priority, and commit to saving the Butterfly Cave now.”

Quotes attributable to Member for Cessnock Clayton Barr

“The Berejiklian Government is failing to protect the Butterfly Cave. The only real solution here is for it to provide a bigger buffer zone around the site and that means purchasing some land back from the developer. This is estimated to cost between $1 million and $2 million.

“Last week the Government found $310 million to protect convict heritage in Sydney that is 200 years old yet it cannot find a single dollar to protect Aboriginal women’s heritage that is over 35,000 years old and still in active use today.”

Legislative Council Hansard – 04 May 2017 – Proof

The Hon. PENNY SHARPE (14:38): My question is directed to the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs in her own capacity and representing the Minister for Women. What steps is the Government taking to protect the integrity of the cultural practices at the Hunter Valley Butterfly Cave, where local female Indigenous leaders have complained that their secret women's business has been covertly monitored by outsiders associated with a local property developer, including the installation of closed-circuit television cameras around the cave?

The Hon. SARAH MITCHELL (Minister for Early Childhood Education, Minister for Ab original Affairs, and Assistant Minister for Education) (14:39): I thank the member for raising this matter in the House. I am aware of it as the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, and members of this and the other place have also raised it with me. I can inform the House that the cave site is a declared Aboriginal Place. It is an offence to harm or desecrate an Aboriginal Place and the maximum penalty for a corporation is $1.1 million. As the property has a valid development consent all issues relating to the development of the land need to be directed to the council and the developer. Concerns about spying or other allegations should be raised with the police.

This is an issue primarily for the Minister for the Environment, the Hon. Gabrielle Upton, as I am sure the Hon. Penny Sharpe is aware. However, I am also aware of community concern about the potential impact of a residential subdivision on the butterfly cave, which is an important Aboriginal cultural heritage site in West Wallsend. The Government has recognised the significance of the site, in particular to Aboriginal women, by formally gazetting it an Aboriginal Place under the National Parks and Wildlife Act.

The cave adjoins a residential subdivision, Apple Tree Grove, which has received development approval and is currently being developed. I am aware of community concern that the gazetted boundary of the Aboriginal Place 20 metres from the subdivision is insufficient and it should be increased to 100 metres. There is also concern that vibrations from the nearby subdivision construction work will damage the cave. Although I have no direct role in this matter, I believe it is essential that Aboriginal cultural heritage be protected for future generations. I therefore encourage all parties including Awabakal women, the Awabakal Local Aboriginal Land Council, the NSW Aboriginal Land Council, Lake Macquarie Council and the Roche Group to work together to determine if a resolution of the community's concerns can be reached.