‘Spiralled out of control’: Parks Australia’s relationship with Traditional Owners hanging by thread

By Jackson Graham

March 10, 2022

Amanda Vanstone
The federal-appointed senior advisory group co-chaired by former Liberal senator Amanda Vanstone and Northern Land Council chief Joe Martin-Jard, (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

Indigenous Australians have “almost complete lack of trust in Parks Australia”, with a blistering new report finding the agency has failed to recognise their legal ownership, local traditional knowledge and culture. 

A federal-appointed senior advisory group co-chaired by former Liberal senator Amanda Vanstone and Northern Land Council chief Joe Martin-Jard found the relationship between Traditional Owners and the agency had “deteriorated to a deplorable state”. 

“There has been a systemic failure in Canberra to truly appreciate both the reality of Traditional Owners’ legal ownership and the intrinsic value of local traditional knowledge and culture,” the advisory group says in the report. 

“Parks Australia has behaved not as a lessee but as the de facto titleholder … bureaucracy has spiralled out of control to kill common sense.” 

Traditional Owners and Parks Australia jointly manage the Kakadu National Park and Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park in the Northern Territory, and Booderee National Park at Jervis Bay, NSW. 

The report finds the federal government has failed to live up to funding commitments and “infrastructure, roads and land management, which have deteriorated rather than being enhanced”. 

It finds shifting Canberra-based jobs to the parks would assist the bureaucracy to understand the practicalities and prioritise efforts towards park improvement. 

“The public service often operates in silos and this does not make for a complete understanding of what response is required of government,” the report finds. 

Some of the report’s 24 recommendations include a culture change at Parks Australia to ensure recognition of Indigenous ownership of the parks; Traditional Owners lead new locally tailored cultural protocols to guide the behaviour of all staff and businesses working in parks; and a range of new positions including cultural engagement officer and cultural coordinators in each park. 

The senior advisory group makes clear that only Traditional Owners can explain traditional lore and culture to visitors; understand the importance of sacred sites; have understanding of land management practices including fire and pest control and pass on traditional lore and practice to the younger generations. 

“Traditional Owners are concerned that younger generations don’t see opportunities for work on Country and that valuable traditional lore and practice will be lost,” the report says. 

“Lack of appreciation of the importance of local traditional knowledge, ineffective training, and thoughtless job design and recruitment practices have meant Traditional Owners are too often excluded.” 

Environment Sussan Ley thanked the advisory group for being “unapologetically stark in its assessment” and for recommending a path forward.  

She announced new investments in Indigenous employment, a stronger decision-making voice for Traditional Owners and steps to modernise management worth $48 million. 

“At the heart of that process is the trust between Traditional Owners and Parks Australia, strengthening respect for culture and customs, and the participation of Indigenous Australians in leading the management of their Country,” Ley said. 

“I will work through the recommendations with the Traditional Owners and Parks Australia but have already asked Parks Australia to implement further measures to improve joint management, and to undertake major analysis to identify options for modernising parks business.”


State strategy restores Traditional Owners’ involvement in land management

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