Juukan owners lash out at govt response

The traditional owners of the destroyed Juukan Gorge rock shelters say they were disrespected and sidelined in the federal government's formal response.

Mining giant Rio Tinto blew up the 46,000-year-old Juukan caves in May 2020, devastating West Australian custodians and causing global outrage.

Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek on Thursday presented the government's response to a parliamentary report on the incident, labelling the sacred site's destruction "unthinkable" and pledging it will never happen again.

But the traditional owners, the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people, claimed they had not been properly consulted.

Chairman Burchell Hayes said Ms Plibersek's office had emailed the PKKP Aboriginal Corporation on Tuesday about the planned announcement.

He said custodians were angry and disappointed there had been "no detail or meaningful follow-up".

"It seems like a media event in Canberra is more important than giving PKKP people the respect of asking us what can be done to try and stop something like the destruction of the Juukan rock shelters happening again," Mr Hayes said in a statement.

"We would have expected the minister would want to meet with us before making a public announcement about our country and cultural heritage."

Ms Plibersek's office said the minister had attempted to engage with the PKKP several times this week.

"A meeting between the CEO and the minister was also offered," a spokesperson said.

Rio had legal permission to destroy the Juukan caves under WA's outdated Aboriginal Heritage Act, which has since been replaced by new state legislation.

A parliamentary committee which examined the destruction found major federal law reform was needed to protect Australia's cultural heritage.

Ms Plibersek said the government had accepted seven out of eight committee recommendations and would work through the final one with the First Nations Heritage Protection Alliance.

That recommendation relates to whether ultimate responsibility for cultural heritage protection should sit with the Indigenous Affairs minister or Environment minister.

"It is unthinkable that any society would knowingly destroy Stonehenge or the Egyptian pyramids ... but that's precisely what occurred in Juukan Gorge," she told parliament.

"This report explains how we reached that shameful moment ... (it) also tells the much bigger story of our national failure on Indigenous cultural heritage.

"We acknowledge that we have to do better. We are committed to doing so, in partnership with First Nations Australians."

WA senator Pat Dodson said Australia could not claim to respect the oldest living continuous culture on earth while having easy ways to destroy the fabric of their culture.

"(If) you continue to do that you're starting to embark on a ... road to obliterating any evidence about people's lives and histories in this nation," he said.

Ms Plibersek said the report made clear the system to protect cultural heritage was not working.

But she said any reforms were not about stopping development but aimed at addressing "our oldest imbalance".

"We're always a better country - more unified, more confident, more secure in ourselves - when we give everybody a seat at the table when we listen to all voices," she said.

Opposition spokesman Pat Conaghan said the issues raised by the report needed serious attention and consideration.

"They drew into very sharp focus the wider need for the modernisation of Indigenous heritage protection laws here in Australia," he said.

But the Nationals MP said any work to improve cultural heritage law should not "demonise" the resources industry or impose "unacceptable risks to sensible sustainable economic development across Australia".