The Attorney-General has intervened in a court battle over alleged sacred site damage in Kakadu National Park, arguing the Commonwealth is not bound by protections enshrined in Northern Territory law.
- The federal Attorney-General has stepped into a long-running legal battle over a sacred site
- AG Michaelia Cash says the director of Parks Australia is protected from any criminal liability
- The Parks Australia director has indicated she intends to plead not guilty
A letter written by federal Attorney-General Michaelia Cash, released on Friday, directs Parks Australia to plead not guilty over the alleged illegal construction of a walking track to the top pools of Gunlom Falls.
The NT’s sacred sites watchdog, the Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority (AAPA), claims the track was built close to a restricted sacred site without proper authority.
Earlier this year, lawyers for Parks Australia flagged possible “constitutional issues” of Commonwealth immunity to the Northern Territory’s Sacred Sites Act, which they said could go to the High Court.
In the letter dated June 1, Ms Cash instructed Parks Australia director Jody Swirepik to contest the charges, arguing the federal government is not bound by protections enshrined in Northern Territory law.
“The [NT Sacred Sites Act] does not apply to the Commonwealth, noting the strong presumption that legislation does not impose criminal liability on the Commonwealth,” Ms Cash wrote.
“The Director of National Parks is ‘The Commonwealth’ for the purposes of the protection offered.”
Lawyers for Parks Australia indicated the not-guilty plea in the Darwin Local Court on Friday.
Judge Therese Austin adjourned the matter, saying a hearing would need to be arranged and a judge appointed.
In a statement, Ms Swirepik said her intention to fight the charges “does not diminish her commitment to working with Kakadu’s Traditional Owners”.
“I have expressed to Traditional Owners my wish to continue consultation to plan a suitable realignment of the Gunlom walking track,” she said.
“I acknowledge that the Gunlom walking track works caused significant distress to the Traditional Owners of the Gunlom region and other members of the community and express regret for the distress caused.”
A spokeswoman from the Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority said the organisation acknowledged the DNP has raised constitutional matters — and that they may be referred to the Supreme Court for consideration, but had nothing further to add at this time.
Parts of Gunlom — one of Kakadu’s biggest tourism drawcards — have remained closed since traditional owners raised issues with the walking track.
Parks Australia has since been authorised by AAPA to carry out remediation work.
The matter was adjourned to August 5, where it will be decided if the dispute will need to be heard in the Supreme Court of the NT.