New laws to douse sacred fire

THE "sacred fire" being fuelled by Aboriginal protesters in Kings Domain would almost certainly have been extinguished under new state laws.

Acting Premier John Thwaites said he did not support the fire but added it was protected by an emergency declaration of the federal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act.

Under proposed Aboriginal heritage laws before State Parliament, the Department for Victorian Communities will decide whether to let such fires keep burning.

"We would not envisage that the fire would be protected under the new legislation," Aboriginal Affairs Minister Gavin Jennings' spokesman, Martin Curtis, said yesterday.

"Emergency declarations that lack credibility reduce confidence in Aboriginal cultural heritage claims. The emergency declaration over the fire is precisely the kind of use of a declaration we want to avoid in the future."

The emergency declaration under which the so-called sacred fire will keep burning until May 9 was issued last week by one of 48 part-time volunteer Aboriginal heritage inspectors -- Vicki Nicholson-Brown.

The inspectors are appointed by Victoria's Aboriginal Affairs Minister but are under the power of the federal laws.

Mr Curtis said the declaration had been made without the State or Federal Governments being asked. "It did not require any second opinions or oversight by anyone more senior in the department to take effect," he said.

Under the new state laws the volunteer Aboriginal heritage inspectors will be replaced with 10 full-time employees of the Department for Victorian Communities.

"They will be properly trained and not act independently but will operate under departmental oversight," Mr Curtis said.

He said that under the new laws, emergency declarations would be replaced by stop orders issued with more rigour through better training of inspectors and departmental overseeing.

"It is the Government's intention that in future the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs will have the power to revoke a stop order at any time after it is issued, if it lacks merit," he said.

Last week a Supreme Court judge ordered the protesters to remove camping gear from the park, but allowed the fire to stay.

The group set up the camp on March 12 to protest against the Commonwealth Games but has since refused to leave, despite reprimands from state and federal governments; and council efforts to have them evicted.