'There's an elephant in the room that we have to talk about.'
The speaker is Mitch Hooke, a charismatic man with a voice that sounds like gravel rolling in a churn. He's come out to the Garma festival on Yolngu country, deep in the heart of Arnhem Land, to make his pitch.
Hooke is Chief Executive of the Minerals Council of Australia (MCA). At face value, he is an unlikely participant in this meeting of Indigenous justice activists, academics and cultural tourists.
But his opening line is a zinger, as he metaphorically prostrates himself and by extension, his industry in front of the assembled Lefties: 'I come from a generation that perpetuated systemic racial discrimination. We promoted the ideology of assimilation. We were ignorant of the importance of values and cultures to a society's integrity.'
For those assembled, this was sweet music coming from a representative of the mining industry. Hooke went on to say that in those early days he simply had no idea of the devastating loss of hope, and abject poverty that characterised many remote Indigenous communities.
He described the mining industry today as an 'industry transformed' and said that they were committed to 'respecting Indigenous rights and interests, and special connections to land and waters.' There were shades of Saul's 'Road to Damascus' conversion, as Hooke asserted that earning and maintaining a 'social licence' to operate a mine was 'far more enduring than a mere regulatory licence.'
'You simply can't be serious about a commitment to sustainable development if there is not a commitment to building sustainable communities beyond the life of the mine,' he stated.
For many, the concept of mining companies acting out of sheer altruism sticks in the craw. Motives of 'enlightened self interest' are much easier to swallow. So it was almost comforting when Hooke begin to speak of 'good business sense.' Not unreasonably, the miners start from the position that they have a business to run, and shareholders to satisfy.
Hooke said that 60 per cent of mining operations in Australia take place close to Indigenous communities. He observed that his industry faced 'profound people shortages,' and suggested that they would be looking to employ a further 70,000 people in the next decade.
The Australian Financial Review reported on 28 July that skill shortages in mining have pushed wages up by 10 per cent in the past two years. Yet a 2005 report commissioned by mining giant Rio Tinto put Indigenous unemployment in the Pilbara at almost 60 per cent.
Many of those who do have jobs are employed under the Community Development Employment Project's (CDEP) work-for-the-dole program, receiving low wages for often unsatisfying work. The demand for employment in remote Aboriginal Australia will continue to escalate, given that the Indigenous birth rate is almost double that of mainstream Australia, and that 57 per cent of the Indigenous population is under the age of 25.
Mining companies have the necessary capital, but face severe labour shortages in a range of far-flung locations. Remote Indigenous communities want meaningful work for their growing population of young people. The avalanche of evidence is compelling, and the opportunities readily apparent. However, the crucial caveat is that exploitation of mineral resources can proceed only in accordance with the dictates of an ancient and venerable culture.
That said, many Indigenous communities are positive about a future that includes carefully managed mining ventures. There is ample evidence that Indigenous Australia welcomes resource development where this is done sensitively and in full consultation with the traditional owners of the land. The suggestion that Aboriginal people are universally capricious about these matters is simply wrong.
Yet, governments Federal, State and Territory appear paralysed by the lobbying of sectional interest groups and are failing both the Aboriginal communities and the mining industry alike.
After unprecedented public opposition, the Federal Government's insidious amendments to the Aboriginal Land Rights Act passed through the Senate last week. The amendments provide the Government with a range of new weapons to use against Indigenous Australia, even if they are likely to be confined to the statutory armoury until after the next election.
For example, the amended Act will interfere with the capacity of Aboriginal Land Councils to enforce the right of veto that traditional owners currently exercise over mining on their land. These amendments can only serve to harden the positions adopted by negotiators for Aboriginal interests, and therefore reduce the store of good faith and flexibility that is needed to stitch together agreements.
In these circumstances, the mining industry and the Indigenous communities are moving ahead of Governments. Both parties are interested to engage in discussions about carefully planned and managed resource developments which can be mutually beneficial.
If Hooke is right, and the industry really has learned its lessons, then they face a daunting public relations task to propagate the enlightenment gospel.
A week after the Garma festival, I returned to Darwin to interview Jack Ah Kit, the first Indigenous Minister in a Northern Territory Government. Ah Kit, who retired from politics at the last election, is pleased to hear of the mining industry's progressive approach. He points out that the industry has never been known for its respect for Indigenous rights:
Twenty years ago, mining interests wanted to bulldoze Indigenous interests over the cliff. They attacked, rather than tried to sit down and negotiate and consult. I'm pro-mining, provided that it is done properly with all the environmental safeguards, and that it's done at Aboriginal people's pace. There are very good employment and training opportunities here, provided that a fair and reasonable deal is struck with the land owners. If all these things are in place, then that is terrific.
But Ah Kit also sounds a word of warning to developers keen to take advantage of the local labour force. There are infrastructure issues in many remote communities which governments at all levels have comprehensively failed to address.
Housing is one of the real problems in Aboriginal communities. Overcrowding is responsible for kids not going to school and kids not taking on training jobs. Mining agreements can provide dollars. You can have mines out there everywhere, but if people are not accommodated properly, how do you expect them to go to work?
Mitch Hooke concluded his presentation with a restatement of his key theme. 'We've shifted big time from deciding, announcing and defending to engaging, listening and learning, and we're trying to get governments to come along with us.'
The rhetoric is captivating, but Hooke also has a few runs on the board. In November 2005, the Minerals Council of Australia publicly criticised Federal Government reforms to Native Title Representative Bodies (NTRBs), the organisations that represent Indigenous interests in native title claims. The MCA stated that NTRBs had been 'chronically under-resourced in fulfilling their legislative functions' and asserted that this had resulted in delays in the negotiation of agreements. This is feisty stuff coming from a mining industry lobby group.
Hooke offers an exciting blueprint for the future. But the proof, as ever, will be in the taste of the pudding, rather than the brandishing of the recipe.
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