Last week, the relationship between the WA Government and the mining industry came under scrutiny, with a spotlight falling squarely on the personal friendship between Indigenous Affairs Minister Peter Collier and mining magnate Andrew Forrest.
Ordinarily, this relationship might not attract much comment. However, under the Aboriginal Heritage Act (pdf), Collier has the final say on any application to destroy or damage an Aboriginal site — and Forrest’s company FMG is waiting on the results of two such applications within the Yindjibarndi claim area.
The Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation (YAC), whose legal battles with FMG attracted a great deal of attention earlier this year, expressed concern (pdf) at Collier’s statement that he took "guidance and great advice from [Forrest’s] wisdom".
YAC CEO Michael Woodley stated: "We try to maintain faith in the process and participate in good faith, but it’s hard to feel like you are getting a fair go when you hear the Minister say he takes advice from the man that wants to bulldoze our sacred sites".
The Aboriginal Heritage Act — long criticised for offering at best inadequate protection — purports to "preserve" Aboriginal sites and objects "on behalf of the community". The interests of the Western Australian community, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, are however increasingly presumed to coincide with those of the mining industry, rather than being drawn from a broader understanding of the public good.
Mining companies are more than corporate entities — they are political actors whose interests may temporarily coincide with those of individual governments or political parties. The industry’s relationship with the Coalition extends beyond the personal; last week also saw continued efforts from the Liberals to encourage companies to help them campaign against the Federal Labor Government’s mining and carbon taxes. Some went too far in their enthusiasm: perennial foot-in-mouth WA MP Don Randall was justly criticised for his sexism in characterising the industry as having been "pussy-whipped" by Gillard.
For his part, Forrest is stepping down as chief executive of FMG but ramping up his attacks on the "unAustralian" minerals rent resource tax (MRRT) and mooting a High Court challenge to its constitutionality. WA Premier Colin Barnett has indicated that if the mining industry does mount such a challenge, WA will "most likely intervene in the case, but we’ll wait and see".
Writing in the Financial Review last Friday, Laura Tingle noted that Forrest had been "utterly silent" about the WA government’s recent decision to increase mining royalties, which would "hit the core of his business". When asked why he had not complained about this decision, Forrest explained: "the royalties I pay will go to teachers, nurses, hospitals, roads etcetera … the MRRT has been whipped into place by a government desperate to plug a hole which has appeared in their budget caused by their own actions". Tingle suggested dryly that this distinction had "just the slightest smack of partisan politics about it".
Forrest has also been in the news for his involvement in initiatives to increase Indigenous employment; he stated recently that although the Australian Employment Covenant he launched in 2008 with then PM Kevin Rudd might not reach its aim of creating 50,000 jobs for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, "we’ll get scary close".
The ongoing stoush between Forrest’s company and the YAC sits uneasily with the billionaire’s reputation on Indigenous affairs more broadly; a standing which led WA Mines and Petroleum Minister Norman Moore to praise Collier as "wise to seek Mr Forrest’s opinion and advice on Aboriginal issues in view of Mr Forrest’s long-term association and involvement with Aboriginal communities".
On a broader level, the dispute also contrasts with the soothing rhetoric about a benevolent "culture of agreement-making" which former native title lawyer David Ritter has analysed. Interrogating a cavalcade of positive press releases and largely uncritical media reporting, Ritter notes that a "disinterested bystander could be forgiven for thinking that the profusion of … agreements" did not reflect Native Title Act provisions and enlightened self-interest, being rather "a product of everybody simply deciding to be nicer to each other for a change".
The clash between FMG and the YAC is anything but "nice", and therefore sits uncomfortably against the thrust of mainstream reporting on native title.
Such reporting often draws on a set of assumptions convenient to industry and government alike: all native title deals are inherently good (unless they can be derisively classed as welfare); the mining industry is a friend to all Indigenous groups; a narrowly defined development is the solution to disadvantage suffered by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people; and miners and native title claimants share common cause against interfering environmentalists.
Developments in native title tend to be viewed through this prism, producing a somewhat distorted result. Thus the Goolarabooloo Jabirr Jabirr native title claimants’ decision last month to enter into an agreement on the Kimberley gas hub was triumphantly reported as "a major slap in the face to environmentalists".
There has of course been well-publicised conflict between the Kimberley Land Council (KLC) and environmentalists; last week KLC director Wayne Bergmann argued that opponents of the gas hub should desist from protesting at the site, as it "would be shameful to see the wishes of the whole group being undermined by [protesters]expressing their views about development".
This is however not a simple black and white (or Black v green) issue — local Aboriginal people have also been involved in the protests. Joseph Roe, who was removed as an applicant to a native title claim over the area last year, has been a prominent opponent of the gas hub, and has recently written an open letter to the companies involved, arguing that they needed to "understand the storm [they are]headed toward here and pay more attention to the alternative options for Browse gas processing that do not include the Kimberley coast …Your joint venture has no social or moral license to operate here".
In contrast, Barnett proclaimed the decision to enter into the gas hub agreement as "an important act of self-determination that will generate real economic opportunities and real jobs for Indigenous people over many years". Put mildly, this is a strange definition of self-determination.
The decision was made in the face of a threat of compulsory acquisition under the highly restrictive Native Title Act — and in the context of an almost overwhelming consensus that the gas hub represented the only hope for Aboriginal people in the Kimberley. A refusal would under these circumstances have been extraordinary.
The ideal of Indigenous self-determination appears in public discourse to have been reduced to the act of saying yes to developers. The disputes between YAC and FMG raise the question whether a decision to say no instead would be thus honoured.
As Yindjibarndi await the Minister’s decision on FMG’s applications; companies continue to campaign against taxes not to their liking; and government and industry find themselves in warm agreement on solutions to Indigenous disadvantage, it is worth reassessing the complex notion of the public good.
The author was previously employed at a Western Australian native title representative body. The views expressed here are her own.
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