Colin MacKinnon-Dodd ABC - The Drum 19th July 2011
Few non-Indigenous Australians understand the depth of connection between my people, their land and our Dreamtime.
It has been interwoven by tens of thousands of years of family life, cultural practice and sacred ancestral burials. Our heritage is the country that we walk on and live with. It is deeply embedded in our cultural identity.
Every culture is motivated to preserve their history. Despite being so much younger in comparison to Aboriginal culture, Western culture has serious laws that protect its sacred places and religious sites. This protection stops many activities like abseiling down St Patrick's Cathedral or setting up camp at the Shrine. Yet Western laws do not accord anywhere near the level of respect for sacred Aboriginal land. They allow tourists to climb the most sacred of sites, Uluru, and they allow for mining to occur on sacred land.
Can you imagine the extent of trauma experienced by my people when the family/land connection is severed? The impact of this separation can be too devastating for any amount of monetary compensation. In perspective, it would be far less painful for the chief executive of Fortesque Metals, Andrew Forrest, to be forced to give up his house for a pittance, watch his church demolished and his family gravesite dug up.
2011 is a critical time in relation to issues of mining royalties, tax and Aboriginal rights. It is now clear that after many decades of open slather, miners have become used to bloated profits far in excess of what they were entitled to; firstly because of exploitative and unfair treatment of Indigenous people and secondly because governments have seriously under-taxed them in the past. Indeed governments have been paying welfare to traditional landholders to make up for the debt that miners should have been paying. It has led to a scandalously inefficient welfare system that has been weighed down by excessive bureaucracy and a regime of sit-down money that has caused irreparable damage. For too long bucketloads of money has been misdirected and wasted rather than invested in the future.
There are two salient facts about mining in Australia:
- Aboriginal people have been forced to make far bigger sacrifices than anyone else to accommodate mining.
- Mining has brought fewer benefits to Aboriginal people than to anyone else.
Many of these issues, which have been 'invisible' for so long, must now be placed onto the agenda. After several decades of lost opportunities, there are some dreadful imbalances that need to be redressed. There is no question that this conundrum should have been resolved long before the current debate about the carbon tax and the super-profits tax. But unfortunately a combination of incompetence, greed and short-term power politics has sabotaged the solution; which of course has suited the mining industry. The great concern for Aboriginal people is that they will miss the boat - that these two highly legitimate taxes will take precedence over the most important tax of all - a fair and just royalty system for traditional landholders.
It is high time to raise the status of Aboriginal people at the negotiating table. The Mabo decision acknowledged our rightful place as 'stakeholders'. We've got to stop being seen as 'recipients' and start seeing ourselves as landlords. Miners cannot be trusted in this deregulated environment. They need to be regulated by appropriate legislation to stop them from exploiting Indigenous people. Negotiators for traditional landholders, in our case the Yamatji Marlpa Aboriginal Corporation, need to be reminded that they represent the interests of all tribal people and carry a huge responsibility to negotiate for fair and competent outcomes - this has not happened in the past. Currently they are paid either by the Government or the miners - and often their loyalties are determined by those that pay them. Negotiating terms also need to be redirected - away from welfare handouts and sit-down money, and towards more proactive involvement. Whatever happened to allocation of shares in the industries that service the boom? All future mining deals must include Indigenous people as participants in the service industries to ensure that Aboriginal people receive the necessary training and experience to become self-sustainable. Miners should be permitted access to our land only when deals are equitable and benefits are widespread.
One mining company that appears to be the most progressive and balanced is Rio Tinto. Their superior awareness has led them to strike a $2 billion deal with traditional owners and prompted them to commit to employing at least 14 per cent of its workforce with local Aboriginal people. Rio Tinto's chief executive Sam Walsh said: "It's good for the Aboriginal community. It's good for our business. It also happens to be the right thing to do." Yet while the deal is impressive, there could be a sneaky devil lurking in the detail. Rio Tinto has cleverly commissioned experts to create a package deal - instead of negotiating one mine at a time they have sealed up 40 mines with the one deal. Their public presentation has been cosmetically enhanced by multiplying payments of $50 million a year for 40 years to equal an impressive looking $2 billion. This is the closest that we get to the middle ground.
In contrast to Rio Tinto's real slice of pie is an insulting offer of a lonely breadcrumb from Fortesque Metal Group to the Yindjibarndi people. Fortesque's offer of just $4 million cash and $6 million on housing from billions of dollars of profit equates to less than 4 cents in every $1,000.
This represents a continuation of the darkest days when mining companies ruthlessly pursued advantage at the expense of traditional owners. Yet Mr Forrest says that he is a friend of Aboriginal people and a philanthropist. He says that the more time he spends with Aboriginal people the more he loves them. In truth all this is making us nauseous and wary. If he genuinely wanted to make a difference he could single-handedly liberate Aboriginal people from third-world conditions. Yet Fortesque is applying for the right to mine more than twice the land of BHP and Rio Tinto put together. Aboriginal people are closely watching Mr Forrest and his close friendship with WA Indigenous Affairs Minister Peter Collier. Mr Collier is soon to be adjudicating over whether or not to grant an exemption to Fortesque Metals and enable mining on sacred Aboriginal land. Where are the safeguards to protect sacred sites and to uphold the integrity of the governmental decision-making process?
Aboriginal people want the following to be implemented: We want Mr Forrest and Fortesque Metals to hand their existing leases to BHP or Rio Tinto. There should be an international body that protects the integrity of land negotiations with Aboriginal people. Government decision-making processes need to be fireproofed against the influence of big business interests. Aboriginal people should have equal access to Government decision makers. A second daily newspaper needs to be established in WA to provide diversity of opinion and balance on Indigenous issues.
Colin McKinnon-Dodd is a businessman and Aboriginal advocate.