Australia - Aborigines have a right to economic development

Date of publication: 
30 September 2015

In his victory speech, new Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced: “There has never been a more exciting time to be alive than today and there has never been a more exciting time to be an Australian. We will ensure that all Australians understand that their government recognises the opportunities of the future.”

If federal, state and territory governments are to ensure that Aboriginal Australians are included in these “opportunities of the future”, it is obvious their first priority should be to support the economic initiatives of Aboriginal people.

Remarkably, some governments do not understand this. Take the most recent Queensland state governments.

On Cape York Peninsula near Aurukan, there’s $20 billion worth of bauxite waiting to be mined. The traditional owners of the area, the Wik and Wik Way people, eager to be part of the economic development of their region, formed a joint venture with an Australian mining company to create Aurukan Bauxite Developments and planned to mine the resource.

As part of the joint venture, ABD was to give a 15 per cent share of the project to traditional owners, two Aboriginal directors would be appointed to a board of seven, and there were unambiguous commitments to indigenous employment and training. ABD chairman Nicholas Stump has 40 years’ experience in the mining industry and was formerly chief executive of Comalco and MIM Holdings. According to Cape York indigenous leader Noel Pearson: “He is leading a serious team that has the money, the capability and the capacity to do this.”

Here was an opportunity for Aboriginal people to exercise their property rights under native title and control and benefit from development on their country, from operating mining equipment right up to a board level. Here was an opportunity for Aboriginal people to make a significant step towards economic independence.

But ABD didn’t win the tender. In a highly questionable process the former Liberal National Party government of Campbell Newman gave preferred proponent status to Swiss mining giant Glencore. In recent weeks, Annastacia Palaszczuk’s Labor government has refused to overturn the Newman government’s decision.

History has shown that a failure to support the economic initiatives of traditional owners burdens our welfare system and creates cycles of poverty and unemployment. It’s only when traditional owners fully participate in development and make decisions about what happens on their native title areas that these cycles are broken. Excluding them means taxpayers will continue to foot the welfare bill.

Across Australia, we’re seeing intense pressure on traditional owners from proponents and companies wishing to access, explore or develop on traditional country. I think there is a common misconception that Aboriginal people are a hindrance to development. This is not the case. Traditional owners want jobs. Equally, we want to protect the things that are important to us, the environment and our cultural heritage. These are not mutually exclusive. Further, when development happens in partnership with traditional owners, when we have free, prior and informed consent over development on country, this allows us to promote our ‘‘triple bottom line’’ of people and culture, country and economy. It also makes for speedier, more streamlined and more cost-effective project approval process.

Most international investors recognise this reality and are prepared to back a project only if it has traditional owner consent.

In contrast, Australia’s Native Title Act allows projects to go ahead without Aboriginal consent, which seriously undermines the negotiating position of traditional owners. Federal, state and territory governments need to support traditional owners so they can negotiate from a position of strength, and to ensure they participate in economic development on their native title lands. I applaud the traditional owners of Aurukan for standing up for their right to be involved in development on their own terms.

It is disappointing the state government chose to support a foreign company over a local joint venture with traditional owners. Governments have a responsibility to look after their citizens first and not back multinational companies, especially when those citizens are among Australia’s most disadvantaged.

Wayne Bergmann is chief executive of KRED Enterprises, a Broome-based charitable trust committed to independent Aboriginal economic development.