Is it time to change mining’s relationship with Indigenous Australia?

Are we on the verge of a massive shake-up of the way Australia’s mining industry engages with our Indigenous communities?

Are we on the verge of a massive shake-up of the way Australia’s mining industry engages with our Indigenous communities? There’s plenty of evidence to suggest we are.

Aboriginal Australians want to play more than a simply transactional role in the industry that exploits the resources on their traditional lands. That is, more than financial payments, more than jobs.

The start of a national conversation

Mining’s relationship with Australia’s Indigenous communities has been evolving over the decades but, if it had an inflection point, it was the destruction of the Juukan Gorge caves in WA’s Hamersley Ranges—a place with evidence of continuous human habitation for 46,000 years—by Rio Tinto in May 2020.

The Australian Government’s response included an enquiry, held by the Joint Standing Committee on Northern Australia. The committee reported in October 2021, recommending a suite of changes to various Acts aimed at stopping an incident like Juukan Gorge happening again. By then, a much larger conversation about the relationship between mining companies and Indigenous Australians was under way. 

Long-term relationships for mutual benefit

Here’s how Rob Carruthers, Director of Policy and Advocacy at the Chamber of Minerals and Energy of WA (CME) put it at the time of the report’s release.

“Industry in WA hasn’t just waited for new legislation; we’ve used this time to take action,” he said. “This has included actions such as reviewing existing heritage approvals, cultural heritage management plans and Native Title agreements to incorporate contemporary Aboriginal custodian views, reflect new information and better protect heritage values. 

“Formalisation of consultation and agreement-making on cultural heritage management will enshrine the priorities of local Custodians in ongoing project development.

“Mining has occurred in the Pilbara for more than six decades, and in the Goldfields for double that time frame. We acknowledge that we haven’t always gotten things right, at times with deeply regrettable consequences. Our commitment remains to invest in long-term relationships for mutual benefit, and we must continue to work hard to build open dialogue and respond to the priorities of our Indigenous partners.”  

Part of a bigger, global trend

It was a theme picked up by analysts at Deloitte in their latest Tracking the Trends report for 2022. It talked about “establishing a paradigm for Indigenous relations”.

“Today, it’s clear that Indigenous communities around the world no longer want to be positioned as stakeholders in transactional-style relationships,” the report stated. “They are keen to establish a new type of connection and understanding with all entities that participate in their environment, including mining companies, about responsibility for the landscape.

“Mining companies are now under pressure from multiple angles to rethink their strategies and set the stage for future relationships that offer economic and social prosperity for all.”

The report authors were at pains to point out that lip service simply isn’t good enough. This needs to be a fundamental shift.

Laying the foundations for fundamental change

Here’s what the Deloitte analysts recommended:

  • Modern, Canadian-style treaties between First Nations groups and Crown Governments, covering a range of rights for Indigenous people with respect to land, water and resource development.
  • New ESG (economic and social governance) frameworks which record qualitative data around the diversity of Aboriginal employees, Aboriginal leadership within the company, and engagement with Indigenous-led businesses.
  • Early engagement with Indigenous communities in a culturally appropriate way, to establish a dialogue and build trust. The goal is that good relationships can avoid conflict and litigation.
  • Diverse governance. That is, give Indigenous leaders a seat at the board table, and encourage Indigenous leadership at management level.

Joe Hedger, Deloitte’s Indigenous Services Group Partner said: “What we are seeing now is Indigenous people standing up for themselves and wanting to take more agency in shaping the future of their nations. What that means is that the legal, economic and social relationship between Indigenous people and the rest of the nation is going to change dramatically.”

Indigenous leadership gets a boost from the Feds

The message around Indigenous leadership seems to be winning support. In February 2022, the Federal Government announced a $21.9 million Indigenous Leadership and Governance Package. 

The package included $13.5 million in funding for the already-established Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience scheme, so it could expand its support and help young Indigenous Australians take on leadership roles, further education and employment. The scheme will be able to help around 10,000 students a year.

There was also $6.7 million directed to the Office of the Registrar of Indigenous Corporations to develop governance training materials especially for Indigenous organisations, and $1.7 million for the National Indigenous Australians Agency for scholarships for First Nations Australians to study company directors’ courses.

Mining industry welcomes Indigenous leadership funding

The funding was immediately welcomed by the mining industry. The Minerals Council of Australia (MCA) said the investment would, “pay strong dividends for mining regions and business”.

“Currently, Indigenous Australians make up 3.7% of Australia’s overall workforce—and up to 20 per cent at some mine sites—and about 10% of industry apprentices and trainees,’ The Minerals Council said in a statement. “Mining also became the largest employer of Indigenous Australian men in remote areas in 2016.

“Mining has a strong track record of supporting Indigenous businesses, with Indigenous business owner managers accounting for double the share of non-Indigenous owner managers in the sector.

“Building on decades of growth in the Indigenous mining equipment, technology and services sector, Aboriginal-owned mines and projects are also emerging. These include the Yolngu-owned Gulkula bauxite mine and the Anindilyakwa-owned minerals project in the Northern Territory.

“The MCA has long-advocated for increased and stable government funding and support for Traditional Owner representative organisations to establish foundations and develop community-led economic development initiatives.

“The new funding will also help Indigenous entrepreneurs to grow and develop their businesses.

“The Australian minerals industry will look for opportunities to complement these initiatives as part of its work to support implementation of the National Roadmap on Indigenous Jobs, Skills and Wealth Creation.”

Partners and proponents

In February 2022, the Joint Standing Committee on Northern Australia released a new report, highlighting the opportunities for Indigenous Australians as partners and proponents in minerals development, to support the development of northern Australia.

Among other changes, it recommended:

  • That partnerships with Traditional Owners designed to build a better economic future on Native Title lands are more likely to succeed if they’re developed in line with the cultural norms and practices of each community
  • The industry recognise that Native Title is entering a “post-determination era”, where Traditional Owners are “dealing with the daunting task of leveraging statutory rights into economic and social advancement for their communities”
  • Indigenous communities be well-resourced and equipped, so they can be free from coercion and can make decisions based on good quality information.

Change is coming

The overarching message is there’s a real will for change—not just on the part of Indigenous communities themselves, but also on the part of government and the wider mining industry.

If everyone wants change, and if we’re all pulling in the same direction, then perhaps something momentous really is possible?

Mining People International has more than 27 years’ specialist experience helping mining companies find the best candidates across every job category. Find out more here or get in touch today.

Dan Hatch
Mining People International