21/01/2010 - 00:00

Change too slow for indigenous Australians

21/01/2010 - 00:00


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Indigenous Australians still lack sufficient opportunities in the Pilbara.

IN 1946, 20 years before the Gurindji people’s famous Wave Hill strike in the Northern Territory, my late father, Peter Coppin, and other elders led the entire tribal clans off the cattle stations in the Pilbara region of Western Australia for equal pay, better working conditions, and a quality of lifestyle comparable to that of the region’s white population.

They never went back to those stations despite being thrown in gaols and arrested many times by the police. From that time onwards, the Pilbara Aboriginal strikers had one desire – to run their own enterprises that would create a prosperous lifestyle and protect their traditional culture.

They were further ahead in terms of conquering the market system and making it work for them than any other indigenous group in Australia.

Because of this spirit and their leadership, the Pilbara Aboriginal Contractors’ Association is, in my view, the most advanced and interesting experiment in the country, trailblazing for everyone else.

The Pilbara is often described as the nation’s engine room because of its significant contribution to the national wealth. In 2008–09, the value of WA’s mineral and petroleum industry reached $71.3 billion, representing a 19 per cent increase compared to the previous year.

The larger mining companies of the Pilbara region wield significant power over regional economic planning and development, as well as over the contractors they deal with.

The Pilbara also contains significant economic development opportunities and, sadly, a significant number of people who are not able to participate in these opportunities.

In many ways, the Pilbara has a dual economy; it contains a resource sector that is currently enjoying boom times, alongside an Aboriginal population with extremely high levels of unemployment, the second highest incarceration rate in the Western world (behind the Kimberley) and significant poverty.

Since the Native Title Act (1993), which provided a mechanism for negotiations and agreements between developers, native title groups and traditional owners, there have been great expectations this would lead to economic and employment benefits not previously available for Aboriginal people in Australia.

While native title processes have given greater powers to Aboriginal people when it comes to negotiations over land use (and many large companies and their contractors have responded with Aboriginal employment schemes and contracts), the power imbalances and barriers to participation remain.

Research shows that, in reality, the economic status has changed little in recent decades for indigenous people residing adjacent to major long-life mines and gas operations in the Pilbara. Their economic status is similar to that of indigenous people elsewhere in regional and remote Australia.

But another major factor is the attitude and response of resource companies, governments and engineering procurement contract managers – or EPCMs – and their inability to comprehend the extent of historic Aboriginal disadvantage and strain on the social fabric of societies so radically affected by colonisation and mining.

Last year, in response to frustrations expressed about the lack of contract awarding to local Pilbara Aboriginal contractors, Rio Tinto undertook an independent enquiry into Aboriginal contracting practices. The subsequent Wand Report clearly highlighted that the company and its EPCMs lacked a strategic and systemic position to Pilbara Aboriginal contractors, despite the company being in the region for decades. Nothing has changed at Rio since the report.

The lack of economic benefit has led to indigenous people in the region relying on charitable trusts. These trusts are established as part of commercial agreements entered into between indigenous claimant groups and companies, such as mining companies, that wish to use their lands.

However, trusts cannot increase capacity for Aboriginal people to provide products and deliver services, or increase skills and abilities in business management and corporate governance. The trusts perpetuate poverty.

Poverty is lucrative in indigenous affairs for non-indigenous accountants, community/organisation/ native title advisers and territorial lawyers.

The resource industry’s role in society was defined in essentially economic terms: the extraction, processing and marketing of resources, and the development of capital, technology and managerial capacities.

Today, the resource industry is expected to play a much larger role in ensuring the wellbeing of the communities where it operates; to adopt more positive and proactive approaches to social development.

In some cases, Aboriginal participation in the mining sector appears to be growing, albeit slowly. Companies including BHP Billiton Iron Ore, working with the Pilbara Aboriginal Contractors Association, have demonstrated a commitment to Aboriginal employment through innovative schemes such as the BHP Billiton Iron Ore Indigenous Contractor Guidelines.

However, Rio Tinto’s Pilbara Iron, Woodside, Fortescue Metal Group, and most junior resource companies tend to create token pledges and show indigenous enterprises, usually reaching a fever pitch around the time of a new land access agreement.

This has created widespread community, public and media cynicism about the effectiveness of resource companies and government seriously addressing indigenous needs in the Pilbara.

History will judge Sam Walsh, Don Voelte and other executives on the legacy they will leave for Aboriginal people in the Pilbara.

It is now time for the Barnett government and Nationals leader Brendan Grylls to review current legislative regimes in common law countries, (in particular the Canadian experience with socioeconomic agreements between industry and Canada’s indigenous peoples), with the aim of developing legislation to require contracting opportunities to be made available to local Pilbara based indigenous enterprises.

It means the big companies must put in place serious measures that give opportunity to local Aboriginal contractors to participate.

n Barry Taylor is director of 4BCM, which specialises in the areas of business development, employment and training, Indigenous relations and government relations.



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