24/10/2014 - 16:07

Negotiations stifling indigenous corporations

24/10/2014 - 16:07

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A WA mining executive believes it’s time the corporate sector was better educated on the way indigenous communities like to do business.

Negotiations stifling indigenous corporations
MISSION: Tony Shaw (foreground) and Mark Bennett are touring Australia to improve relations between the corporate sector and Aboriginal communities.

Aboriginal corporations holding native title rights in Western Australia now have incomes averaging $2 million, more than double the national average.

However, a range of stakeholders says the corporations’ potential is being limited by the structure in which they’re required to operate.

Those critical of the process include Sirius Resources chief executive Mark Bennett, who told Business News that, when he first arrived from the UK, he was surprised at the way indigenous communities were expected to do business on other companies’ terms.

“I don’t think a lot of people in Australia actually realise the situation to the same extent as someone coming in from outside,” Mr Bennett said.

His comments come of the back of a self-described ‘positive’ land-use agreement with the Ngadju people, who are traditional owners of the land containing the Nova nickel deposit.

Negotiations were over in nine months, a timeframe significantly shorter than many agreements, which can take years to determine.

Mr Bennett said the shorter timeframe and the positive result (in that the agreement was beneficial for both the company and the community) was due to the community-minded method Sirius took in entering negotiations.

“The first thing I said to the people was we want to do a deal with you, but we don’t want to do it because we have to do it, we want to do it because we want to do it,” he said.

Mr Bennett had the help of Tony Shaw, whose focus is on increasing cultural awareness and diversity amid the corporate sector through his company, Indigenous Services Australia.

Mr Shaw said Sirius’s approach to the agreement was one that should be replicated by other miners in order to get maximum benefit for both parties.

“A lot of entities actually suggest that, in order to deal with issues as sensitive as land access, you’ve got to have a technical and analytical approach … my suggestion is that that is the wrong approach,” Mr Shaw told Business News.

“I think, fundamentally, if you have this corporate approach it’s always about economics.”

Messrs Shaw and Bennett are embarking on a nation-wide road show to use their experience as an example of the potential for agreements with Aboriginal communities and educate the corporate sector on the way indigenous communities prefer to do business.

“The more corporatised it is the less real it is and the harder it is to gain mutual trust,” Mr Bennett said.

The latest data from the Office of the Registrar of Indigenous Corporations shows there are 16 registered native title organisations in WA.

The total combined income from these organisations was $33.6 million in 2012-13.

That formed part of the $502 million total combined income for 122 largest Aboriginal corporations in WA, which includes organisations holding native title but also corporations founded without native title.

Registrar of Indigenous Corporations, Anthony Bevan, said the growth of the native title-founded organisations was promising.

“They’ve still got a way to go in terms of managing their capacity, governance, finances and managing native title,” he said.

“But there are promising signs and improvements that we’re seeing in terms of income generation in the broader sector, and I’m sure that will flow through to the (native-title) sector in time as well.”

Former senator and deputy chair of the Australian native Title Tribunal, Fred Chaney, recently criticised the native title process during a visit to Perth – particularly the fact that it required communities to form legalised body corporates.

“The way the system is run [involves] high-priced lawyers representing the state and representing the company, to screw every usable economic factor out of native title they can,” Mr Chaney said.

However, PwC Indigenous Consulting principal Lee Bevan said Aboriginal corporations were responsible for doing business in an acceptable way.

“If you want to be dealt with as an adult then you have to behave as an adult,” Mr Bevan said.

“[But] we very much believe that Aboriginal communities are the best architects of their development and their change.”

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