Ben Wyatt has quickly become one of Western Australia’s busiest and most senior board directors, with global mining giant Rio Tinto appointing him as a non-executive director.
Rio’s move comes just days after oil and gas producer Woodside Petroleum appointed Mr Wyatt to its board of directors.
In addition, Mr Wyatt was recently appointed to the boards of the West Coast Eagles and the Telethon Kids Institute.
Rio will be hoping Mr Wyatt helps it overcome the enormous reputational damage it suffered after last year’s destruction of the Juukan Gorge rock shelters.
He was the first indigenous treasurer of any Australian parliament and also held responsibility for Aboriginal affairs.
“I was deeply saddened and disappointed by the events at Juukan Gorge but I am convinced that Rio Tinto is committed to changing its approach to cultural heritage issues and restoring its reputation, particularly in Australia and WA,” Mr Wyatt said in a statement.
“I am looking forward to working with the board in building on the momentum for change generated by the new leadership team.”
As Aboriginal affairs minister, Mr Wyatt was responsible for granting section 18 approvals under the Aboriginal Heritage Act.
Rio used a section 18 approval (granted by an earlier minister) to destroy the Juukan rock shelters, despite subsequently learning the site had very high heritage value.
Mr Wyatt has championed a rewrite of the Aboriginal Heritage Act, including the removal of section 18 approvals and introducing a more robust review process with greater involvement by traditional owners.
Despite this, the government’s latest draft remains contentious, particularly the provision allowing the minister to override Aboriginal objections and grant final approvals for a project.
Last week, the Kimberley Land Council (KLC) called on the WA government to go back to the drawing board on its proposed changes.
“The proposed legislation is deeply flawed and a backwards step as it places control over critical decision making about Aboriginal cultural heritage in the hands of mining companies and other land users,” KLC chairman Anthony Watson said.
Mr Wyatt’s move to Rio adds to a string of changes at the board and senior executive levels at the mining giant.
Chairman Simon Thompson has announced plans to retire next year, after acknowledging he needed to take ultimate responsibility for the Juukan Gorge issue.
Mr Wyatt could be a possible contender for the chairman’s role, though his lack of experience on public company boards would count against him.
Rio is expected to recruit at least one additional board member and has previously signalled it wants more mining expertise on its board.
In addition, it needs to appoint a permanent chief financial officer; this role also sits on the board.
That was after former CFO Jakob Stausholm was promoted to chief executive and managing director.
"With family links to the Pilbara and an impressive track record in public life, Ben’s knowledge of public policy, finance, international trade and Indigenous affairs will significantly add to the depth of knowledge on the board at a time when we are seeking to strengthen relationships with key stakeholders in Australia and around the world,” he said.
Mr Wyatt will receive an annual fee of about $270,000 at Woodside and $190,000 at Rio, which together is about double what he was paid as a state government minister.
The new firm plans to work mainly with Aboriginal groups, or with other organisations dealing with Aboriginal groups.
Mr Martin told Business News the firm will not be involved in government lobbying.