05/10/2011 - 11:19

Transparency, equity vital for land-use deals

05/10/2011 - 11:19

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Ensuring the benefits of WA’s minerals wealth are best utilised is a community-wide issue.

MOVES are afoot, I am told, to shake up the way resources companies do deals with indigenous groups – and it can’t come soon enough.

The state government has placed new people in two key roles in an effort to review the way this largely hidden area functions. In May, Indigenous Affairs Minister Peter Collier appointed John Avery to assist in the reform of the Aboriginal cultural heritage process in Western Australia.

The state’s Aboriginal Heritage Act was created in 1972 and, from what I hear, is past its use-by date in its current form; it is becoming a bigger obstacle to doing business than the much more highly publicised native title legislation.

Around the same time as Dr Avery was seconded to the role from his position in Canberra, John Catlin resigned as a member of the Native Title Tribunal and joined the state’s native title team within the Ministry of Premier and Cabinet.

I’ve been told he has a lot of experience from sitting on both sides of the fence and a great deal of knowledge about what might work best for all concerned.

It is not surprising to hear from industry, therefore, that just months after these appointments significant talks are taking place about the framework for agreements with indigenous groups.

Two key areas are transparency and equity.

The whole process of native title agreements is barely a decade old, with federal laws guiding business and indigenous groups and their various advisers; much has been learned by both sides in that time.

What is clear is that there is an awful lot of money at stake and the deals struck are not always the most sensible when it comes to the longer-term benefits of the community – by which I mean both indigenous groups and the state itself.

In the past few years we have seen increasing amounts of hard evidence to back up the anecdotal view that millions of dollars going to native title claimants is doing little to significantly enhance their lives.

Stories of waste are not the worst. The fact that many indigenous groups should, on the face of it, be rich appears to belie their current living conditions and lack of progress beyond the appearance of being part of the welfare state.

Lately, some significant things have happened to shine the spotlight on this, with details becoming clear in a number of recent native title agreements.

Take for instance a deal earlier this year when Rio Tinto signed an agreement to pay the Ngarluma Aboriginal Corporation a package of benefits worth up to $300 million to pave the way for development around Dampier and Cape Lambert.

Also recently, there has been a big debate about Fortescue Metals Group’s approach to attaining a native title agreement, with a spilt in the ranks of one indigenous group because some wanted to hold out for more money while others had agreed with the company’s offer of jobs.

FMG chairman Andrew Forrest has reportedly stated that the company doesn’t believe in paying sit-down money, which he says would be the equivalent of welfare payments.

This is the area where the rubber hits the road in terms of impact on the greater community.

Many suggest Mr Forrest is just being cheap by trying to convert cash payments to wages, but there is a lot of sense in this suggestion. The mine in question and its royalties may only last a few decades; what he is offering is more than money to keep things as they were.

From the general community’s point of view, the first issue here is transparency. 

There is no need for indigenous people to be on the receiving end of two forms of welfare – one from the companies and one from the government. Like anyone, if indigenous people sign a richly rewarding land use agreement, that should mean there is less need for public spending.

That is a transparency issue. 

Furthermore, if welfare is being paid and additional money comes into the community via a land-use agreement, we’d all like to see that new funding contribute to economic development. If it doesn’t, it means that nothing much is achieved during the life of the mine other than a brief transfer of funding responsibility.

Transparency might also help highlight different agreements the various miners and native title claimants have struck. There is no doubt some will be more lucrative than others.

While the miners might fear that more information will create a race to the top – forcing up the costs of such agreements – it will at least start to make clear how much the resources companies pay to get access to the minerals. 

Of course, there is also a danger that indigenous groups that have claims in less minerals-rich territory wonder why they miss out.

That may seem inequitable, but that is the luck of geography, just as Western Australians to a large degree enjoy the benefit of minerals they stumbled upon.

It is really the same issue as is happening with the mining tax. The rest of the nation now sees WA’s wealth as its bounty and is demanding a share of it.

The companies, and many Western Australians, don’t believe that miners should pay sit-down money to the rest of the nation – funding unproductive activities that would otherwise be unsustainable with being on the mineral wealth drip feed.

The issue around sorting out the mess created by indigenous land-use agreements is fraught with difficulty, and getting it right will be a challenge for any government that wants to avoid being labelled redneck or patronising.

Nevertheless, there is a magnificent bounty to be won from this period of wealth generation; allowing indigenous communities to stand on their own two feet, getting the majority of people into valued employment and, ultimately, giving Aboriginal people the economic base which gives them the independence and freedom of choice most other Australians take for granted.

I don’t know anyone who wants to see indigenous Australia stand still while the resources sector and the rest of Australia reaps the rewards from the industrialisation of Asia.

But unless government has the will to make the change that is needed (and wanted by many), we are in danger in wondering how so much less was achieved than is possible.

• mark.pownall@wabn.com.au

 

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