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Learning to dig the mining industry

By Graham Ring - posted Thursday, 11 January 2007

In the bad old days the mining industry stood shoulder to shoulder with pastoralists and the other commercial interests who coveted Indigenous land. Their fundamental premise for negotiating with Aboriginal communities was quite simple: Give them nothing. Ever. Under any circumstances.

The strategy was to take maximum advantage from the appalling level of public ignorance about land rights legislation and native title law. There was plenty of raw material with which to work. The contrived hysteria of conservative politicians and commentators in the aftermath of the Mabo and Wik High Court decisions set a new low watermark for public debate in Australia.

It suited conservative interests across the country to band together and foment a climate of fear and loathing among the general populace. After 200 years, the blackfellas were backed up against the wall and they weren’t going to be given any easy concessions.


Darwin ALP elder statesman Jack Ah Kit recently spoke to National Indigenous Times of the bad old days: “Twenty years ago mining interests wanted to bulldoze Indigenous interests off a cliff. They attacked, rather than tried to sit down and negotiate and consult.”

Over time though, the miners began to make gradual and grudging concessions to Indigenous Australia. The softening of their position was motivated much more by enlightened self-interest, than a late-awakening passion for social justice. The mining industry needs to strike agreements with Indigenous communities in order to dig the dirt they so value.

The industry also needs a labour force, much of it in some of the most far-flung locations in the country. Towns like Alyangula, Nhulunbuy and Weipa rarely crack a mention in the glossy “Explore Australia” brochures that extol the virtues of the Sydney Opera House and the Great Barrier Reef. But these are locations where mining companies want workers.

Sixty per cent of mining operations in Australia take place close to Indigenous communities. The industry faces severe people shortages as it seeks to employ a further 70,000 people in the next decade, many of these in remote locations. Meanwhile, remote Indigenous communities are crying out for employment opportunities - as long as they respect the dictates of an ancient and venerable culture.

In August this year Mitch Hooke, the CEO of the Minerals Council of Australia made the journey to the Garma festival on Yolngu country in Arnhemland to make his pitch: “I come from a generation that that perpetuated systemic racial discrimination. We promoted the ideology of assimilation. We were ignorant of the importance of values and cultures to a society’s integrity.”

This opening salvo drew a sharp intake of breath from the assembled academics and Indigenous justice activists who are not used to hearing representatives of the mining lobby speak in this manner. People stopped doodling and started to listen.


Hooke went on to say that earning a “social licence” to operate a mine was “far more enduring than a mere regulatory licence”. He spoke of the importance of looking after communities “beyond the life of the mine”. “We’ve shifted big time - from deciding, announcing and defending, to engaging, listening and learning. And we’re trying to get governments to come along with us.”

Talk is cheap, but the MCA can point to actions as well. They have been instrumental in lobbying the federal government to increase their funding of native title representative bodies, describing them as “chronically under-resourced in fulfilling their legislative functions”.

An MCA submission to the Senate inquiry into the Aboriginal Land Rights Act amendments referred to the miners’ “respect for Indigenous Australia’s rights, interests and special connections to land and waters, and support for the recognition and protection of those rights and interests”.

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First published in the National Indigenous Times on December 14, 2006.

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About the Author

Graham Ring is an award-winning writer and a fortnightly National Indigenous Times columnist. He is based in Alice Springs.

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