The Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility (ACCR) welcomes Rio Tinto breaking ranks with the WA Chamber of Minerals and Energy by throwing its support behind the Commonwealth cultural heritage protection law reform process.
As recommended by the Juukan Inquiry, the Commonwealth Government and First Nations leaders have commenced a process of engagement to co-design improved federal cultural heritage protection laws.
The WA Chamber of Minerals and Energy opposes Commonwealth cultural heritage protection law, characterising it as needless duplication.
Until recently, Rio Tinto fell into line with the WA Chamber of Minerals’ opposition to Commonwealth cultural heritage protection laws.
Commenting on the findings, James Fitzgerald, Legal Counsel at ACCR said:
“By breaking ranks with the WA Chamber of Minerals and supporting the Commonwealth cultural heritage law reform process, Rio Tinto has demonstrated positive industry leadership of a kind we haven’t seen from the mining industry in First Nations affairs for well over a decade.
“Rio Tinto’s support is a significant first step towards addressing the identified regulatory failures exposed by the Juukan Gorge Caves destruction. It signals to First Nations Australians as well as to current and potential host communities globally that the company is genuinely trying to improve its culture, outlook and social performance. The proof will be in Rio Tinto’s support for the final package of amendments later this year.
“The WA Chamber of Minerals’ characterisation of Commonwealth cultural heritage legislation as ‘unnecessary duplication’ cynically misrepresents the purpose of the federal laws, as well as the findings and recommendations of the Juukan Inquiry.
“The Chamber of Minerals’ opposition to Commonwealth heritage protection law reform suggests that the industry is more interested in preserving its self-regulation privileges than in promoting the interests of the Aboriginal communities it affects.
“It is time for other mining companies to follow Rio Tinto’s lead and support the Commonwealth cultural heritage protection law reform process.”
The Joint Parliamentary Committee on Northern Australia inquired into the Juukan Gorge affair (Juukan Inquiry) for around 18 months, publishing its Final Report in October 2021. Two key themes of the Juukan Inquiry’s reports are:
The inadequacy of WA and Commonwealth cultural heritage protection laws; and
The inadequacy and failure of Rio Tinto’s cultural heritage management systems and culture, within the context of a weak external regulatory environment.
Among other things, the Juukan Inquiry recommends strengthening Western Australian and Commonwealth cultural heritage protection laws to address identified inadequacies, and to bring Australia’s cultural heritage protection regulation up to par with current international standards.
The Juukan Inquiry found that existing Commonwealth heritage protection laws are an important “safety net” where there is risk of manifest injustice at the state level, such as occurred in the case of the Juukan Gorge Caves destruction.
The big WA miners- Rio Tinto, BHP and FMG- remained silent during last year’s debate of the WA Cultural Heritage Act 2021. Their failure to exercise their considerable political influence to support the Juukan Inquiry’s recommendations about the WA legislation is considered by many to have contributed to a sub-standard legislative outcome which has been condemned by First Nations organisations, and which is currently subject to a formal complaint to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.
Among other things, the new WA law provides no right of judicial appeal against the state Minister’s discretion to approve the destruction of significant cultural heritage, despite the government’s obvious conflict of interest in maximising mining revenue on one hand, and administering cultural heritage protection on the other.