Aboriginal land rights advocate in plea to Andrew Forrest

Article by Rebecca Le May for The West Australian

A prominent Indigenous land rights advocate has made a plea to Andrew Forrest after he linked Fortescue Metals Group’s failure to pay native title compensation to traditional owners in the Pilbara to “cash welfare” fuelled alcohol scourges in towns such as Alice Springs.

The billionaire was asked in a conference call with reporters and analysts on Wednesday why the miner had not yet signed an Indigenous Land Use Agreement (ILUA) with the Yindjibarndi people despite multiple courts ruling in their favour in a bitter, long-running battle. Mr Forrest insisted Fortescue acted “strictly according to the law”, adding its “$4 billion of jobs and training, education and contracts is way above anything in the lawsuit”.

He then went on to refer to the Aboriginal people he grew up with on a pastoral station in WA’s north, saying they “didn’t have cash welfare . . . did work . . . took huge pride in family and . . . outlived all the kids”.

“Ending the Indigenous disparity is not done with cash,” he said. “Let me trot you down to Alice Springs if you want any proof. While we insist on not providing the education, the opportunities, while we insist on not making the choice of drugs and alcohol the easiest choice, then the result will continue to be predictable.”

Mr Forrest has spoken before about his philosophy of giving people a “hand up, not a hand out”.

Native title expert Kado Muir, pictured, said: “There’s an expectation in society that these companies that have the privilege of taking wealth from our country, from First Nations or the Australian population generally, that they abide by certain standards and ethical conduct. It’s part of doing business in Australia today.

“All credit to the programs he’s run, but you can’t shy away from your legal responsibility.”

He said Mr Forrest’s attitude was “set in the last century”, adding: “Here, he’s come up against a community saying ‘no’. You can’t go around talking about fighting modern slavery or promoting green technologies if you’re still addressing Aboriginal people with these types of responses.”

Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation chief executive Michael Woodley told the ABC that his people deserve compensation.

The ABC reported he said social problems were linked to disadvantage due to the ongoing effects of colonisation, not mining royalties and welfare payments. “There’s a trend with what’s happened historically to Aboriginal people, we’ve had a lack of opportunity and equality,” he said.

“Having the right to live a happy and equal, balanced life … has nothing to do with money and nothing to with mining companies.”

Fortescue disagreed with the interpretation of Mr Forrest’s comments.

The Federal Court awarded the Yindjibarndi native title with exclusive possession over Fortescue’s Solomon Hub mines in 2017 and its full bench knocked back the iron ore producer’s appeal two years later.

Fortescue was refused leave to appeal in the High Court in 2020. Talks over an ILUA fell through the next year, prompting the Yindjibarndi to return to the Federal Court in a bid to force Fortescue to pay.

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