Article by Finn McHugh for SBS News
We asked mining companies that support the Voice whether they’d actually follow its advice.
- Australia’s largest mining companies won’t commit to following advice from the Voice.
- A Native Title advocate hopes the body will be able to advise on specific resources project.
- It comes after millions of sacred WA rock art pieces began to be moved, to make way for a fertiliser plant.
Australia’s mining giants won’t commit to leaving Indigenous landmarks untouched if advised to by the Voice to Parliament.
And a leading Native Title advocate has told SBS News the Voice should have the power to lobby governments over specific resource projects on traditional lands, but warns the mining industry remains largely self-regulated.
It comes after the removal of sacred Indigenous rock art pieces on the WA’s Burrup Peninsula started last week, paving the way for a $4.3 billion fertiliser plant at the site and sparking outrage among some local advocates.
Raelene Cooper, Mardudhunera woman and the former chair of the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation, accused WA Premier Mark McGowan of showing a lack of “lack of respect, a lack of empathy and no morals” towards Indigenous Australians.
“We’re fighting our own government. It is incredible, remarkable, and absolutely disgraceful. How do these people sleep at night?” she said.
Mining companies asked if they’ll follow the Voice’s advice
The Voice would advise parliament as it formed policy relating to Indigenous Australians, though the government would not be compelled to enact its advice.
And after Woodside chief executive Meg O’Neill did not commit last month to following advice from the body, despite publicly supporting its implementation, SBS News contacted five of Australia’s other mining giants to clarify their stance.
Newcrest Mining, Fortescue, BHP Billiton, South32 and Rio Tinto – forced to apologise for destroying destroying 46,000-year-old rock art at WA’s Juukan Gorge in 2020 – were asked if they supported the Voice and, if so:
“Do you commit to following advice from the Voice if that advice is for your operations to be curtailed, changed, or halted?”
None bound themselves to following advice from the Voice, although three – Newcrest, South 32 and Rio Tinto – did throw their support behind the constitutional change. BHP did not respond.
A spokesperson for Fortescue said it “acknowledges and respects” Labor’s commitment to the constitutional change, but stressed the referendum was “a matter for the Australian people to decide”.
Because parliament would decide how the body would function after the referendum, it’s unclear whether it would have the power to lobby Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek over individual projects approved under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.
National Native Title Council chief executive Jamie Lowe – a Gundjitmara Djabwurrung man – welcomed mining companies’ public support for the referendum, but warned the industry lacked a strong regulator to ensure Indigenous heritage is protected.
While Mr Lowe hoped the Voice would enhance advocates’ ability to push for stronger Native Title and heritage laws, he said holding companies to account would also require internal pressure.
“The industry is pretty much self-regulating at the moment … [Shareholders] would play more of a critical role, you’d think. Because the Voice could say the company is not doing a good job, but they can also ignore that,” he said.
All states and territory governments have thrown their weight behind the Voice. Mr McGowan says it will prove a “strong demonstration of reconciliation and understanding and support” for Indigenous Australians.
But Mr Lowe said Mr McGowan’s government had often fallen short of listening to “overwhelming [Indigenous] voices” in the state.
“You have to wonder what [its support] actually looks like in implementation. But we need the Voice to advocate,” he said.
“You’d like to think that if the Voice was in place, that it would have the opportunity to advocate on … things like the Burrup [project], particularly around where the legislation may have fallen short to protect heritage out there.”
Greens Indigenous Australians spokesperson Dorinda Cox last month questioned the Voice’s effectiveness if mining continued on culturally-significant land, warning Traditional Owners’ culture was being attacked “in the name of money and corporate profit”.
Senator Cox urged Mr Albanese to scupper the Burrup fertiliser plant, approved by Ms Plibersek, initially saying she would “strongly consider” her support for the Voice if the project went ahead.
Senator Cox subsequently clarified that she supported the Voice regardless, but stressed: “There’s also listening we can do now, and I call on Albanese to do that listening and protect sacred sites”.
“We need to understand that we’re going to have to stand up for First Nations people in this country, not just for a Voice to Parliament, but against industry, against the destruction … We cannot continue to let industry be the tail that wags the dog,” she said.
Asked whether she wanted to Voice to have the power to lobby over specific mining projects, Ms Plibersek did not answer directly.
“I am delighted to be supporting the World Heritage nomination for the Murujuga Cultural Landscape to protect it for generations to come,” she said.
There’s a Voice comparison overseas
Similar attempts overseas have produced chequered results.
Three Nordic countries – Sweden, Finland and Norway – have each established parliaments for the Sámi people, an Indigenous population whose traditional lands also span into Russia.
But Sweden’s Sámi parliament was angered last year, when the national government approved an application from UK giant Beowulf to mine on Sámi land without its consent.
The project, which still needs environmental approval, has also drawn criticism from UN human rights bodies and UNESCO for cutting off key reindeer migratory routes central to Sámi culture.
“When conditions for reindeer husbandry … are eradicated, it means ultimately that also the conditions for maintaining Sami culture in the area are removed,” the Sámi Parliament wrote in a statement.
Sweden’s Sámi parliament was also followed by the establishment of a Truth commission. An Australian version was another recommendation of the Uluru Statement from the Heart.