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First Nations energy exclusion hurts Australia's global emission target

Karrina Nolan -

Look, we get it.

$19.7 billion over 10 years to kickstart the clean energy transformation through the Future Made in Australia package is great news!

Australia needs to accelerate investment to meet the federal government's 2030 climate targets and catch up with the global shift to the next clean economy, or risk being left behind.

But there's two significant pieces missing from the Federal government's 2024 Budget. Two pieces that will shift the jigsaw puzzle into an uncertain, unsightly, unmanageable array of confusion, delay and significant expense.

The first is certainty.

Investors need certainty to invest. Financiers need certainty to lend. Project proponents need certainty to develop. Communities need certainty to consent.

Well-designed government legislation, policy and frameworks can deliver the necessary certainty for clean energy projects to proceed.

Legislation that recognises free prior and informed consent, the right to negotiate, land/sea tenure, water rights, cultural heritage and environmental protection would provide that certainty, if it existed.

Policy that enables minimum equity requirements and significant First Nations investment in new energy developments, collaboration and participation, partnerships and investment ensuring equity among parties impacted by a project on Country would provide that certainty, if it existed.

And compliance frameworks ensuring best practice First Nations-led engagement on energy projects would provide that certainty, if it existed.

The second is First Nations people.

First Nations participation in and benefits arising from the energy transition was unapologetically ignored in last night's Federal Budget 2024-25.

We have been stripped from the equation.

Focusing funding on industry subsidies and incentives and building more layers of government, the Budget falls devastatingly short in addressing the urgent and long-term energy security needs of First Nations.

Simply, there is nothing in the Federal Budget for First Nations in the clean energy transition.

And it's not like the government doesn't get it. They know the road to a rapid and just transition runs through First Nations land and waters.

Over 60 per cent of Australia's now super-funded critical minerals and hydrogen projects, and the vast swathes of land needed for solar and wind to run those projects, are on land/sea where First Nations have legal rights and interests - and while Native Title or land rights may not apply across the whole country, cultural heritage is tenure-blind, and increasingly, investors too are demanding the certainty that genuine First Nations partnerships can bring.

In order to activate investment in Australia's superpower ambition significant additional investment in First Nations capacity, consent, collaboration, co-design and co-ownership needs to be made through loan guarantees and tax incentives, funding criteria and specialist programs.

Significant legislation needs to be altered to ensure First Nations consent and cultural heritage, and rights and interests are legally protected as rights holders, not stakeholders.

The Australian Government knows all this, but once again has kicked the can down the road, locking First Nations out from participating in the economy.

This is despite a commitment by all energy ministers in 2022 to ensure First Nations people can participate in and drive Australia's energy transformation.

First Nations people from around the country gave up their time bringing evidence to government of the commercial benefits of First Nations consent, inclusion and partnership internationally, and the mutually beneficial outcomes this reaps for host communities, jobs and the economy in general.

They met with Ministers and department staff, taking time off work, unpaid, and travelling miles to two-day consultations, explaining what's needed to remove barriers to energy security in homes and communities, and gain benefits and equity in medium-large scale projects being built on Country - with all attendees agreeing not to repeat the mistakes as the mining industry of old.

And the government listened. And then told everyone what they'd heard. Federal Minister for Climate Change and Energy Chris Bowen told the Lowy Institute in November 2023.

"The energy transition is one of the elements of closing the gap of Indigenous disadvantage in our country. I've been thinking a lot about this in recent weeks as we all consider the way forward for reconciliation in our country," Minister Bowen said.

"I recently received a visit from a delegation of Canadian First Peoples. Did you know that in Canada, around 20 per cent of renewable energy initiatives have a strong element of Indigenous ownership, providing income and employment for Canadian First Peoples?

"In so many ways, getting this energy transition right is the key to our nation's economic prosperity, and I think getting First Nations involvement in renewable energy right can play a big role in the future economic health of Australia's Indigenous peoples."

But still nothing.

This Budget was meant to signal to our community that government is serious about investing in us.

It was an opportunity to share some of the resources being heavily targeted toward industry and proponents, and to go some of the way to address the power imbalance that exists between industry and First Nations.

And it was a moment to implement some of the solutions we have been advocating for around affordability to address energy security.

Instead, with this Budget, the government has locked in the economy of the future while replicating the dynamics of the past, including adversarial relationships, delay, unnecessary cost, and impacts on Country.

Global examples show having us at the decision-making table is critical to realise the huge economic potential in renewable energy for our people, and for our country.

As Canada and the United States have realised, establishing and incentivising the right partnerships with First Nations is an investment decision.

We 'get' that government and industry wants to fast-track approvals and build-out, but the energy transition can't happen without us.

Meaningful First Nations partnerships, equity and ownership delivers self-determination, improved economic development and local-content outcomes, and reduces risk and delay. They also create low-risk profiles, making them a preferred investment, creating certainty in Australia's energy transition.

Instead, not including First Nations in Federal Budget 2024 has created great uncertainty and risk for investors, financiers and proponents, for all state and territory governments, and for the Australian community.

The Government is out of step with financial and industry trends, both in Australia and globally.

It has done what it least wanted to do - it has created uncertainty.

Karrina Nolan is co-Chair of the First Nations Clean Energy Network and a descendant of the Yorta Yorta people.

An experienced manager and organiser of complex programs in Aboriginal communities, Ms Nolan has worked as a facilitator, trainer, researcher and strategist with First Nations communities for more than 25 years.

Ms Nolan is passionate about building the capacity for self-determination in the context of economic development, climate change and clean energy.

She dedicated an Atlantic Fellowship to determining how best to build clean energy projects by and for First Nations people.

As a Churchill Fellow, Ms Nolan worked with First Nations women in Canada, the USA and Australia, collating lessons to grow women's leadership capacity and their engagement in community and civic life.

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