Aboriginal leaders have condemned the announcement of former Western Australian Aboriginal Affairs Minister, Ben Wyatt, as the newest board member of mining giant Rio Tinto.
The announcement, made on Friday, comes just over a week after the one year anniversary of Rio Tinto’s deliberate destruction of Juukan Gorge.
Many are unimpressed with the former Treasurer and Aboriginal Affairs Minister, noting his appointment to the Rio Tinto board and the Woodside board, announced on Wednesday, have come just shy of three months after his exit from politics.
Starting in September, Mr Wyatt will replace former director Michael L’Estrange, who stood down from the board in March after it was revealed he was paid an extra 46 per cent on top of his salary for the internal inquiry he led into the Juukan Gorge disaster last year.
Yawuru man and Labor Senator Pat Dodson, who sat on the Juukan Gorge Senate inquiry, has slammed the former Treasurer’s decision, saying it was “poor judgement” and “makes a mockery” of the State Government’s ministerial code of conduct.
“Mr Wyatt’s appointment will bring no credit to Rio Tinto and will do nothing to restore its reputation after the Juukan Gorge disaster,” Senator Dodson told Guardian Australia.
“The company inherits the legacy of Mr Wyatt’s ministerial role in having approved harm to sacred sites under section 18 of the existing Aboriginal Heritage Protection Act. Rio Tinto may think it’s bought respectability by appointing Mr Wyatt, but Aboriginal people — especially those whose sacred sites are endangered by mining — will rightly be sceptical.”
As Aboriginal Affairs Minister, Mr Wyatt had the power to give irreversible consent for the destruction of culturally significant sites under Section 18 of the current Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 (WA).
The Greens (WA) have also criticised Mr Wyatt’s appointment, with Lead Senate Candidate and Noongar Yamatji woman Dorinda Cox labelling it an “extremely concerning” move.
“The appointment of Mr Wyatt, a former Labor MP who has previously criticised Rio Tinto for blowing up the sacred Juukan Gorge site, is appalling.”
“The Treasurer is the second highest decision maker in the State. It is hugely problematic that less than three months ago Mr Wyatt was sitting in our State Parliament playing a key role in drafting the new Aboriginal Heritage Act that will be introduced to WA Parliament in the coming months,” Ms Cox said.
“It’s extremely concerning that the former Treasurer has so quickly moved to a senior role in an industry that consistently destroys First Nations heritage values.”
Mr Wyatt, a Yamatji man, retired from politics after drafting the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Bill 2020 (WA) but before the Bill ever made it to Parliament.
An analysis of 157 public submissions in response to the Bill found over 60 per cent of stakeholders were unhappy with the legislation in its current form. Many Aboriginal leaders across WA are also dissatisfied with the Bill, with Kimberley Aboriginal leaders calling for the Bill to be scrapped altogether.
The Bill has now been left to new Aboriginal Affairs Minister Stephen Dawson and is set to be introduced to WA Parliament later this year. At present, the Bill does not allow Traditional Owners any veto powers over development that could destroy sacred sites.
By Hannah Cross