Staff inside Rio Tinto are unhappy with the mining conglomerate’s response to the Juukan Gorge blasts, according to a recording of a meeting leaked to the press this week.
An internal meeting with staff last Wednesday saw Rio Tinto Iron Ore Chief Executive, Chris Salisbury, face questions and complaints from staff in relation to last month’s destruction of two sacred 46,000-year-old caves of the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) Peoples.
The Australian Financial Review obtained a recording of the meeting, reporting on Monday that one staff member complained Rio Tinto’s response was “an apology for the distress caused, not for doing the wrong thing”.
The iron ore Chief Executive reportedly explained to the employee events leading up to the blasts, saying “that’s why we haven’t apologised for the event itself, per se, but apologised for the distress the event caused”.
Salisbury said the caves’ destruction was “quite galling” to him, too, but reassured staff at the meeting Rio Tinto remains backed by “political leaders of both sides”.
“I’ve engaged with lots of stakeholders and … quietly, there is still support for us out there,” Salisbury reportedly said during the meeting.
The meeting was chaired by Rio Tinto’s PR and Community Relations head, Simone Niven, who works directly with the group’s Chief Executive, Jean-Sébastien Jacques.
Niven confirmed Jacques had met with Reconciliation Australia, who revoked Rio Tinto’s Reconciliation Action Plan last week.
Jacques also released a short statement last Friday after three weeks’ silence on the subject, coincidentally after the inquiry by the Joint Standing Committee on Northern Australia was announced.
“Rio Tinto will fully cooperate with the Inquiry … while also continuing to support the West Australian government in the reform of the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 (WA),” he said.
“We are committed to engaging with the rest of the industry, Traditional Owner Groups, and federal and state governments across a number of areas relating to cultural heritage approvals and processes, and the broad contribution of the resources sector to Australia.”
Despite having blown up 46,000 years’ worth of history, Jacques said Rio Tinto believes the mining industry “has a critical role to play in contributing to the future prosperity of all Australians”.
Tensions are also mounting externally as Rio Tinto stakeholders publicly air their dismay at the move to destroy such culturally significant sites.
One of the company’s largest investors, Aberdeen Standard Investments, questioned Rio Tinto’s policies and governance earlier this month.
“It raises the question around doing what is legal versus doing what is right,” Aberdeen Investment Manager, Camille Simeone, told The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.
Meanwhile, both Federal Minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, and WA Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Ben Wyatt, have remained less than outspoken as more details emerge around the incident.
It’s understood Federal Minister Ken Wyatt knew of the impending blasts but WA Minister Ben Wyatt did not.
Speaking to ABC’s 7.30 earlier this month, Minister Ken Wyatt said his office did the right thing in providing the appropriate advice to the PKKP Traditional Owners’ lawyer.
The program also reported Traditional Owners warned both Federal and State Indigenous Affairs offices.
“We will also work very closely with our Prime Minister’s office to ensure that we do not have a repeat of the destruction of any Aboriginal site in this country,” Minister Ken Wyatt said.
Since then, it has come to light that WA Minister Ben Wyatt approved more blasts of cultural sites, this time of Banjima Traditional Owners, under Section 18 of the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 (WA) just three days after Juukan Gorge made headlines.
Granted for the expansion of BHP’s South Flank project in WA’s Pilbara region, BHP has since backed down on destroying sites in the area which date back 10,000-15,000 years.
By Hannah Cross