The Kimberley Land Council (KLC) is calling for the WA Government to enforce its COVID-19 vaccine mandate for the resources industry on all Traditional Owners going onto mine sites to carry out heritage survey work.

This follows the Chamber of Minerals and Energy WA telling its members Traditional Owners are exempt from the mandate.

CEO of the KLC Tyronne Garstone told the National Indigenous Times the KLC had made it its policy that everyone involved with the council, including Traditional Owners has to be vaccinated in an effort to protect Aboriginal communities from the virus and in line with their understanding of the health orders in place.

But as the National Indigenous Times revealed on Wednesday, not everyone is interpreting the State Government’s Directions on the matter specific to Traditional Owners in the same way.

In a recent email the Chamber of Minerals and Energy WA told members “Traditional Owners undertaking heritage surveys on site are exempt because they are at the site carrying out their functions as a Traditional Owner (i.e. not as a worker at a location as defined by the Directions)”.

The KLC agrees with Wintawari Guruma Aboriginal Corporation who stand by the point that Traditional Owners carrying out heritage surveys are there as workers, not visitors, and will be interacting with the wider network of workers on site so they should also be required to be vaccinated.

The National Indigenous Times was yet to receive a response from the State Government on the matter on Friday morning after requesting clarification of the matter two days earlier.

“It would concern me if the Premier would make allowances for Traditional Owners to go and do this work without being fully vaccinated,” Mr Garstone said.

“It would contradict the health order that we have to operate under but also I think it is putting some of the most vulnerable people in the community at risk and risking their lives.

“When we do heritage surveys all of our TOs who do them are paid as casual employees as we need to be compliant with government funding when we are putting people on we need to remunerate them, therefore we’re saying that they would have to fall under the COVID-19 vaccination policy.”

Mr Garstone said while enforcing the mandatory vaccinations on all staff was not an easy thing to do, he believed it was the responsible thing to do.

“Some TOs will just refuse to be vaccinated, we have some very low vaccination rates in Halls Creek and Fitzroy Valley where there are some senior people and they are the most vulnerable people, but you can’t just pull in other people if they don’t hold the knowledge, they are the knowledge holders, they’re not easily replaceable,” he said.

Mr Garstone said this could delay heritage work being carried out if there is not sufficient personnel to do the work but said “if this impacts the heritage survey work then so be it”.

“There should be no exemptions given to say that unvaccinated people should be able to do heritage surveys so that commercial interest can continue to proceed,” he said.

He questioned why the Health Department had not come out publicly to clear up the matter.

“To me it seems like it’s policy on the run, I think they haven’t fully thought out the process I think theres been such a push to get to 80 per cent… that they’ve used the policy as a bit of a threat to get people vaccinated now when the reality of what it means on the ground is starting to filter through, I think we are starting to see some of the issues.”

Mr Garstone said if the Chief Health Officer did provided an exemption to the mandate for Traditional Owners carrying out surveys it would raise concerns for him.

“Why are industry getting an exemption, we are not just doing it for compliance, we think it is the right thing to do to protect our people,” he said.

Wintawari Guruma Aboriginal Corporation non member Director, Tony Bevan said he was still yet to hear back from  Health Minister or the WA’s Chief Health Officer’s offices after raising the matter more than a week ago.

He said the only acknowledgement of the matter he’d had from the government had come from one of the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs staffers who in an email said he was “aware of this issue.”

The vaccine mandates within the resources industry are part of mandates for vaccinations put in place by the WA government across about 75 per cent of the state’s workforce.

By Aleisha Orr