NIT Editorial

Rio Tinto finally put Group CEO Jean-Sébastien Jacques, Iron Ore CEO Chris Salisbury and Head of Corporate Affairs Simone Niven out of their misery last week, and rightly so.

A series of decisions were made that had catastrophic consequences for a number of key stakeholders, with the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) Traditional Owners suffering the worst.

The irony is that Jacques and Salisbury had eventually accepted responsibility, had their significant bonuses cancelled and more importantly, apologised. After all of that, they were lined up against the wall and shot in a public execution.

That is one chapter of the Juukan Gorge saga completed. But there is still another chapter that needs to be read, if not forensically examined: the role of the PKKP peoples’ Native Title representative body, Yamatji Marlpa Aboriginal Corporation (YMAC) and its CEO, Simon Hawkins.

Hawkins has been CEO of YMAC for nearly two decades. As CEO, he saw the Rio Tinto agreement through and then made a triumphant announcement about the great benefits that would be delivered to Traditional Owners as a result.

To secure this agreement, the Australian taxpayer forked out millions of dollars to ensure the agreement was done thoroughly, and that the best possible advice was secured by YMAC so Traditional Owners achieved fair and equitable outcomes.

In December 2007, the Federal Government gave YMAC $5.5 million to “fast track Native Title work in the Pilbara” as part of the representative body’s Pilbara Connection Project.

With eight Native Title groups involved in this project, four included the PKKP, Nyiyaparli, Kuruma Mathudunera and Ngarlawangga people—the four groups who later announced “comprehensive Native Title agreements” with Rio Tinto in 2011.

Millions of Australian taxpayer dollars were paid to YMAC to facilitate and negotiate the Rio Tinto agreement. As taxpayers, we have not received value for our money.

Why isn’t this agreement being made public? Given the event of Rio Tinto’s dismissals and the unique public interest, it should be made public.

This was not a negotiation where one party had very little resources while the other had vast resources, as is commonplace in land use negotiations. YMAC had more than enough resources to guarantee Traditional Owners had the best representation money could buy.

In their submission to the Juukan Gorge inquiry, YMAC said they engaged “independent lawyers to assess the quality and feasibility of the agreements” prior to signing off.

The power imbalance and skewed dynamic often experienced by other representative bodies against mining giants was not evident between Rio Tinto and YMAC.

YMAC’s submission also said PKKP Traditional Owners went back to Rio Tinto “insisting on stronger provisions relating to consents and heritage protection over highly significant cultural sites”. YMAC’s submission did not clarify whether these stronger provisions were accommodated.

In spite of this, YMAC and their advisers decided that Traditional Owners’ rights to object to the destruction of their sites was not a priority, and signed off accordingly.

It’s unclear if YMAC told Traditional Owners the agreement provided no basis to protect any cultural sites that were important to them.

While the YMAC submission said Traditional Owners were given “Plain English summaries” of the Binding Initial Agreement (BIA) in 2006 and a “comprehensive slide presentation” of the agreement in 2010, it does not say whether PKKP Traditional Owners were explicitly told they were giving up their right to object to Section 18 consent applications, and were effectively being gagged.

How many other agreements has YMAC authorised with the stroke of a pen, signing away the rights of Traditional Owners to object to the destruction of significant sites?

The 2011 YMAC media release announcing the Rio Tinto agreement suggests at least three other groups may have shared the same fate.

“Four Pilbara native title claim groups have announced they have signed Australia’s most comprehensive Native Title agreements with Rio Tinto,” reads the 2011 statement.

The groups involved were the Nyiyaparli, PKKP, Kuruma and Marthudunera, and Ngarlawangga people.

“The total area involved in the agreement is about 70,000 square kilometres and includes existing mining operations at Brockman 4, Mesa A, Mesa J, Hope Downs, as well as any future Rio Tinto mines and operations in the native title claim areas.”

It’s entirely possible these 70,000 square kilometres of land have been open to cultural destruction with no objection since the agreements were signed in 2011—nearly a decade ago.

Since Rio Tinto has been subjected to unprecedented scrutiny, the same standards need to be applied to YMAC. YMAC were a well-funded party to this agreement and, at the time of signing, proclaimed to the world that the agreement was far-reaching, protected Traditional Owners’ interests, and delivered substantial benefits—including “support for environmental and heritage activities”.

“The agreement also includes mining exclusion zones that recognise the importance of significant sites such as burial and ceremonial sites, as well as important water holes and ecologically sensitive areas,” said the 2011 media release.

The reality is that as their representative body, YMAC signed away the legal rights of PKKP Traditional Owners to protect their sites, which has created a culture of no complaints or public statements against mining interests.

Where there is loss and suffering, justice demands a remedy of accountability and accepting responsibility.

YMAC has so far given no sign that they played a part in signing off on an agreement that wiped out PKKP peoples’ rights to protect their significant sites.

The Rio Tinto Board, in the end, did the right thing. Let’s see if the YMAC Board has the courage to stick up for the mob and ask the hard questions to YMAC’s CEO about why he allowed these terms to take hold in the YMAC representative body area.