Hostility from Rio Tinto towards the Aboriginal heritage process and a legal threat against the State Government forced the passage of the controversial Marandoo Act, former Western Australian Premier Dr Carmen Lawrence has said.

Speaking to NIT, Dr Lawrence called Hamersley Iron’s attitude to Aboriginal heritage “hostile” and said the company had refused to undertake an archaeological survey of the Marandoo tenement.

“Because the company were being very resistant to dealing with the Aboriginal people, that [archaeological] work was undertaken under the auspices of the government,” she said.

“The climate was very toxic at the time.”

Under the Aboriginal Heritage (Marandoo) Act 1992 (WA), the Marandoo area was removed from the protections of the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 (WA) and assent was given for Rio Tinto, then Hamersley Iron, to mine the area despite opposition from Traditional Owners.

“Looking at it now, the Act was deficient. The Act is [still] deficient.”

Dr Lawrence said the threat of a legal challenge to protected sites within the Marandoo area prompted the passage of the Act in 1992.

“It was the threat from both parties, including the company — a big multinational with deep pockets — that they were going to challenge the decisions of the Aboriginal Cultural Materials Committee in court,” she said.

The Aboriginal Cultural Materials Committee (ACMC) is responsible for evaluating the importance of sites and making a recommendation to the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs on which sites should be protected under the Aboriginal Heritage Act. The Minister can overrule these recommendations and has the final call on Section 18 consents.

High unemployment in WA was also putting pressure on the State Government to give approvals for projects that would create jobs, Dr Lawrence said.

In her speech at the second reading of the Marandoo Bill, then Aboriginal Affairs Minister Dr Judyth Watson said the Marandoo Act was not the State Government’s preferred option. 

“The Government wanted to ensure that this project was not open to delay in the courts. Our advice was that this could be achieved only through legislation,” Dr Watson said.

“This is a specific solution to a specific problem … the Government, of course would have preferred not to take this approach but feels that it must.”

The Marandoo Act was introduced and passed in less than two days, and enshrined both the Section 18 consent and the ACMC’s minimum protection requirements in law.

Former WA Premier Carmen Lawrence speaking at a 1990 press conference. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Despite an early heritage survey finding at least 100 sites of significance and an estimated 300 more worth further investigation, the Act stipulates protections for only one rock art complex, the Thoongari burial ground, and Mt Bruce/Punurunha.

Hamersley Iron was also required to conduct a salvage operation of heritage materials before mining began. The heritage material recovered from the salvage was later taken to the Darwin tip.

Dr Lawrence called Hamersley’s failure to protect the salvage “extraordinary,” and said successive governments had failed to hold Rio Tinto to account.

“My understanding was that the company had … an obligation to protect any materials that had been in the relevant areas that had been given these approvals under Section 18 and properly store them [and] properly manage them,” she said.

“And they were given very clear instructions about how that should happen, so it’s extraordinary that didn’t happen.

“We’ve left government by then, and no one appears to have followed up to see that the company complied with their obligations.”

Dr Lawrence maintains she had not known the details about the extent of heritage material that was allowed to be destroyed under the Marandoo Act.

She said she believed “the Minister and the Aboriginal Cultural Materials Committee were very conscientiously trying to work their way through which were the areas of critical importance”.

By Sarah Smit