NIT Editorial

In a submission to the Juukan Gorge inquiry, Yamatji Marlpa Aboriginal Corporation (YMAC) said there was a colossal power imbalance between Native Title Representative Bodies (NTRBs) and mining companies.

While true in many instances, this is not the case when applied to YMAC, who were very well resourced when negotiating multiple agreements with Rio Tinto.

In their August 28 inquiry submission, Western Australia’s largest NTRB, YMAC, said “the imbalance of power between the parties is enormous” when negotiating agreements.

However, information from YMAC’s annual reports, which is publicly available on their website, shows YMAC has received hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue over the years—making it one of the country’s largest and best-resourced NTRBs.

From 2004 to 2019, YMAC’s revenue totalled over $338 million—with nearly 50 per cent of that figure coming from the Commonwealth Government.

As statutory bodies under the Native Title Act 1993 (Cth), NTRBs receive funding from the Federal Government for their activities.

From 2004 to 2019, the reported revenue from the Federal Government to YMAC totalled $158,793,875—46.8 per cent of YMAC’s total revenue over the same period.

While the annual reports don’t disclose specifically what the other sources of income are, a former finance officer in the Native Title sector told NIT the remaining revenue usually comes from industry to speed up negotiations and other processes, State Government funding, or others with vested interests in the sector.

This indicates the remaining $180,099,913 was likely received from industry and other sources.

YMAC’s total revenue and Commonwealth funding from 2004-2019.

According to both YMAC and Rio Tinto’s inquiry submissions, negotiations between Rio Tinto and YMAC on behalf of the PKKP people began as early as 2003 and finished in 2010, with agreements authorised in 2011.

Throughout this period, YMAC’s revenue totalled at least $118,072,656, with $51,693,354 from the Commonwealth—with the remaining $66 million-plus likely from industry and other sources.

While YMAC said the power imbalance between parties is “enormous”, it remains unclear whether the NTRB raised public concern about the imbalance, about a lack of funding or asked for support in negotiating such a large deal with the mining giant.

YMAC has said, however, that the $5.5 million they received from the Commonwealth Government to fast-track Native Title claim research “did not relate to support for negotiating mining agreements, including negotiations with Rio Tinto”.

YMAC also holds the position that the agreement they negotiated between Rio Tinto and PKKP Traditional Owners “afforded better heritage standards” than the current Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 (WA) and “[raised] the bar of cultural heritage protection”.

This is despite the agreement resulting in the destruction of Juukan Gorge and other sites, with no right for Traditional Owners to legally object.

Although there are definitely significant shortfalls in legislation and power imbalances between Traditional Owner groups and industry, it is plainly evident that YMAC was exceptionally well-resourced in the years they were negotiating on behalf of PKKP Traditional Owners.

In the 2012 financial year, the year after YMAC announced Rio Tinto agreements for four groups, including the PKKP people, YMAC reported a total $33,637,040 in revenue. Of this $33 million-plus, $11 million came from the Federal Government, with the remaining $22 million likely from industry and other sources.

In anyone’s language, $338 million across 16 years is an enormous amount of taxpayer and industry money.

The Yamatji and Marlpa Nations deserve a full and thorough explanation from YMAC in relation to the funding received, who got paid, how much, and what benefits were delivered to Traditional Owners.

YMAC was approached for comment, however, no response was received by time of publication.