Wednesday, 9 December 2020
Northern Australia Committee; Report
by leave—I thank the member for Leichhardt for his contribution and for the way in which he's chaired this committee. We've been working together for some time—over a number of years—and, I have to say, we're able to work very collegiately and cooperatively. I appreciate his leadership and the way in which this committee has functioned. Whilst I'm on the subject, I would like to particularly thank my Labor Party colleagues Senator Patrick Dodson, who has been instrumental to this process; Senator Chisholm; and the member for Lilley, Ms Wells.
Never again is an apt and appropriate title for this report. We should never again be asked to countenance what appears, to this joint standing committee, to be a deliberate action by Rio Tinto to destroy significant sites in the quest for profit. It was an unconscionable act that could have been avoided, had Rio Tinto had a mind to, and should have been.
I've already thanked the chair and the members of the committee for their diligence and application. This report reflects the concerns and amazement of the committee members at the behaviour of Rio Tinto in the destruction of the Juukan caves. These concerns are not limited to the Juukan Gorge. It is absolutely clear that priceless First Nations heritage is under threat across the country and that protections for it are very limited.
This inquiry has exposed major deficiencies and fault lines in Rio Tinto's management systems. It has provided Aboriginal traditional owners an opportunity to have their voice properly heard, as the member for Leichhardt said. We had some very poignant testimony from the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people themselves. One witness, Mr Burchell Hayes, whose father was known as 'Juukan', said:
We have an obligation to look after country in accordance with traditional law and customs. It is our obligation to the old people, who also looked after it. It was on loan to us to pass on to our future generations, our Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura children, and the future generations yet to come. The disaster has now left a gaping hole in our ability to pass on our heritage to our children and grandchildren.
We were only able to get this evidence by, as the member for Leichhardt said, travelling to Western Australia, sitting in front of traditional owners and talking to them directly.
This interim report identifies a catalogue of failures of process by Rio Tinto. It also makes plain, as has the inquiry, that First Nations people are seriously disadvantaged when it comes to dealing with mining companies and government agencies. The scant resources that they have and that they can muster are far outweighed by what those mining companies and bureaucracies bring to bear. And, as the member for Leichhardt said, legislation—state and federal—has failed to protect First Nations and their heritage.
This inquiry, and the interim report, has exposed an ongoing failure by Rio Tinto to ensure that the company has ongoing free, prior and informed consent by the PKKP for activities on their traditional lands. It has exposed the gross inadequacies of Western Australian heritage legislation and the need for mining companies in Western Australia to revisit section 18 approvals so that they reflect continuing free, prior and informed consent and consent that is current; that there are no limitations on Aboriginal people exercising their rights to oppose activities proposed under these approvals; and that gag clauses are removed. There is much work yet to be done, as the chair has said. The committee is intent on completing the next stage of this work. But let me be clear—never again. Never again.