BHP drafted law, PNG admits
By Norm Dixon
Australian multinational mining giant BHP — the "Big Australian"' — has been exposed as the "Big Fibber". Following a week of smart talking, equivocations, legal mumbo-jumbo and outright denials, it has now become very clear that BHP's lawyers did draft controversial legislation for the Papua New Guinea government.
The legislation will force inadequate compensation on river dwellers downstream from the polluting Ok Tedi mine, and will criminalise any further attempts by the PNG people to seek legal redress against the BHP-owned mine.
In May last year, lawyers representing 30,000 river dwellers launched court action in the Supreme Court of Victoria, demanding $4 billion in damages. On August 3, PNG mines minister John Giheno announced a unilateral compensation settlement worth 110 million kina (A$110 million) over the mine's remaining 15 years. Construction of a tailings dam, the key demand of the river dwellers, was rejected.
To quash the Melbourne court case, the PNG government proposed to make it a criminal offence to initiate, assist or give evidence in a compensation case in PNG or overseas. It will also be illegal to challenge the law's constitutionality.
Charges by the river dwellers' lawyers that BHP had instructed its lawyers to draft the documents were dismissed as an exaggeration by BHP spokespeople, then denied. Giheno also denied that BHP was involved. BHP spokespeople had the gall to tell the press that the documents had been drawn up according to "democratic processes". It would seem that democracy BHP-style means governments do what BHP tells them to do.
BHP's lies began to come unstuck when copies of the settlement and proposed legislation were leaked to the river dwellers' lawyers. On August 15, Nick Styant-Brown presented the original drafts, which clearly bore the word-processing identification codes used by BHP's lawyers in their Port Moresby office. He also pointed out that the PNG chief parliamentary draftsperson — the person usually responsible for drafting legislation — denied any knowledge of the documents.
On August 16, Prime Minister Julius Chan admitted at a press conference broadcast over Radio Australia that BHP had drafted the documents.
John Gordon, one of the river dwellers' lawyers, pointed out that there was an extreme conflict of interest. BHP's lawyers are bound to "ensure that [BHP's] interests are maximised. On the other hand, a state [should be] interested in legislation that is beneficial to its entire population."
The controversy has exposed rifts within the PNG government. Giheno has called for the sacking of the former environment minister, now home affairs minister, Parry Zeipi, who Giheno claims leaked the incriminating draft documents. Zeipi was sacked as environment minister in early August after he opposed the pro-BHP proposals pushed through cabinet by Giheno.