From invasion to Juukan Gorge … Sorry, not sorry

June 18, 2020
Brisbane Black Lives Matter-Stop Black Deaths in Custody rally. Photo: Alex Bainbridge

Less than a month after Rio Tinto blasted a 46,000-year-old rock shelter in the Juukan Gorge in Western Australia, the New South Wales police scrambled to protect a statue of James Cook in Sydney’s Hyde Park on June 12 from Black Lives Matter protesters. Modern Australia remains profoundly shaped by the violent dispossession of Indigenous people, and denying that history serves a real and material purpose for very powerful interests.

Destroying such a significant site on the eve of Reconciliation Week, as anti-racist consciousness was surging thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement, was a tactical blunder by Rio Tinto. It’s not that the company cares about Aboriginal heritage, but its willful decision to blast the cultural site jeopardizes the work it, and other mining corporations, have done to cultivate their so-called “social licence”.

Rio Tinto’s CEO Chris Salisbury said as much when he told ABC Radio National on June 5: “It hurts even more that, actually, we have been previously recognised as being leaders in the field and clearly we have now got work to do to regain that leadership position”. Despite Salisbury’s insistence that the destruction of the rock shelters blasting was a misunderstanding, leaked emails show his company had been made aware of the site’s significance to Traditional Owners.

Salibury’s cynicism was further revealed by the Australian Financial Review which published his address to staff on June 11, where he put the company’s line of defence: “We haven’t apologised for the event itself, per se, but apologised for the distress the event caused”. He went on to stress Rio Tinto had the support of “political leaders of both sides” and that it had “engaged with lots and lots of stakeholders and … quietly, there is still support for us out there.”

How touching that Rio Tinto found shoulders to cry on in its time of need. They include WA Labor Minister for Aboriginal Affairs Ben Wyatt and his cousin Ken Wyatt, the federal counterpart, neither of whom intervened to try to stop Juukan Gorge from being destroyed despite being alerted to it.

This perfectly reveals the rotten dysfunction at the heart of Australian society: Labor and Liberal rule on behalf of big business and, in this country, that means the huge mining companies.

In the scramble to repolish the mining industry’s “social licence” we can expect some modest improvements to WA’s Aboriginal Heritage Act, which dates back to 1972 and whose essential purpose is to facilitate exemptions allowing development.

In that sense, Rio Tinto’s actions are run of the mill. Fellow mining giant BHP has approval to demolish 40 heritage sites. One of the most glaring problems is the fact that once an approval has been given, Traditional Owners have no right of appeal, even if new evidence of a site’s significance emerges.

Friends of Rio Tinto and BHP in parliament and the mainstream media will be working hard to quarantine the discussion about this in a bid to prevent it from straying to more fundamental questions such as: why don’t Traditional Owners have real land rights and not just Native Title?; and why do TOs only have a right to negotiate over the terms under which minerals on their land are exploited, but not the right of veto?

Here, the great mining industry defender The West Australian (part of Seven West media and partly owned in-turn by media and mining magnate Kerry Stokes) has demonstrated some fancy footwork. Only three years ago, it attacked anyone who dared to question the sanctity of a January 26 Australia Day with a stream of hostile articles, virulent editorials and explicitly racist cartoons. Then, this January, it made an about-face, announcing that the appropriateness or not of the date was a discussion that “would not go away”.

While WA Premier Mark McGowan and the Prime Minister sternly warned against attending the latest Black Lives Matter protest, The West gave it a favourable front-page coverage and an editorial denouncing the scourge of racism. Its June 18 editorial welcomed the long overdue change to stop sending fine defaulters to jail.

Some in the establishment are smart enough to recognise that, in order to control the conversation, you’ve got to be prepared to give a little.

The rantings of News.Corp and finance minister Mathias Cormann’s proposal to cut welfare payments to those who attended the Black Lives Matter protests, while playing to racists, actually added fuel to the fire. But you can be certain that the capitalist establishment would go all out to prevent initiatives that seriously address the dispossession of Aboriginal people, or crimp the huge profits of the mining industry.

While Green Left welcomes every small victory for justice and racial equality, the struggle to get to the systemic causes of racism, poverty and injustice remains ahead of us. This has to include transforming Australia into a republic based on a treaty (or treaties) with First Nations people that enshrine real land rights and a fundamental redistribution of mineral wealth for the public good. That’s the struggle to which Green Left is committed to helping organise and extend. Please share our articles, support and donate to help us do this.

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