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Australian iron ore majors urge Indigenous exec hires to drive social engagement


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Australian iron ore majors urge Indigenous exec hires to drive social engagement

Miners need Indigenous people in executive roles and internal "dedicated champions" who can translate cultural issues back to the board and wider company, according to experts at two of Australia's iron ore majors.

It is "very important to have Aboriginal people in executive level roles and on boards" within miners' governance structures to help drive company strategy, BHP Group strategy and planning specialist Emma Garlett told a June 24 West Australian Mining Club event panel in Perth.

"That's where we can have real effect and lasting change," such as by "placing weight on the value of what Aboriginal people have to say to make decisions" rather than merely making sure they have "a seat at the table."

Garlett also stressed the importance of listening to Aboriginal elders rather than asking questions and "pushing for information we want to know to get things done."

The event was held about a week after Reuters reported that Aboriginal groups opposed a bill seeking to protect cultural heritage in Western Australia, claiming it would do more harm than good. The state government is reviewing laws after Rio Tinto Group's destruction of the 46,000-year-old Juukan Gorge site in 2020.

In May, WAtoday reported newly appointed West Australian Aboriginal Affairs Minister Stephen Dawson as saying the delayed update to the Aboriginal Heritage Act, first passed in 1972, would be introduced into parliament in the second half of 2021.

Internal champion

Maintaining relationships with Indigenous elders and communities is not a role for operations teams within mining and contractor companies, Fortescue Metals Group Ltd. Aboriginal business development principal Yuluwirri McGrady told the panel.

Rather, "there needs to be a dedicated champion internally" to "sit down and listen" to Indigenous people and "translate that back to the boardroom and throughout the operations," he said.

"There are murmurs in the market about equity share or joint ventures" where Indigenous groups can get involved in "actually developing mine sites," McGrady said. That is the "exciting part" which he is looking forward to as a potential next step in relations between miners and Aboriginal groups, he added.

Brenden Taylor, managing director of 100% Indigenous-owned diversified contractor Cundaline Resources, told the panel that mining and Tier 1 contractors have "come a long way" since five to 10 years ago when many of them did not help Indigenous people and companies build their capability or capacity.

Rather, the mining companies or contractors "just handed them [indigenous contracting companies] a check every month" as part of a joint venture arrangement.

Taylor said such arrangements were part of a practice widely termed "black cladding," and was particularly appreciative of the efforts made by Fortescue, which gave Cundaline its first contract, and BHP.

Indigenous-owned mining and civil contractor Carey Mining Pty Ltd CEO Allan James described black cladding at a 2019 West Australian Mining Club panel as companies adding an Aboriginal content element to their tenders then leaving Indigenous companies out of the deal once the job was won.

Mining service provider Thiess Pty. Ltd.'s senior diversity, inclusion and community adviser Nevinia Davenport told the panel that if mining or contractor companies are not Indigenous owned, it is crucial that they build internal "cultural competency" to aid communication with traditional owner groups and contractors.

Thiess has a structured cultural learning framework, whereby "high-level cultural awareness training" provides employees context around history, cultural norms, and "the inter-generational trauma that has come about" as a result of some of Australia's history, she said.

This provides a base level knowledge about Aboriginal culture in a current-day context, Davenport said.

Davenport advocated developing cultural competency for mining company leaders "so they can best lead Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employees" and "engage effectively with Aboriginal-owned businesses and traditional owners."

"Otherwise you're almost sending them in ill-equipped to actually be successful in their communication and engagement," she said.

There are many Aboriginal businesses and corporations that offer such services, and engaging in such training is "an investment in your business doing well in your Aboriginal engagement, by operating in a way that is culturally safe for yourself and the other people."