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Australian miners worry flood of negative sentiment will cloud heritage reforms


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Australian miners worry flood of negative sentiment will cloud heritage reforms

SNL Image
The Pilbara landscape in Western Australia, which hosts the controversial Juukan Gorge site.
Source: Rio Tinto

Australia's mining leaders are deeply concerned that a rising tide of negative press and community sentiment will cloud discussions regarding what they see as serious flaws in Western Australian heritage reforms, which look like they will be delayed until mid-2021. This follows revelations in May that Rio Tinto had blasted an ancient Aboriginal site during a mine expansion.

The industry is unfairly "being held up against the absolute worst example of what's happened," Warren Pearce, CEO of Australia's Association of Mining and Exploration Companies, or AMEC, told S&P Global Market Intelligence on Oct. 14 on the sidelines of the Diggers and Dealers Mining Forum in Kalgoorlie, Western Australia.

"Juukan has been a disaster in so many ways. A piece of significant Aboriginal heritage has been destroyed, and the fact that it is an extremely rare event and a really extreme event doesn't reflect what goes on in the sector probably isn't being well understood in the community and the broader conversations," Pearce said.

Pearce said there is "absolutely concern" among miners about "the way the issue is being seen" in the broader community and media. Pearce said recent discussions do not present the mining industry in a good light, and that "makes it very difficult to argue for sensible changes" to Western Australia's draft Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Bill.

Simplification, efficiency, efficacy

Pearce also warned that one of the proposals being put forward in the wake of a parliamentary inquiry into Rio Tinto's destruction of 46,000-year-old caves at Juukan Gorge is that there should be more detailed federal legislation to protect heritage.

Barry Fitzgerald, CEO of Roy Hill Holdings Pty. Ltd., which is also contributing to the inquiry, told delegates that "we need to be very careful" about such duplication. Fitzgerald, during Oct. 14 remarks as the last speaker of the conference, also warned about the mining industry being singled out over heritage protection issues.

"I would've thought we should go down the path of making sure that simplification, efficiency and efficacy is our main driver and therefore have one agency, which I prefer to be state, and make sure there's a process to ensure the rights and needs" of traditional owners, the nation, the state and business community are addressed, Fitzgerald said.

"I used the word 'business' very advisedly because quite often we are seeing this heritage bill in the context of the mining industry, [highlighted] through recent activities, but the fact is that this process impacts us all," Fitzgerald said, referring to the broader Australian business community.

SNL Image
IGO Ltd. Managing Director and CEO Peter Bradford addresses the Diggers and Dealers Mining Forum on Oct. 14 in Kalgoorlie, Western Australia.
Source: Bill Stokes/Diggers and Dealers

Speaking as AMEC president, Peter Bradford, managing director and CEO of midtier nickel producer IGO Ltd., told delegates that "the ability to get an industry view" to ensure Western Australia's proposed changes to heritage legislation has "a better outcome for all parties has been made more challenging by what's happened at Juukan Gorge."

"If you were running a mining company, and you had that happen in the business, you'd want to be out there engaging, communicating the fact that the systems are being put in place to make sure it can't happen again," Bradford said. "You'd want to be talking to a culture where people are going to want to do the right thing and it's not just a matter of simply complying with the law."

"It's the whole bundle of those three things: It's the minimum legal requirement, it's what happened, and then it's the lack of immediate response that's created a big vacuum and put a much bigger spotlight on that. It's very unfortunate," Bradford said

Transparency issues

AMEC's Oct. 9 submission to Western Australia's draft Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Bill also warned that it creates overlap with the state's 1986 Environmental Protection Act. The association said it believes that the bill was published without the supporting documents needed to understand the proposed changes and their impacts.

"The uncertainty associated with heritage approvals described within the current bill is likely to impact debt and equity investment in the development of projects in Western Australia," the AMEC submission said. It added that the impact will extend beyond mines to the development of infrastructure such as roads, power and water.

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Western Australian Minister for Mines and Petroleum Bill Johnston told media at the conference that both he and Aboriginal Affairs Minister Ben Wyatt had personally spoken to AMEC about the bill, which Johnston said would not clear Parliament until after Western Australia's election, scheduled for March 13, 2021.

Bradford also warned that the draft Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Bill will "create more layers of bureaucracy and delays in getting access to doing exploration and being able to develop projects ... and that's got to be a concern."

"We pride ourselves globally on having one of the best mining investment jurisdictions, and we've got to think carefully before we start putting in delays that are going to hamstring exploration and development activities," Bradford said. "We all want to make sure we do the right thing, but we don't want to frustrate process."