Former Rio Tinto boss Sam Walsh has backed calls to rework proposed Aboriginal heritage laws — saying “white people don’t really get” sacred Indigenous sites — and revealed plans to lobby the WA Government for a conscience vote.
Mr Walsh, who joined a powerful Aboriginal corporation about six months ago, was among more than 100 prominent Australians to sign an open letter on Tuesday urging Premier Mark McGowan to withdraw the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Bill “and ensure the law is co-designed with Aboriginal people”.
A draft of the bill, aimed at avoiding another cultural heritage disaster like Rio Tinto’s destruction of Juukan Gorge, allowed for traditional owners to appeal ministerial decisions on whether Aboriginal cultural sites can be destroyed for projects like mines to the State Administrative Tribunal. However, the revised version gives the WA Aboriginal Affairs Minister the final say.
“An appeal to the Minister is a repeat of what the old legislation had and we’ve seen with Juukan Gorge that doesn’t actually work,” Mr Walsh, an independent director of the Banjima Native Title Aboriginal Corporation, said.
Mr Walsh retired from Rio Tinto in 2016 after 25 years with the miner, including nine as its head of iron ore and three as CEO.
He said he was concerned that when the memory of Juukan Gorge was not as fresh, medium-sized companies and junior miners could get away with destroying prized cultural heritage sites against the wishes of traditional owners without independent review of decisions.
“Since joining Banjima, I’m learning every day about these sorts of issues and how important they are to traditional owners,” Mr Walsh said.
“White people don’t really get it. I guess (they might) if somebody wanted to tear down St Mary’s Cathedral or St George’s Cathedral, but because this is kilometres away from where the majority of people live it’s very hard to grasp.”
After sailing through the lower house of WA Parliament earlier this month, the Bill is assured of passing in the Upper House given Labor’s control of the Legislative Council.
Mr Walsh said there should be a conscience vote in the Upper House so MPs could “look into their souls and determine whether they should support legislation that is so much against the wishes of our traditional owners.”
Last year, Mr Walsh claimed to have issued instructions while leading Rio that Juukan Gorge not be mined in 2013. However, that claim was disputed by Rio with no evidence found to support the statement.
Federal MP Warren Entsch, who chaired the parliamentary inquiry into Juukan Gorge, would not be drawn into whether Mr Walsh could have done more during his time at Rio.
“It was the CEO (Jean-Sebastien Jacques) that took it over that saw a real cultural change there from memory — it wasn’t Sam,” he said.
A State Government spokesman said the new Bill would replace outdated heritage laws and remove the controversial section 18 approvals process which legalises the destruction of Aboriginal sites.
“It mandates agreement making with traditional owners, in line with Native Title laws, and allows Aboriginal people to negotiate better outcomes for projects on their lands,” he said.
“The Bill also embeds the principles of free, prior and informed consent in its agreement-making processes.”