Aboriginal economy: Can it catch up through mining?

For too long Aboriginal economic participation was limited. Australia's mining boom opens a unique opportunity for Aboriginal economy to catch up—if it's done the right way.

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Aboriginal economic participation was limited for a long time

Up until the late 1960s many people thought that Aboriginal life was incompatible with modern economic life . By the late 1980s, Aboriginal policy and much public discussion was based on the view that Aboriginal people were victims of a brutal colonial legacy. They were thought to live in remote regions where they strove to maintain what was left of a traditional way of life.

Australia treated its Aboriginal people as different and incapable of joining the Australian community and society. Their economic participation was limited through:

  • Not being Australians. Aboriginal people only became Australian citizens after the 1967 referendum.
  • Working for the dole. The nearly half-century-old Community Development Employment Program (CDEP, a work-for-the-dole scheme) locked Aboriginal people out of full-time work.
  • Welfare dependency. Many Aboriginal people were entrenched in welfare dependency.
  • Discrimination. Many measures of the Northern Territory Emergency Intervention initially breached the Racial Discrimination Act.

Chances to catch up

Today, expectation are the reverse from what they were back in 1968.

Many of the significant changes in Aboriginal economy are due to the changes in the mining industry.

Rio Tinto Iron Ore was the first resources company to decide Aboriginal workers were good for business, and Argyle Diamonds in 2012 employed more Aboriginal Australians than any other company .

Most mining projects are located in remote and rural Australia; 60% of them are near Aboriginal communities .

Changes are a mixed bag and include :

  • Employment. Mining offers employment opportunities as an alternative to welfare. About 9% of the employees at Rio Tinto Iron Ore and the Fortescue Metals Group are Aboriginal (although more than 30% of the NT's population is Aboriginal), 22% at Argyle Diamonds . But despite the boom, about 33% of Aboriginal people in the Kimberley are welfare-dependent .
  • Contract opportunities. Mining companies offer Aboriginal businesses unprecedented opportunities to tender for contracts.
  • Australia's mining boom. It created about 27,000 jobs in the mining industry and looks like to continue for a number of years.
  • Emptied job market. Along with the boom came the industry's thirst for - and trouble finding - skilled employees.
  • "Social licenses". Mining companies are increasingly seeing Aboriginal employment as an important part of agreements to mine on their land. It maintains the companies' "social licence" to mine.
  • Reaping investment benefits. Companies with many Aboriginal employees have often provided literacy and numeracy programs, family and community support programs and mentoring of Aboriginal employees. Companies see these investments paying off.
  • Self-respect for workers. Jobs teach routine and provide skills to earn decent money, which gives Aboriginal workers self-respect. This in turn lowers the likelihood of alcohol abuse and domestic violence, both frequent problems in Aboriginal communities.
  • Relatives begging for money. Aboriginal people know their relatives working in mines earn well, so they frequently ask for money.

Government policies, media reportage and public attitudes have barely registered the extraordinary changes in the Aboriginal world of the last half century.

— Marcia Langton, Aboriginal academic

In 2012 in the Pilbara, Rio Tinto and Fortescue employed 1,300 Aboriginal workers and awarded contracts worth $300 million to 52 Aboriginal companies .

Story: Neville Stewart: From dirt to dreams

Neville Stewart began his working life at the wheel of a borrowed grader levelling red dirt roads in the heat-soaked Pilbara - Australia's quarry to the world.

Today he heads Australian Indigenous Enterprises (AIE) with Daniel Tucker, a fellow Aboriginal contractor and owner of Carey Mining. These days, AIE is valued at $140 million.

''Daniel and I have big dreams. We want to be the first listed Indigenous company in Australia,'' Stewart says.

''We want to own hotels, caravan parks, be big enough to have our [proposed] accounting and law firm staffed with Aboriginal men and women. We will pay accommodation and HECs fees for those willing to work and train with us.''

And that is just the beginning. They want to build AIE into a powerhouse of Indigenous enterprise. They have plans for a regional airline, solar power networks, and a mobile health service for remote communities, as well being the nation's biggest employer of Indigenous labour.

How well-intentioned mining companies can get into trouble

Companies which hire Aboriginal workers and contractors should be praised, right? Not according to some.

While multinational companies advertise their Aboriginal employment initiatives, the "real traditional owners" are yet to see any employment opportunities, according to a discussion in the Australian Aboriginal Network .

Rather than non-Aboriginal organisations getting contracts and train, recruit and employ Aboriginal people, miners should engage Traditional Owners directly.

Aboriginal people ask miners to "support local Traditional Owners to set up their own businesses to provide employment and recruitment to the developers' Indigenous Employment Programs on their projects". Setting up mentoring programs would give Traditional Owners a head start, and help miners "demonstrate good social license". Consultancy businesses already exist which help companies support and use local Traditional Owners, when they are doing works in their country.

Does mining kill the Dreaming?

Mining is not only a threat to Aboriginal land and Aboriginal Dreamtime places.

People can work together to preserve rituals while mining for resources. "We had to teach them about the Dreamtime," explains Chocolate Thomas, a senior Gidja man of the Warmun community in the Kimberley . "Everything that happens at the [Argyle Diamonds] mine site is cleared by us. If they want to put down a bore, cut down a tree, they talk to us."

An agreement signed by the mine and traditional owners brought jobs, economic activity in surrounding towns and an extensive cultural engagement within the company's operations.

Each month a welcome ceremony involving smoke and water informs the ancestors that workers are welcome on the site and deserve protection .

We live in two worlds. Our world is made up of culture and family and the obligations tied to [those]. At the same time, there is the other world that includes work.

— Nancy Davis, Aboriginal superintendent

Aboriginal people are our landlords, they know what works and what doesn't, and we are respectful of that.

— Kevin McLeish, managing director, Argyle Diamonds

How is the north different to the south?

By 2040, half of the population of northern Australia will be Aboriginal. In the south, it will remain at about 2 or 3% . Over half of the population will be younger than 25.

The economic interests of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in northern Australia are closely aligned - mining, cattle and tourism are the industries that fuel the northern economy.

In the south, the predominant issues concern human rights, reconciliation and self-determination. In the north, the predominant issues concern land acquisition, industry and commerce, education, training, employment, and health issues.

It looks like Aboriginal people in Australia's north are on the verge to be able to become a wealthy remote-area workforce.


View article sources (5)

[1] [1a] [1b] [1c] [1d] 'On the cusp of a new dawn', SMH 17/11/2012
[2] [2a] [2b] [2c] [2d] [2e] [2f] [2g] 'Diamonds in the rough', SMH Good Weekend 6/4/2012 pp.21
[3] 'Romantic ideas fail the green test', SMH 8/12/2012
[4] [4a] 'Dreamtime, boomtime', SMH 6/3/2013
[5] 'Is there light at the end of the Pipeline?', Australian Aboriginal Network group on LinkedIn 28/7/2013

Cite this page

Korff, J 2019, Aboriginal economy: Can it catch up through mining?, <>, retrieved 26 May 2024

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