SYDNEY - Australian mining giants Rio Tinto and BHP are supporting greater indigenous recognition in parliament. Critics, however, believe it could be a cynical move by the mining sector to gain favor with tribal groups, which have lands rich in natural resources.
BHP and Rio Tinto are supporting a campaign to change Australia’s constitution to give a formal voice to Aboriginal people in federal parliament.
The mining giants employ thousands of indigenous workers and are backing a demand from community leaders, called the Uluru Statement from the Heart made in 2017, for a special Aboriginal body to advise parliament.
BHP chief executive Andrew Mackenzie said the company, like the nation as a whole, has unfinished business with the indigenous peoples of Australia” and that it “cannot stand on the sidelines.”
Mackenzie said the reform would “empower indigenous people” and would boost the reconciliation process.
“We now have a chance, a chance to create a new chapter in our history, to create a voice that will establish a bridge across that gulf,” Mackenzie said. “I know there are fears that a constitutionally enshrined voice confirmed by referendum will deepen cultural divisions and is undemocratic. I do not think those fears stand up to scrutiny.”
BHP will contribute about $700,000 to a project raising awareness about the benefits of an indigenous voice to the Australian parliament.
Many of the company’s operations are on or close to indigenous land. BHP says it acknowledges the right of First Australians “to maintain their culture, identity, traditions and customs.” But there is skepticism about the company’s motives.
Jacinta Price, an Aboriginal councilor in the central Australian city of Alice Springs, believes the miners’ support for constitutional reform is a superficial move.
“We need to have a bit more of a discussion,” she said. “I do not know that just simply throwing your support behind something that we are not sure what that actually looks like is helpful and in a way, perhaps, it is a way of these companies to look better in the eyes of indigenous people considering it is indigenous peoples’ land that, you know, they want to be involved in.”
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has rejected the mining giants’ push for greater indigenous rights in federal parliament. He said he was focused on “practical” measures to help Aboriginal communities.”
Indigenous people make up about 3 percent of the population but suffer high rates of poverty, ill-health and imprisonment.