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Indigenous Voice to Parliament Wins Corporate Support

Tuesday, 5th February 2019 at 5:08 pm
Luke Michael
Mining giants BHP and Rio Tinto’s support of the Uluru Statement from the Heart has been welcomed by statement advocates, who are calling for greater corporate support for an Indigenous voice to Parliament.

Tuesday, 5th February 2019
at 5:08 pm
Luke Michael



Indigenous Voice to Parliament Wins Corporate Support
Tuesday, 5th February 2019 at 5:08 pm

Mining giants BHP and Rio Tinto’s support of the Uluru Statement from the Heart has been welcomed by statement advocates, who are calling for greater corporate support for an Indigenous voice to Parliament.

BHP CEO Andrew Mackenzie pledged support for the statement in a speech last Thursday, arguing that the company could no longer stand on the sidelines.

“The Uluru statement is a unique opportunity and an invitation to listen to the voices of Indigenous Australia and to respond to them,” Mackenzie said.

“Australia must not squander this opportunity. The Uluru statement is a gift. It is a path forward… The establishment of a national Indigenous representative body, a First Nations voice to Parliament, is a meaningful step towards reconciliation.”

Rio Tinto also pledged its support for the statement, and joined BHP in calling to establish a Makarrata Commission to supervise an agreement-making process between governments and First Nations.

Joanne Farrell, Rio Tinto managing director Australia, said: “Enshrining the First Nations voice in the constitution is important to ensure continued participation in decisions about Indigenous rights and interests. We believe national conversations around constitutional reform must continue as a priority for our country.”

The Uluru Statement from the Heart was delivered by the Parliamentary-appointed referendum council in June 2017. It called for a referendum into the establishment of a First Nations voice enshrined in the constitution, the creation of a treaty and a truth and reconciliation commission.

But then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull rejected this call, labelling an Indigenous-only body “contrary to principles of equality and of citizenship” and neither “desirable or capable of winning [public] acceptance”.

BHP and Rio Tinto became the first major corporations to publicly support the statement, in a move welcomed by advocates.

Professor Megan Davis, a Cobble Cobble Aboriginal woman who sat on the referendum council, told Pro Bono News the mining giants’ support was significant at this point of the political process.

After [the statement] we had the Australian Medical Association (AMA), ACOSS, CFMEU/MUA, ACFID, Law Council of Australia and 10,000 organisations and individuals sign onto the Uluru reforms including a referendum on a voice,” Davis said.

“Now that Bill Shorten has committed to a first-term referendum, having big miners like BHP and Rio Tinto endorse the referendum for a voice… and a Makarrata Commission, is a watershed moment in the recognition project in Australia that started eight years ago.”

She said as the 1967 referendum took 10 years to achieve, advocates were coming into the final stages of the work required to hold a successful referendum.

“BHP’s announcement is critical and Andrew MacKenzie’s speech is the most important speech from a corporate executive I have heard in that eight years in Australia,” she said.

“MacKenzie deeply and acutely understands the Uluru reforms and he learned about them by spending 2018 travelling around Australia talking to Aboriginal people and traditional owners about voice, treaty and truth.”

Davis added that she hoped this would inspire more of corporate Australia to endorse a referendum on a voice.  

Laureate Professor Emeritus Cheryl Saunders AO, an expert in constitutional law, said BHP and Rio Tinto’s support was a great development as both were very influential Australian institutions.

She said she also believed the government and politicians were beginning to come around to the idea.  

“It’s important for the government of the day to be prepared to initiate this proposal because it has to be supported by both houses of Parliament,” Saunders told Pro Bono News.

“But what’s also really important is that once it’s put to a referendum it is supported by the Australian people, and that’s why it’s vital to have people outside political circles having a view on these important constitutional matters for Australia.

The Law Council of Australia (LCA) expressed “profound disappointment” at the federal government’s decision to reject the statement in November 2017.

LCA president Arthur Moses SC told Pro Bono News he welcomed BHP and Rio Tinto’s pledge, as support for the Uluru statement from all sections of Australian society was needed – from citizens, to corporations and government.

This support is a key example of corporate civic responsibility and a recognition of the custodianship over land and sea Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have had for thousands of years,” Moses said.

It also serves to emphasise that this statement is not radical, nor does it take away rights from any Australians. Rather, it represents an opportunity to create a fairer and just society by recognising the fundamental truth of our history as a nation.”

While Labor has promised a referendum if it wins the upcoming federal election, the Coalition government has remained opposed to a constitutionally enshrined First Nations voice, based on fears it would be become a “third chamber” of Australia’s Parliament.

In response to BHP and Rio Tinto’s support, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said it was not yet demonstrated that the proposal would help address Indigenous disadvantage.

He said he was focused on producing practical measures to stop young Indigenous children being harmed.

“I’m more concerned about young Indigenous girls committing suicide. That’s what concerns me more than anything else,” Morrison said.

“I think [BHP and Rio Tinto] have a perspective on this issue which is not born out of politics but one that is born out of their deep cooperation with Indigenous peoples around the country.”

Luke Michael  |  Journalist  |  @luke_michael96

Luke Michael is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.

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