• Ben Wyatt has left WA politics to join the board of a global gas giant. (AAP Image/Rebecca Le May)Source: AAP Image/Rebecca Le May
The former WA Aboriginal Affairs Minister and Treasurer has hit back at criticism of his appointments to the boards of Rio Tinto and Woodside Petroleum soon after leaving politics.
Karen Michelmore

The Point
9 Jun 2021 - 10:34 AM  UPDATED 9 Jun 2021 - 10:37 AM

Former West Australian treasurer Ben Wyatt says he’ll use his influence as a board member of global mining companies to push for positive change, and improved relationships with Aboriginal Traditional Owner groups.

The Yamatji man, who left WA State Parliament after 16 years in March, including terms as Treasurer and Aboriginal Affairs Minister, has joined the board of gas giant Woodside, and will become a non-executive director of Rio Tinto in September.

Rio Tinto has been globally condemned for destroying ancient rock shelters at Juukan Gorge in the Pilbara against the wishes of the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and the Pinikura people (PKKP) a year ago, when Mr Wyatt was Aboriginal Affairs Minister.

“At a board level it's certainly something that I'll be pushing the executive on, to ensure that the relationships of Traditional Owner groups in Australia and globally are first class, because we don't want to see breakdowns in communications or breakdowns in relationships, resulting in the sort of thing that we saw last year with Juukan,” Mr Wyatt told NITV’s The Point program.

He said he would also push the mining giant to consider moving its global headquarters to Perth, closer to the communities where it makes its money, as he has in the past.

“That's something I'll continue to articulate and I look forward to being part of that conversation at the board level,” he said.

“Ultimately, those people being critical of me going onto a board, you can’t make those arguments from the outside.

“If you're going to actually try and get some change with organisations, you've got to be on the inside.

“This is really quite an incredible thing to have happened in Australia for an Aboriginal person to get the opportunity to sit on the board of an organisation like Rio, like Woodside, this hasn't happened before.

“What I hope it means is that a couple of years from now I'll be looking across the boardrooms of Australia's large corporations and see more Aboriginal faces, and I think most Aboriginal people, most reasonable Aboriginal people should support that and agree with that.”

“We do not see him helping to restore Rio’s reputation with Indigenous stakeholders.” Wintawari Guruma Aboriginal Corporation

Mr Wyatt’s appointment has been criticised by some, including the Wintawari Guruma Aboriginal Corporation in the Pilbara.

In a statement, the group said Mr Wyatt had not met with its Elders or board during his four years as Aboriginal Affairs Minister, despite their invitation to do so.

“Unfortunately our engagement with Mr Wyatt has not been positive, and we do not see him helping to restore Rio’s reputation with Indigenous stakeholders,” Wintawari chairman Glen Camile said in a statement.

The statement said Mr Wyatt had issued 143 Section-18 notices impacting heritage sites.

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Mr Wyatt said he thought his office had had a “pretty good relationship” with the Wintawari Guruma.

“My role now is to ensure that Rio Tinto as a corporation has a much better relationship with the Traditional Owners groups including Wintawari Guruma, and ensuring that Aboriginal people get the best outcomes they possibly can for their hard won native title rights,” he said.

He was also confident the Aboriginal Heritage Protection laws he drafted would soon pass parliament after a long consultation process.

“I think it's landed a position that now is broadly acceptable,” he said.

“The reason that is, is because it elevates Traditional Owners….in the decision making process and requires miners or land users, to ensure they have agreements of a particular minimum standard.

“I think that is something that has been long called for and equalises the rights between Aboriginal groups and land users around rights of appeal.”

He said the controversial Section 18 approvals – which enabled Juukan Gorge to be legally destroyed – would disappear under the new laws.

“The Section process won't exist if the proposed draft goes through the parliament,” Mr Wyatt said.

“The focus will be around agreement-making, and ensuring that the land user, a miner, or a government, whoever it happens to be a goes to the effort of ensuring that agreements are struck.

“It’s the first state legislation in Australia that really embeds in state legislation, the architecture that's been established by the Native Title Act.

“I think this is what makes it landmark because it specifically says, Traditional Owner groups, they are the people that we need to speak to enter into agreements with.”

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