Rio Tinto will close its Gove smelting plant, which is not necessarily a bad outcome for the Yolngu people. ANU professor Jon Altman says employment opportunities are better sought elsewhere.

On November 29 (2013), Rio Tinto announced that it would suspend production of alumina at its Gove refinery. It was hardly a surprise; the smelting plant was reputed to be losing Rio Tinto $20 million to $30 million per month and closure was based on the company’s commercial accountability to its shareholders. It had become increasingly clear that even with access to cheap gas to offset the burden of dependence on heavy fuel oil the Gove operation was commercially unsustainable.

It is ironic that suspension was announced soon after the 50th anniversary of the Yirrkala bark petitions made to the Australian Parliament in 1963. The anniversary was a timely reminder of iconic Yolngu opposition to mining on their traditional lands, an opposition unjustly dismissed by Justice Richard Blackburn in the NT Supreme Court in 1971. The legal principle of terra nullius on which Blackburn relied was later judged wrong in the High Court Mabo judgment of 1992.

The special Mining (Gove Peninsula Nabalco Agreement) Ordinance of 1968 that issued special mineral leases for a period of 42 years, renewable for a further 42 years, was set in legal concrete. This special ordinance was a special deal. The Commonwealth, keen to see the development of the north as part of a nationalist project, would only issue mining leases if a major bauxite treatment plant were constructed. This required a significant area on the Gove Peninsula to be revoked from the Arnhem Land Reserve. And it meant a sweetheart deal on royalties, with a rate struck well below the usual standard.

The Yolngu suffered a double injustice: not only did they see their traditional lands alienated for a minimum 84 years, they were also required to effectively subsidise the national economy and a multinational corporation by receiving less compensation. I first discovered this double jeopardy when researching for a book Aborigines and Mining Royalties in the Northern Territory in 1983.

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