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Issue #1536      22 February 2012

Roebourne community demands apology

Statement, Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation, Roebourne, WA

On Four Corners (“Iron & Dust” 18 July 2011) Andrew Forrest [head of mining company Fortescue Metal) told a story about “little” Aboriginal girls approaching him late at night in Roebourne to offer sex for cigarettes:

“If you want to join me one evening after 11 o’clock at night and walk down the streets of Roebourne and have little girls come up to you, like they have to me, and offer themselves for any type of service, I don’t want to mention on television, for the cost of a cigarette, then you know you have come to the end of the line. The social breakdown is complete.”

In fact, this story seems to be a favourite because, in May this year, Mr Forrest claimed to have had exactly the same personal experience, at three and four o’clock in the morning, with Aboriginal girls in Halls Creek trying to bribe him: “with whatever they could, for a cigarette, and you know, etcetera, you can imagine what a child will try and bribe an adult with. When you hear ‘smoke for a poke’ you know you are dealing with the depths of depravity of a society that is completely broken.”

Of course what Mr Forrest neglected to mention is that it serves the interests of Fortescue’s (FMG) shareholders to assert the complete social breakdown of Aboriginal societies because, under the native title law, remnant members of such societies are not entitled to legal recognition (in a native title determination) of their traditional property rights; so, FMG can exploit the mineral wealth of their traditional lands with a clear conscience. FMG can even look good by offering the poor blackfellas “training and jobs” and thus create a local workforce for FMG’s mines and save the cost of a ‘fly in-fly out’ workforce.

Indeed, 40 years ago in the early 1970s during the pitch of mining development when Roebourne was invaded by thousands of heavy drinking construction workers, and when the bulk beer sales at the Victoria Hotel put it amongst the top five hotels in the state, young girls were taken advantage of. But this is definitely not the Roebourne of today. Mr Forrest’s statement about the “little girls” in Roebourne is deeply hurtful, especially to the women and girls of the community.

What makes this even more offensive is the link Andrew Forrest made between the alleged “depravity” of the Roebourne girls and his rejection of a fair and equitable agreement with Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation (YAC), because, as he stated, “I am not going to encourage with our cash that kind of behaviour.”

Mr Forrest apparently wishes to persuade the Australian public that payment of proper compensation, to YAC – the chosen representative institution and the corporate trustee of the Yindjibarndi People – will somehow result in the exacerbation of the “depraved” behaviour he allegedly encountered in the streets of Roebourne. Nothing could be further from the truth, and Mr Forrest knows this, because YAC has written to him directly to express the community purposes to which all compensation would be directed by YAC, namely: long-term, autonomous self-development, not just in resources, but in “for-community-benefit” businesses; and in diverse commercial enterprises to fund health and housing, education, training and employment, in ways that promote the long term survival of the distinct culture of the Yindjibarndi People.

Yindjibarndi elder Ned Cheedy with his great grandson.

Mr Forrest’s double standards are plain when he calls payments to other, non-Indigenous, landholding interests, a “royalty” or “license fee”, but payments to Aboriginal people is “mining welfare”. With regard to under-employment of Aboriginal people, Andrew Forrest has said, “We have to stop this racism of low expectations” (Yakety Yak). The slur about how Yindjibarndi would misuse royalty payments is Andrew Forrest’s “racism of low expectations” – a racism of low expectations that he wishes to formalise in an “agreement” that will be binding on all future generations of Yindjibarndi people.

Mr Forrest’s self-serving stories do not rest with his reference to Aboriginal girls in Roebourne. His repeated assertion that the majority of Yindjibarndi support his agreement is another falsehood; as was his asserted “duty, to negotiate with the majority of the Yindjibarndi community”. Mr Forrest’s duty, under the native title law, was to ensure FMG negotiated openly and fairly with YAC, as the authorised representative institution of the Yindjibarndi People.

Instead, under his watch, FMG encouraged dissent by misleading some Yindjibarndi members into believing that they would be entitled to nothing if YAC did not accept what FMG was offering; and then assisted and funded those members to establish a splinter corporation (which owes no fiduciary obligations to the Yindjibarndi People) to take the benefit of the annual cash payments under the proposed agreement to which it is not even a party.

It seems Mr Forrest needs to tell stories of “depravity” in Aboriginal communities, so he can put himself forward as the “humanitarian” philanthropist who will rescue Aboriginal people from themselves – all the while dispossessing traditional owners of the rights they are due from their ancestral lands.

The community of Roebourne deserves a fair go, and demands an apology.  

Next article – “Everything on the line” in Newcastle

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