Indigenous Australian Scores Board Seats at Resources Giants

Ben Wyatt, a former treasurer and Aboriginal affairs minister in Western Australia, will join the boards of two of the country’s top mining and energy firms, as the industries face increasing scrutiny over their relations with Indigenous communities.

The 47-year-old ex-lawmaker will become a non-executive director at Rio Tinto Group, the world’s second-biggest miner, from September. The role adds to his appointment on Wednesday to the board of oil and gas producer Woodside Petroleum Ltd.

Indigenous Australian Scores Board Seats at Resources Giants

Companies in the resources sector are under pressure from investors, lawmakers and local communities over heritage issues following Rio’s destruction of rock shelters at Juukan Gorge in Western Australia, where archaeologists had uncovered evidence the sites were used by Aboriginal Australians as long as 46,000 years ago. The fallout from the incident last year prompted the exit of key Rio executives, and Chairman Simon Thompson also plans to stand down.

“I was deeply saddened and disappointed by the events at Juukan Gorge, but I am convinced that Rio Tinto is committed to changing its approach to cultural heritage issues and restoring its reputation, particularly in Australia and Western Australia,” Wyatt, who quit the state’s Parliament in March, said in a statement.

Woodside, meanwhile, is facing a legal challenge over the potential impact of its Scarborough LNG development on greenhouse gas emissions and on risks to Aboriginal heritage, including ancient rock art on the Burrup peninsula. Miners and energy producers are awaiting stronger heritage protection measures scheduled to be introduced by Western Australia’s state government later this year.

Wyatt, born in Papua New Guinea, has family ties to Australia’s Pilbara iron ore region, and was the first Indigenous Australian to hold a position of treasurer in any of the country’s Parliaments.

“I am not an oil and gas guy for Woodside, I’m not a mining guy, my background is relationships, it’s risk,” Wyatt said in an interview with ABC radio on Friday. “It’s understanding that an organization wherever it operates needs to have those relationships, it needs to meet community expectations.”

Protection Law

Wyatt was the minister responsible for re-drafting Western Australia’s heritage protection law in the wake of Juukan Gorge. The proposed legislation removes a controversial section that gives the minister the power to approve actions where damage to a heritage site is deemed unavoidable. Still, it has been criticized for stopping short of giving Aboriginal landowners veto rights over projects that could impact sites of cultural significance.

While Wyatt has relevant expertise and experience, his swift move from a leadership role in the state to key boardrooms may raise concerns, said Brynn O’Brien, executive director at the Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility.

“Woodside and Rio Tinto face enormous challenges in bringing their Western Australian operations into line with community expectations and ESG standards,” O’Brien said. “From that perspective, the appointment of a very recently retired WA government minister who had responsibility for key portfolios should raise eyebrows about the revolving door between government and industry.”

Wyatt said in the radio interview that some of the criticism over his appointments to the Rio and Woodside boards was misplaced.

“Overall, the response has been positive,” he said. “But I’ve been perplexed that some of the critique has come from people and organizations that have demanded Aboriginal people get on boards and have a say, and yet are critiquing me going on.”

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