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Constitutional Recognition

Andrew Mackenzie, Chief Executive Officer, BHP Billiton
Originally Run in The Australian, 27 May 2015

Beginning today, National Reconciliation Week celebrates two events which have contributed to the transformation of the relationship between the Australian resources industry and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.

There have been 44 Referendums since the Australian Constitution came into force in 1901. Only eight have been successful. On this day in 1967, Australia’s most successful referendum was held. Over 90% of the nation voted “Yes” to give the Federal Parliament the power to make laws in relation to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and to allow for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples to be included in the census.

And one week from today – on 3 June 1992 - the High Court of Australia delivered its landmark Mabo decision recognising that Aboriginal people had lived in Australia for thousands of years and enjoyed rights to their land according to their own laws and customs. The decision paved the way for the Native Title Act and formal agreement making processes in relation to the development of resource projects.

Not unlike the current dialogue in relation to Constitutional Recognition of Australia’s first peoples, these landmark events rightly involved extensive public discussion. This debate ultimately led to step-changes in formal recognition of the rights and interests of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, with broad public and political support.

The goal of recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples in the Australian Constitution is a further step-change. This change aligns with BHP Billiton’s approach to working with Indigenous Peoples. We recognise their traditional rights and seek to contribute to their sustainable long term economic empowerment, social development needs and cultural well-being.

Indigenous Peoples are critical partners and stakeholders in many of BHP Billiton’s operations both within Australia and around the world. Many of our operations are located on or near traditional Indigenous lands. The long-term nature of our operations allows us to establish long lasting relationships with the Indigenous communities in which we operate and those neighbouring our operations.

Through this on-the-ground experience we understand Indigenous Peoples often have profound and special connections to, and identification with, lands and waters which are tied to their physical, spiritual, cultural and economic wellbeing. We also understand Indigenous Peoples in many regions of the world have been historically disadvantaged and often still experience poverty and other forms of social exclusion. Through our engagement with Indigenous Peoples, we seek to contribute to their sustainable long term economic empowerment, social development needs and cultural well-being.

There are many ways in which step-changes in recognition in Australia have enabled leading resources companies like BHP Billiton to contribute to the economic empowerment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples are now deriving greater direct benefit from and participation in resource development projects, with new and innovative mechanisms to deliver economic benefits. These include Indigenous business procurement, project equity, and intergenerational trusts that provide annuity streams to support the aspirations of future generations.

For example, last financial year BHP Billiton’s Australian businesses employed more than 900 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and spent in excess of $120 million on procurement of goods and services from Indigenous businesses.

In the communities where BHP Billiton operates, leading practice in agreement making can also contribute to economic empowerment. For example, in Canada BHP Billiton recently signed two Opportunities Agreements with five First Nations in relation to our Jansen Potash Project. The Agreements create mutually beneficial opportunities in employment, business and community development and include governance processes for co-management of the implementation of the Agreement and reporting to the members of the First Nations.

Supporting the aspirations and potential of Indigenous Peoples has been a longstanding priority for BHP Billiton. For example, we recently announced a five year, $28.8 million program supporting Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) to increase interest and achievement amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Constitutional Recognition which acknowledges that Australia was first occupied by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, which fosters respect for their continuing cultures, languages and heritage and which acknowledges their relationships to traditional lands and waters would be consistent with the values underpinning the relationships we at BHP Billiton seek to have with Indigenous Australians.

For this reason, BHP Billiton has today announced its support for the ‘Recognise’ campaign to build public understanding of the Constitutional Recognition issue.  Similar to the historic success of the 1967 Referendum and passage of the Native Title Act, positive step-change in the form of Constitutional Recognition will depend on effective political leadership which builds wide consensus and support, including within the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community.