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Unfinished Business - Andrew Mackenzie Chief Executive Officer BHP

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Committee for Economic Development Australia

‘Unfinished Business’
Andrew Mackenzie, Chief Executive Officer BHP

Thursday, 31 January 2019
Perth, Australia


Thank you Deborah.

Welcome everyone and thank you for your attendance here today. I have come to talk about BHP’s views on the Uluru Statement from the Heart and the unfinished business between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

First, I wish to comment on the events in Brazil last Friday. The collapse of the Brumadinho dam and the horrific loss of life are beyond words. I offer our deeply heartfelt sympathy to all those affected and to the loved ones of the unbearable number of people who have died.

BHP will help in any way we can. I believe we can and will make mining safe. Last week’s catastrophe shows we as an industry still have much to do. At BHP, we are committed to learn from what happened and to redouble our efforts to make sure events like last week’s cannot happen.

Before I begin, I would like to acknowledge that we are on the custodial land of the world’s oldest living civilisation and acknowledge the traditional custodians of this land on which we are gathered, the Whadjuk people of the Noongar Nation. I pay my respects to their Elders, past, present and emerging. I acknowledge and respect their unique culture, resilience and spiritual connection to this land that has been a source of sustenance and strength. And I recognise the contribution they make to the life of this city and this region. We are thankful to be here.

It’s great to be in Western Australia. The home of our iron ore operations in the Pilbara, our nickel operations in the Goldfields and in Kwinana, our petroleum operations in Onslow and our interest in the North West Shelf. As CEO, it’s an essential part of my job to understand what this home really means to BHP and to learn what home means to Indigenous Australians.

This continent has been home to Indigenous Australians for at least 60,000 years, the oldest continuous living culture in the world. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were, and will always be, the First Peoples of this continent. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are Australia’s first builders, Australia’s first land managers and Australia’s first astronomers. They are Australia’s first geologists too.

At Wilgie Mia in the Weld Range Hills, southeast of Geraldton in Western Australia, you’ll find the largest and deepest underground Aboriginal ochre mine in the country. Indigenous Australians first extracted the ochre more than 30,000 years ago, which makes it the world’s oldest continuous mining operation. The ochre’s rich red colour made it perfect for use in medicines, for rock art and traditional ceremonies, and in the preservation of animal skins. It was also used to make tools for cutting, pounding and grinding. The ochre was traded right across the country from WA to Queensland.

This land was never empty. It was never terra nullius.

Over the past two months, I’ve spent time with some of our Traditional Owners, as well as Indigenous leaders from across the country. We spoke about their meaningful connection to country and the power, strength and resilience of their language and culture. And we spoke about the social and economic challenges many Indigenous Australians have overcome and many still face. 

It’s been a privilege for me to meet these men and women and experience first-hand the rich diversity of Australia’s First Nations people. A privilege because the insights of First Nations people are as diverse as they are valuable. A privilege because Indigenous Australians have a lot to say to non-Indigenous Australia and non-Indigenous Australia has a lot to learn from them.

But the voices of Indigenous Australians are often not heard. Today, I want to contribute my voice to speak about the voices of Indigenous Australia, because their insights are profound.

The Uluru Statement from the Heart is a challenge to hear the unheard. It is the collective expression of 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander delegates who represent Indigenous people from across Australia. The Uluru Statement is an invitation to Australia and the Australian people. It was created through a process of consultation and dialogue among Indigenous Australians that is impressive in scale and ambition. It calls for the establishment of a First Nations voice to the Australian Parliament to be enshrined in the Australian Constitution. It is an offer of Indigenous participation in a Makarrata Commission to oversee agreement-making and truth telling about Indigenous history. And it shows how constitutional reforms can create a rightful place for and empower Indigenous people.

The Uluru Statement speaks of the ‘torment of powerlessness’ that has disadvantaged generations of Indigenous Australians. It invites us all to respond to its calls for voice, agreement-making and truth-telling.

Today we want to be part of the response to those calls. But first let me clearly, directly and unequivocally state our position. We endorse the call for empowerment of the Uluru Statement from the Heart. We believe that the Constitution should be amended so that the voices of Indigenous Australians can be fully heard. Because the longer I’ve been at BHP, the more certain I’ve become that this great company, like this great country, has unfinished business with the Indigenous peoples of Australia. That is why we cannot stand on the sidelines.

BHP as a company must listen to the voices of Indigenous Australians. It is in all our interests to hear the first voices of this country because what they have to say is connected to the deep time of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture.

I am a geologist by training. ‘Deep time’ is a philosophical concept of geology first articulated by 18th century Scottish geologist James Hutton. Deep time is about the true age of Earth and its evolution over the vast expanse of geological time. Deep time is about origins forged over many millennia and their connection to the present.

Australia is both a young nation and an ancient land. It wears deep time on its sleeve. Indigenous culture too is old enough and rich enough to carry from antiquity to this day stories about the events that shape Australia.

Australia has always been a country of people, of place, of story. These stories are the voice of the First Nations people that connect the past and the present, and embody wisdom, knowledge and opportunity. Their voice demands respect and acknowledgment. Their voice must be heard. That’s what the Uluru Statement from the Heart is about. It asks only for what many of us take for granted - to be heard on decisions made about their rights and interests and to have power over their destiny.

The Australia of post-European settlement can truly give effect to the values on which our democracy is founded when we are empowered to walk in two worlds, with indigenous culture recognised as a gift to this country. 

The Uluru Statement is a unique opportunity and an invitation to listen to the voices of Indigenous Australia and to respond to them.

When I first saw Uluru five years ago, it deepened my appreciation of Australia. It was more than a professional interest. I was compelled to connect with the landscape and with this country. And I saw first-hand the importance of culture.

When culture is strong, people are strong. It gives people power, pride and resilience. But I also saw the disadvantage of many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and their communities. I saw it again two weeks ago at Port Hedland when I spent time with Traditional Owners. I’ve been struck by the gulf that exists between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia. That gulf is economic, it’s social and it reflects history. We have a chance to create a new chapter in our history, a voice that will establish a bridge across that gulf.

There are fears that a constitutionally-enshrined voice confirmed by referendum will deepen cultural divisions and is undemocratic. These fears don’t stand up to scrutiny. The final report of the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition, which aimed to recapture bipartisanship on this matter, found that there was nothing to fear from giving Indigenous Australians the constitutionally-enshrined voice they deserve.

Australia must not squander this opportunity. The Uluru Statement is a gift. It is a path forward. It can create, as Stan Grant has said, a nation of “Australians indivisible”.

The establishment of a national Indigenous representative body, a First Nations voice to parliament, is a meaningful step towards reconciliation. It would empower Indigenous Australians. It would make sure Indigenous people have a say on the legislation, policy and programs that shape Indigenous lives, families and communities. And it would create new opportunities for social and economic progress.

A referendum is more likely to succeed if the voice is co-designed by government and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representatives from across Australia. And a referendum must be held at a time when it has the best chance of success. But we must maintain the momentum of the Uluru Statement so that it is not overshadowed by other issues. A referendum not only demands political courage, it demands courage from all of us. This is not just a matter for politicians, this concerns us all.

That’s also why I am here today as the CEO of BHP. And that’s why we will work with Australia’s leaders and use our voice to support the call to give Indigenous Australia the constitutionally enshrined voice it deserves.  

The BHP Foundation, a charitable organisation funded by BHP, plans to invest around $1 million in Cape York Partnership’s Uluru Education Project. The project aims to spark a national conversation about the Uluru Statement so that Australians are fully informed about the call for a constitutionally-enshrined voice to Parliament ahead of a referendum.

At BHP we encourage our Indigenous employees, suppliers and partners to have a voice.

But we know we must do more.

The Uluru Statement is also about agreement-making and about this nation’s path towards truthful reconciliation. I’ve travelled far and wide over the past six years and developed a strong connection with this great nation. We have a land that has been geologically blessed, a population that is deeply multicultural, and an economy that is one of the most successful in the world. Over this time, I’ve also come to understand the powerful link between the land and Indigenous ancestral ties. That is why our relationships with Traditional Owners must be founded in the spirit of partnership so we all truly benefit from our presence on country.

And that is why we reach agreements with Traditional Owners that aim to build economic sovereignty, mutual benefit and opportunity for Indigenous communities. BHP currently has agreements with a number of Traditional Owner groups in South Australia, Western Australia and Queensland. The way we understand the spiritual connection between Indigenous communities and their land has strengthened over time. 

Our agreements with Traditional Owners have evolved since our first at our Area C iron ore mine in Western Australia nearly 20 years ago. They aren’t just about financial benefits. They now encompass heritage protection, employment, contracting opportunities and cultural preservation and they are based on mutual benefit. As we gain more experience in agreement-making, we have come to understand the immense value of these reciprocal relationships. They are about partnerships. We see agreement-making not as something to fear as a company or a nation, but an opportunity to forge new relationships that build a better future for us all.

While mining benefits our whole nation, business, governments and society all must make sure communities closest to mining operations benefit. We know we must do more to increase the size of our Indigenous workforce and engage more indigenous businesses.  That’s why we lifted our 2020 targets within our Reconciliation Action Plan to achieve Indigenous employment of 5.75 per cent of our workforce. We also committed to work to obtain consent and negotiate agreements with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples for new operations or major capital projects. And all our Australian assets will promote relevant procurement opportunities to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander businesses.

But to build a better future that takes its inspiration from the achievements of both the world’s oldest continuing culture and of European settlement, we first have to come to terms with the unfinished business of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia.

The past leaves its traces in the present. We are all histories of ourselves.

The Uluru Statement is an opportunity for Australia, for business, for all of us to re-imagine our history through story and through truth. To do that we must listen, really listen to the voices of Indigenous Australia because only then will we know the unabridged story of this nation.

As author Richard Flanagan says, ‘Freedom exists in the space of memory and only by walking back into the shadows is it possible for us to finally be free.’ 

What does that mean for BHP? We have more than 1,500 Indigenous employees, we work with Indigenous businesses, and we have partnerships with Indigenous communities across the country.

We greatly value those relationships. We’ve thought long and hard about what we can do to strengthen those relationships. They must not be based on histories that are incomplete or silenced. And we’ve concluded that an important way we can strengthen those relationships is to better understand the history of BHP’s interactions with Indigenous Australia.

As I said at the start, we have spoken to Traditional Owners and Indigenous leaders over the past two months in Port Hedland. We heard that we need to be involved in a regular dialogue with Traditional Owners. Not just when we need their support for our projects. We were told that many developments that benefit our business today began at a time when legal frameworks did not adequately recognise Indigenous land rights and cultural heritage values.

I heard the experiences of; the Kariyara, the Banjima, the Nyiyaparli, the Njamal and the Ngarla and we accept that there are many uncomfortable truths. We also expect that these realities exist for groups which we are yet to speak to.

We will hold more talks in the months and years ahead with Traditional Owner groups to determine how best to fill in the blanks and understand our true history. We don’t know what our conversations will find. What we do know is that the best way to face the future is to hear the truth.

As a step forward, we will establish a standing advisory group that comprises Indigenous leaders from across the country. They will give our business leaders guidance on Indigenous issues and help us equip our Indigenous employees with the skills to take on leadership and executive positions. 

We will also intensify efforts to further economically empower Indigenous people within and outside of our business, engage our workforce about the significance of the Uluru Statement and the history, culture and achievements of Indigenous people, and increase momentum with our agreement-making.

In conclusion, we all have a responsibility to finish the unfinished business I’ve spoken about because what’s past is present. If we acknowledge and recognise the past, we will build a future filled with possibility for all. 

The Uluru Statement is a call to BHP, to business and to Australia to create a rightful place for Indigenous peoples in this nation through voice, through agreement-making and through truth. If we respond to these calls, we will strengthen Australia’s success as a society and an economy in a way that inspires people and nations in our region and across the globe.

A more successful and confident Australia will create greater opportunities for us all, including for BHP. So I hope to look back on this time and feel that BHP found a way to seize this opportunity and play our role in it. That we were part of the discussion about how we might powerfully and harmoniously connect two civilisations in a way that fully expresses Australia’s nationhood, and helps this great country embrace its unique heritage and unlock the possibilities of an extraordinary future.

The Uluru Statement is an act of profound generosity. This is our opportunity to listen to and act upon a request from Indigenous people to be truly recognised.

After 240 years, we must take it.

Thank you