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When it comes to Black Lives Matter, those at the top need to do more

Those at the top of corporate Australia and our national honours lists need to take more responsibility for driving the cultural shifts that can create change…

What a fortnight it’s been when it comes to news headlines. Right now, we’re in an amplified cultural moment with Black Lives Matter on the back of the death of George Floyd, which has translated into national protests across Australia around Indigenous deaths in custody. In the same period, Rio Tinto have literally flattened a 46,000 year old indigenous cultural site which representatives of the PKKP people have described as ‘soul destroying’.

For a long time, there has been a need for strong systemic change around the treatment of Aboriginal Australians on a multitude of fronts, but when we examine Rio Tinto’s actions and the message this sends, it’s difficult to envisage how meaningful change will ever come about.

As it stands, there are  three incumbent non-executive directors on Rio Tinto’s board with Order of Australia Honours (Megan Clark AC, Michael L’Estrange AO and Simon McKeon AO). In September of 2020, Ngaire Woods CBE (Order of the British Empire) is set to commence as a non-executive director.

Now whilst there is an irony in the Australia we recognise for achievement or meritorious service being determined by colonial powers, the reality is, being on this honours list is powerful – with it comes significant respect and in many cases, leadership credentials. Joining the three incumbent non-exec directors at Rio Tinto are individuals such as Cate Blanchett, the late Bob Hawke and iconic Indigenous figures such as Evonne Goolagong Cawley, Cathy Freeman and the late Lin Onus.

So at a moment in time when there is an amplified public outcry for a shift in the attitudes and behaviour of law enforcement along with greater equality for Indigenous people, it seems unreasonable that the three incumbent directors at Rio Tinto that have been bestowed with the greatest of national honours – along with the board at large – should be able to simply apologise for at best, “negligently” destroying a site of significant cultural importance and move on.

Sorry just isn’t good enough, and even if the board at Rio Tinto was to explore some kind of financial reparations, this would still fall short of genuinely demonstrating the empathy and leadership that is fundamentally needed to shift public attitudes towards Indigenous Australians. The severity of this action has been clearly demonstrated with Reconciliation Australia having revoked its endorsement of Rio Tinto as an Elevate RAP (Reconciliation Action Plan) organisation and suspended the company from the RAP Program.

With CEO Chris Salisbury having offered an apology and gone on record saying “Something’s gone terribly wrong here and we’ve committed to a comprehensive review of all of our heritage processes, and moreover, committed to advocating for legislative change”, the company’s board has clearly provided some acknowledgement that it was on their watch that this disaster has happened.

If we’re to look back at recent corporate scandals in Australia that have led to consequences for those at the helms, one that springs to mind is Westpac’s money laundering scandal in late 2019, in which the financial institution breached rules 23 million times, including transactions linked to child exploitation. That ended with the resignation of CEO Brian Hartzer and then Chairman Lindsay Maxstead stepping down in advance of his due resignation date.

Yet even if the board at Rio Tinto were to voluntarily step down amidst the turmoil, one may question if that would be a sincere and empathic enough acknowledgement of what has been done to the PKKP people and Indigenous Australians nationwide, and help shift attitudes and behaviours moving forward. Eventually, these directors would no doubt find themselves in new positions of power, and the momentary shame they are hopefully experiencing may come to pass. The reality is, those caves in the Juukun Gorge are gone forever. A source of the PKKP’s people’s identity and history has been erased … forever.

So perhaps this is the moment – chiefly for those three Australian Honour Recipients – in which their depth of character and leadership credentials are to be truly assessed.

For all the work these individuals have undertaken in their lifetimes to earn their recognition and title, if there was ever a moment for them to act – rather than simply talk – to promote cultural change around attitudes and behaviours towards Indigenous Australians, then they would relinquish their Order of Australia titles. Such an act would be powerful, and hopefully set a new, higher bar for the conduct of those bestowed with Australia’s greatest honours – especially those involved in corporate or policy based fields. It would be a truly empathetic gesture to bleed alongside the Indigenous community through sacrificing something of significant personal value as a genuine acknowledgment of the horrible loss Indigenous Australian’s have sustained, on the afore mentioned individuals watch as leaders of industry.

After all, if those who are considered to be worthy of the greatest recognition in our society aren’t willing to lead the shift when it comes to attitudes and behaviours towards our First Peoples, what hope do we have that the average law enforcement officer is going to step up to the task?

by Daniel Bluzer-Fry - Pollinate



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