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Good intentions can often lead to indigenous hell on earth

Governments could learn from Rio Tinto's community approach.

THERE is something profoundly troubling about the apparent failure of governments - state, federal and territory - to improve lives of indigenous Australians in remote communities, especially when money is no object and the intentions of policymakers are not in dispute.

Too often progress is measured in shades of grey, or even more frustratingly, not at all. Unprecedented spending on housing and moves to improve health and education are yet to produce significant reversals. An alarming disconnect persists between the world of good intentions and the wretched reality of life on the ground.

Perhaps it is unreasonable to expect too much of government. Ministers constantly remind us that lasting change does not come in a three-year term and there is truth in that. But is that always the case?

Rio Tinto, the big mining conglomerate with operations stretched across the top end from the Pilbara in the west to the Argyle in the Kimberley to Weipa on Cape York, has an impressive record of indigenous engagement and achievement that most branches of government can only envy. It certainly helps to be a multinational with deep pockets, but it also helps to be removed from bureaucratic face-saving and red tape.

Nobody would claim Rio's record to be mint perfect. However, one salient fact stands out: it is the biggest employer of indigenous labour in the nation with almost one in 10 employees Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders. That amounts to a workforce of 2000 men and women not including many more employed by private contractors.

As a company Rio Tinto (formerly CRA) decided 15 years ago under the direction of visionary CEO Leon Davis to distance itself from the confrontationist approach of the mining sector to land rights, native title and royalties. ''Aboriginal people are the land owners and we wanted to be good tenants,'' was how one senior Rio executive described the change to The Age. Recent mining agreements in the Pilbara include not only royalties and profit sharing along with mutually agreed employment targets, but also commitments to a vast range of cultural, heritage and environmental objectives.

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Today 80 per cent of indigenous apprentices and trainees make it through the Rio recruiting system, a system that teaches not only work but life skills including personal finance. Rio is committed to building an indigenous workforce that equates to the size of the local Aboriginal population; in the case of the Pilbara it is 13.9 per cent.

So what then is different about what Rio does as a company and what governments and their agencies do on behalf of taxpayers? While the comparison may be unfair because governments provide services on a far broader scale, the differences are worth reflecting on because they provide insight into new ways of thinking and engagement.

As a company Rio consults closely and regularly with traditional owners in a way that most governments never do and are probably incapable of. At Argyle Diamonds senior management meets regularly with traditional owners and their respective trusts to exchange views and sort out grievances.

Employees are not left to fend for themselves. The company has work-readiness teams to provide support for young men and women recruited from a milieu of disadvantage. They educate and train people often from scratch, monitor community and family disputes and manage relationships inside the mine when they go off the rails. Few government agencies have such resources.

Trainees can be case-managed and family issues and obligations are factored in when assessing performance. Judgments are made with all the facts. When a young man or woman is away from the work place on sorry business, mine management is informed of the appropriate time to be away from work. There is no goofing off. The relationship between Argyle Diamonds and the Miriuwong and Gidja people is forged on mutual respect and built on self-interest.

Cultural-awareness training is mandatory for all employees, as are rigorous safe-work practices. Everybody from the managing director down is breath-tested each day. Apart from full-time employment, the company hires local community contractors to provide landscaping and mine maintenance services.

Rio doesn't do this out of some misplaced benevolence, but because the company believes an effective relationship based on respect with the traditional owners is good for business. It may cost the company more in the short term but the financial dividends are there with less reliance on a fly-in, fly-out workforce. A close relationship with traditional owners means that disputes are easily settled and formulas for expansion agreed on.

I recently visited a community in the Kimberley that should remain nameless. It was a chaotic mess. Alcohol was a major contributor to domestic violence; the elders struggled to cope with a young generation addicted to anything they could find. The only available government services they could rely on were the police. What was urgently required was an intensity of engagement of the type practised by Rio. I wondered what government could possibly do for them, caught as they were in the welfare trap with no chance of joining the mainstream.

Russell Skelton is a contributing editor.

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