Native title 'industry' costs miners millions


Annabel Hepworth, National business correspondent, The Australian –

Date of publication: 
1 April 2013

MINERS say they are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to pay for a “significant industry” of anthropologists, archeologists and native title representatives to deal with Aboriginal cultural heritage regulations, with as little as 10-15 per cent of the funds for heritage purposes going to traditional owners.

Projects also face costly delays because there are about 450 native title claims still outstanding, about half of which have been in the system for more than a decade, despite the legislation having been in place for 20 years.

In a new submission to a Productivity Commission inquiry into the non-financial barriers to resource exploration in Australia, the Association of Mining and Exploration Companies has called for caps on the fees that can be charged in the processes for protecting cultural heritage.

The cost of conducting heritage surveys has ballooned, from $11,000 a day in 2010 to a current cost of $15,000 a day, although there have also been examples where the daily cost of undertaking the survey has topped $20,000. One resource company had budgeted $500,000 for heritage surveys and agreements for a $4 million exploration program, the association said.

AMEC also wants a redoubled effort to resolve the backlog of outstanding native title claims, half of which have been in the system for between 10 and 18.5 years, according to the most recent National Native Title Tribunal’s annual report.

AMEC’s comments come as business grows increasingly frustrated with the Gillard government or failing to fulfil its promise of cutting “green tape” on major projects after it abandoned a pledge to cut the duplication of federal and state rules. “The range, number and complexity of approvals processes are constantly increasing, resulting in unnecessary delays, additional costs and ultimately taxpayer revenue foregone,” the AMEC submission warns.

“Prior to minerals exploration and mining activities commencing a large number of local authority, state/territory government and federal government approvals are required, for such issues as land access, cultural heritage, native title, environmental, water and planning matters.”

It says that in Western Australia, the industry has been commissioning heritage surveys because of fears of financial penalties and reputational damage from falling foul of the state Aboriginal Heritage Act.

“A heritage survey industry has grown from this requirement for company due diligence and is now a significant industry in its own right. Issues of supply and demand of qualified persons plus unrealistic expectations on the exploration industry’s capacity to pay have meant the industry sustains a large number of anthropologists, archaeologists and native title representatives. In combination they are costing the industry hundreds of millions of dollars annually – money not being spent on the ground exploring.”

The AMEC submission, which includes an example of a fee schedule for conducting a heritage survey in northwest Australia, also states “it has been estimated that only 10-15 per cent of all monies paid by companies for heritage purposes are received by the traditional owners”.

In Queensland, some traditional owner groups insist that all operations are monitored by local Aboriginal people to ensure heritage values are not undermined even when approvals have already been given. “Companies have borne these costs, but find them unpalatable given that a drilling rig, once set up, is stationary and may not move for days at a time. And yet the Aboriginal monitors are paid when it has already been established that there is no risk to heritage values,” the submission says.

Bauxite Resources chairman Barry Carbon has estimated that it takes about $1.5m a month for a new developer to stay afloat while seeking approvals for a medium-sized project, while approvals can then take 60 months. “If you have less than $90m when you start your proposal, you will go broke or you will sell your company or your control, probably overseas,” he said.

In a separate submission to the inquiry, the NSW Aboriginal Land Council calls for “legislative changes to implement proper protections for Aboriginal heritage due to the high number of Aboriginal sites that are consistently destroyed and damaged”. These would include management processes that “recognise cultural rights and responsibilities of local Aboriginal communities” and “allow for the advocacy of Aboriginal interests”.