Governments should keep out of major developments

Opinion Article

1997 August, 23

Trust is the key to winning Aboriginal approval for projects

It took more than three years of often bitter public argument between the Queensland Government, the Aboriginal people of the Gulf of Carpentaria and the mining company Century Zinc, before an agreement was settled this year.

A little over 12 months ago, David Clough, project manager for the giant Canadian aluminium company, Alcan, walked through the doors of the Cape York Land Council in Cairns. Clough and the Land Council developed a memorandum setting out the process his company would follow in its consultations with Aboriginal people about Alcan's plans for the $250 million development of their bauxite mining leases north of Weipa and a process for negotiations to take place between his company and the traditional owners. This process ran smoothly and Heads of Agreement were settled in March this year. The final agreement will be signed soon.

The two projects are quite different but the starkest difference between the successful Alcan negotiations and the painful Century process is in the role played by the Queensland Government. In the Century case, politicians and bureaucrats played a leading role in creating the problems and almost no role in the final resolution. In the Alcan case, the Queensland Government was told to stay out of the process between the company and the community and to be involved in the process only when they were invited.

This is a critical lesson for those who wish to improve the success rate for the development of major projects.

Queensland governments, both conservative and Labor, all profess a commitment to development but the way in which they have dealt with traditional Aboriginal owners tells a different story. Though the politicians love wearing hard hats for the evening news, announcing new projects that will bring more jobs and investment to the state, their actions have meant many development opportunities fall by the wayside.

Even before native title became an issue, governments viewed Aboriginal interests in development proposals as a natural and inevitable impediment. Issues of sacred sites protection and traditional ownership were seen as enemies of development long before the Mabo decision.

Along with ``green tape'' of conservationists, politicians considered that it was the job of governments to be the dragon slayer of all ``black tape'' facing developers. They insisted that Aboriginal issues are not legitimate and should be ignored in the facilitation of major projects.

While premiers and ministers assure the business community of their commitment to development by devising ``political fixit'' processes to get around green and black considerations, the developers, in turn, passively stand back hoping that the politicians will ultimately deliver.

This approach is no longer working. It is becoming clearer that heavy handed government facilitation of major projects is anathema to business success.

If we have learned anything from the Century Zinc saga, it is that the behaviour of governments can fatally poison relationships between Aboriginal communities and developers, even where the developer wishes to deal in good faith.

Governments should be told by developers to stay out of their dealings with Aboriginal communities. Developers are well advised to take full charge of all dealings with Aboriginal people. The surest way to ruin relations between developers and communities is for there to be heavy-handed government control over project negotiations.

There are sound reasons why developers should take their own counsel and assume frontline responsibility for talking to Aboriginal communities about their project proposals.

The principal reason for keeping the politicians and bureaucrats in the background, and to be wary of their advice, is that they do not understand the central importance of developing trust with Aboriginal communities. Trust, at the individual and organisational levels, is the key to a successful relationship.

As with all relationships, however, before trust can develop, parties need to believe that trust and goodwill is possible. Fundamentally, Aborigines believe there is an institutional ill will harboured by government against Aboriginal people.

The bureaucrats and politicians not only refuse to support measures that might advantage Aboriginal people but they actively oppose them. For those who have no experience of this institutional antipathy to Aboriginal people and their rights and interest, this might sound unduly paranoid and unfair. My own experiences, however, lead me to a conviction that governments are the main cause of controversy about major project proposals and the Queensland bureaucracy and its political leaders are particularly good at precipitating disputation.

Of course, it makes commercial sense for developers to be wary of the involvement and advice of bureaucrats. The bureaucrats and their political bosses have agendas other than the successful facilitation of a project. 

They have ideological hangups, political considerations, they have ``precedents'' and ``standard practices'' and ``experiences'' that have never worked in the past but which they insist on following. Their money and their opportunity is not on the line. So they can play political and bureaucratic games and behave in ways that are likely to jeopardise prospects for establishing good relations with Aboriginal communities.

Of course, this is not to say that governments have no role to play. They can support negotiations, co-operate with information and work constructively to resolve land tenure and other legal issues and to contribute government resources and become parties to project agreements where appropriate. But alas, this is not the methodology they have followed to date and opportunities have been and will continue to be lost.

Clough, who has earned great trust from all with whom he has dealt on the Aboriginal side of negotiations on his project, is a project manager with the natural instincts of a relentless bulldozer. He has a goal on behalf of his company and he is determined to reach it. Queensland politicians conservative and Labor and developers with good ideas, should learn from these Canadians that you can brandish all of the hob-nailed political boots in the world but it will never create the trust that is the key to success.

Governments should keep out of major developments