The view from Billinudgel

Tipping point
Juukan Gorge is gone, but will we act in time to save Warragamba Dam?

Warragamba Dam. Image © Taras Vyshnya / Alamy

Shakespeare wrote: “For ’tis the sport to have the engineer hoist with his own petard.”

And, indeed, there is some satisfaction in seeing the petard that hoisted the Juukan Gorge also sending some of Rio Tinto’s top brass flying out of the executive wing for overseeing the destruction of the ancient rock shelters.

Rio Tinto chief executive Jean-Sebastien Jacques and two other senior executives had already lost their bonuses (the usual slap on the wrist administered to those who embarrass their shareholders), but such was the public outrage over the destruction of the Juukan Gorge caves that real penalties were necessary. As a result, the three chief miners resigned “by mutual agreement” last week, and perhaps some good may come of the atrocity.

The destroyed caves were, quite literally, priceless: their loss is immeasurable. But because their record of 46,000 years of human habitation was apparently worth absolutely nothing in dollar terms, the bean counters believed they could be blown up with impunity.

Rio Tinto’s cynical insouciance was misplaced, however. First Nations people have long demanded action to stop the destruction of significant sites, but now the rest of the country is demanding action too.

Despite all the waffle about a “misunderstanding”, there can be no doubt that Rio Tinto knew it faced a choice: preserve or wreck. The decision was that the profits were worth the risk and that any backlash from the incident could be contained.

But the nation judged otherwise.

The reaction was fierce and immediate, and it extended well beyond the bleeding-heart lefties, which the miners are used to dealing with. It not only damaged the company’s reputation, but also sparked calls for the whole industry to be reconsidered.

The popular Western Australian premier, Mark McGowan, promised new laws to prevent a repetition of the incident. The mainstream media demanded not just an apology – which eventually came – but also punishment. So, RioTinto brought out the petard.

Last week’s sackings may not be sufficient, but they are a signal to the mining industry that running roughshod over Indigenous history and culture will now come at a cost. In future, consultation must be sincere and the wishes of traditional owners must be taken seriously. Consequences must be properly evaluated. And, if there is to be development, it must be transparent – reasons must be given before the TNT is planted.

Perhaps the biggest problem has been that mining companies can slip their plans through without public scrutiny, and the public accepts their actions as inevitable. Such deliberate negligence will now be much harder to manage. And for that, if for nothing much else in this unhappy exercise, we should be grateful.

The next test will be in Sydney, where the plan to raise the height of Warragamba Dam will obliterate hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Aboriginal heritage sites, including rock art that has not even been properly identified. Watch this space.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum was a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Much of his work can be found here: The View from Billinudgel.

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