Ideas for a brighter future for all

The practical effect of an Indigenous Voice: The case of ‘Critical Minerals’

Critics of the proposed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament have questioned whether it will contribute in any practical way to addressing the social and economic marginalisation of Australia’s First Peoples. This criticism is entirely misplaced, as illustrated by the issue of Australia’s policy in relation to development of Critical Minerals. 

Critical Minerals are essential for the technology that the world is relying on the achieve the transition to renewable energy and deal with climate change. They include cobalt, rare earths, tin, tungsten, nickel and copper, and are indispensable to the manufacture of solar panels, wind turbines, batteries and electric vehicles. Demand for these minerals is projected to rise by at least four times in the next two decades, which constitutes a phenomenal rate of growth. Lithium as a relatively ‘new’ mineral linked to battery production has attracted considerable attention because its production needs to increase by 40 by 2040. Copper constitutes an even more significant case because while growth in demand is relatively modest (275% by 2050), that growth is coming from a base which is already very large and because, with the exhaustion of high-grade orebodies, most output now comes from massive open cut mines whose environmental and social impacts can be profound.  

There is a great deal of overlap between the location of reserves of Critical Minerals and Indigenous lands. A December 2022 study by the University of Queensland’s Sustainable Minerals Institute based on analysis of 5097 current and possible future Critical Minerals mines, revealed that over half of them, and 85% of lithium projects, are on or near the lands of Indigenous or other land-connected peoples. Half of copper projects are on or near Indigenous lands. This picture is replicated in Australia, with many proposed projects located on Aboriginal land, particularly in the Northern Territory and Western Australia. 

Critical minerals 1
Valuable opportunities

Development of Australia’s Critical Minerals constitute an opportunity to generate valuable employment and business opportunities for Aboriginal people, and to generate community revenues that will help overcome the serious disadvantage First Peoples face in access to housing, health, education and other services. However Critical Minerals also constitute a serious threat to the land, waters and cultural heritage of First Peoples, if they are developed in the manner in which mining has historically been conducted in Australia and in which it occurs today. Current state and federal laws offer little protection against the damaging effects of mining, as illustrated by Rio Tinto’s destruction of the Juukan Gorge rock shelters in Western Australia in 2020, and the irreparable damage to Aboriginal lands and waters caused, for instance, by Glencore’s lead/zinc mine at McCarthur River in the Northern Territory. 

It is essential that the interests of First Peoples are strongly represented as Australia develops its Critical Mineral resources. This has not happened to date. The former Coalition Government’s Critical Minerals Strategy does not mention the word ‘Aboriginal’ or ‘Indigenous’. The current Federal Government has promised to make Indigenous people ‘genuine partners’ in the development of Critical Minerals. It has yet to finalise its Critical Minerals strategy and it remains to be seen whether this promise will be fulfilled, but the early signs are not encouraging. The Federal Government released selection criteria for grants to potential Critical Minerals producers under its $100 million Critical Minerals Development Program (CMDP) a week before the deadline for policy submissions to inform the development of the Critical Minerals Strategy. There is no indication that there was any input from Indigenous interests in development of the Guidelines, and their Assessment Criteria make no reference to First Peoples and contain no requirement for applicants to demonstrate an intention to make them ‘partners’ in order to obtain a grant. In the meantime, federal, state and territory ministers are pushing for the rapid approval of Critical Minerals projects, justifying their urgency, in the words of the Federal Minister for Resources Madeleine King: ‘The world will need our … critical minerals to decarbonise … Without the resources industry there is no net zero’. 

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AAP/Mick Tsikas, Shutterstock, The Conversation
Helping to end dispossession and marginalisation

Australia’s First Peoples must have a Voice ‘to parliament and the executive government of the Commonwealth’ if the development of Critical Minerals is not to become one more chapter in their dispossession and marginalisation. They must have a voice when the Parliament is shaping cultural heritage and environmental protection legislation, so that their lands and cultural heritage sites are afforded effective protection. They must have a voice to press the Parliament to amend the Native Title Act, which established the parameters for negotiations between mining companies and native title holders and which currently favours industry interests. They must have a voice when Federal ministers make decisions about whether to approve Critical Minerals projects that are subject to Commonwealth environmental legislation or export controls. They must have a voice when government ministers and senior public servants develop criteria for allocating federal funds to potential Critical Minerals projects, insisting that companies which ignore Indigenous interests are excluded from receiving grants.  

Granting an Indigenous Voice does not guarantee that development of Critical Minerals will benefit Australia’s First Peoples. It does create the possibility that such an outcome can be achieved. Denying an Indigenous Voice makes it more likely that, as in the past, exploitation of minerals on Aboriginal land will enrich the rest of Australia and impoverish First Peoples materially and culturally. 


Professor Ciaran O’FaircheallaighProfessor Ciaran O’Faircheallaigh is Professor of Politics and Public Policy at Griffith University, Brisbane. He has published numerous articles and books in the fields of public policy, policy evaluation and policy implementation, resource economics and resources policy, negotiation, impact assessment and indigenous studies. For over 30 years he has worked with indigenous organiSations in Australia and Canada on social impact assessments and on negotiation of agreements with resource development companies, and has acted as an adviser or negotiator for many of Australia’s leading Aboriginal organiSations, including the Cape York, Northern, Central, Yamatji and Kimberley Land Councils.


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