Introduction by Croakey: A federal parliamentary inquiry is seeking to improve the conduct of corporate Australia towards Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, in the wake of shocking behaviour from major corporates like Rio Tinto, Woolworths and Telstra.
But its narrow timeline and focus is raising concerns the inquiry may not hear from those who most need its attention and may overlook broader questions on the commercial and cultural determinants of health, as Marie McInerney reports below.
Marie McInerney writes:
A federal parliamentary inquiry into “outrageous corporate behaviour” towards Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people – including by corporate giants Rio Tinto, Woolworths and Telstra – has attracted one published submission just a day ahead of its closing date.
But Liberal MP Julian Leeser, chair of the Standing Committee on Indigenous Affairs, has said later submissions will be welcome beyond tomorrow (25 November), after Croakey raised concerns with his office that important voices could be left out of the inquiry because of its short timeline.
“Anyone who would like to make a submission should contact the Secretariat and I cannot imagine an instance where we wouldn’t grant extensions,” Leeser told Croakey.
The inquiry into ‘How the corporate sector establishes models of best practice to foster better engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander consumers’ was referred recently to the Standing Committee by Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt.
Leeser said its work was officially launched on 28 October; however, a media release was not issued until 10 November, just over two weeks before submissions were due. The inquiry is due to report by 31 March 2022, unless the pending federal election disrupts its timetable.
Public health concerns
Public health researchers Dr Mark Lock and Dr Jennifer Browne from the Institute for Health Transformation at Deakin University have warned that a tight timetable and low key announcement raise the risk that the voices of well-resourced corporates will drown out those of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and organisations.
They also question the focus of the inquiry on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ‘consumers’ rather than ‘people’, saying there is much more at stake in corporate interactions than consumer transactions.
That’s most graphically been seen in Australia in recent years with Rio Tinto’s destruction of the 46,000 year old Juukan Gorge and efforts by Woolworths, ultimately thwarted by a strong campaign by community and health groups, to set up a Dan Murphy’s mega alcohol store near dry communities in Darwin.
Lock, a researcher who is descended from the Ngiyampaa people of New South Wales, told Croakey he had “stumbled” upon news of the inquiry while doing other research on the commercial determinants of Indigenous health in relation to the Standing Committee’s recent inquiry into food prices and food security in remote communities.
“I looked at the (Committee’s) home page and there it was,” he said, admitting to having been “caught by surprise” on an issue of vital importance to his work.
Lock and Browne questioned whether all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and organisations with a stake in its outcome know about the inquiry, and whether — particularly in the midst of COVID outbreaks and border openings — they would have the capacity to write a submission in such an “incredibly short” timeframe.
They were speaking before Leeser’s assurance that late submissions would be accepted, but it’s important to note that the inquiry home page still states that submissions close on Thursday.
It’s risky because, as we’ve seen with the food price inquiry, organisations with resources, health literacy and technology access get their perspectives heard and Aboriginal communities that don’t have these are left out.”
As a result, governments end up basing policy on a narrow evidence base, and people whose lives are affected once again are failed by and lose trust in government processes, he said.
Walk the walk
Another recent parliamentary inquiry into Rio Tinto’s destruction of Juukan Gorge found the corporate giant had “caused immeasurable cultural and spiritual loss, as well as profound grief for the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura peoples (PKKP)”.
“Rio Tinto’s actions were inexcusable and an afront, not only to the PKKP but to all Australians,” said the Joint Standing Committee on Northern Australia inquiry, which also found that what happened at Juukan Gorge “is not unique”.
“It is an extreme example of the destruction of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural heritage which continues to happen in this country,” said the inquiry led by Liberal MP Warren Entsch, recommending a raft of changes to legislation and governance.
Leeser said the latest inquiry had yet to discuss how it would incorporate the findings of the Juukan Gorge inquiry but noted that Entsch and Labor MP Warren Snowden were members of both committees.
He said the House Indigenous Affairs Committee inquiry is focused closely, at the request of Minister Wyatt, on how corporate Reconciliation Action Plans (RAP) might be able to improve corporate engagement and practices with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
“There have been some shocking high profile examples of major Australian companies failing to meet expected standards when dealing with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people,” Leeser said.
He highlighted Rio Tinto and Woolworths, as well as issues with insurance and funeral plans raised in the Banking Royal Commission and the $50 million penalty imposed on Telstra this year for unconscionable sales of unaffordable mobile phone plans to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander customers.
“There are lots of companies that talk the talk but those companies don’t always walk the walk,” he said. “We want to see what we can do to close the gap between the good ideas in the board room and the reality on the ground.”
Asked whether the inquiry might lead to stronger accountability measures for RAPs or for stronger regulations on corporates, he said it was “open minded” on where it might lead, but it was too early at this stage in its work to say.
The Terms of Reference set by the Minister are:
- The way the corporate sector supports meaningful engagement with Indigenous consumers.
- How to strengthen corporate sector cultural understanding, and how this is demonstrated through their engagement with Indigenous consumers.
- The impact of Reconciliation Action Plans (RAPs) in developing targeted approaches on engaging with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people through such actions.
- Other matters as required.
The Committee’s first public hearing last week heard from the National Indigenous Australians Agency (NIAA), the Indigenous Consumer Assistance Network (ICAN), and Financial Counselling Australia (FCA).
These were among groups who had “sounded the alarm” on major corporate misdeeds in banking, financial services and large telco organisations in recent years, “who ripped off Indigenous consumers and failed to respect Indigenous culture and heritage,” Leeser said.
The inquiry will hear on Thursday from the Consumer Action Law Centre, and on 2 December from Reconciliation Australia.
Its only published submission, to date, is from a Kimberley-based financial counsellor involved in leading complaints to Telstra over its mobile sales.
Leeser said the Committee Secretariat had contacted a wide range of different stakeholders about the inquiry, with a particular focus on consumer matters, and he had also done a number of interviews, including with First Nations media and the ABC.
“We’re trying to beat the beat the bushes as much as we can to try and ensure that people have their voices heard,” he said, acknowledging that “the quality of report is only strengthened by the quality and variety of submissions that we have”.
Role of government
Browne said the inquiry also may be missing an important question about government’s role in the relationship between corporate Australia and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, including as a “major interlocutor”.
That has been seen particularly in the Northern Territory. When the NT Government amended its liquor licensing laws to allow the Dan Murphy’s Darwin proposal and, according to the ABC, negotiated changes in water rules to allow an agribusiness licence to proceed.
Browne also questioned the inquiry’s focus on Reconciliation Action Plans, saying she meant no disrespect to Reconciliation Australia but the plans “have no teeth”.
The most rigorous part of the process is the development and signing off of a RAP, but there is no transparent process after to monitor implementation, she said.
Browne welcomed Reconciliation Australia’s decision to revoke its endorsement of Rio Tinto as a reconciliation action partner over the destruction of Juukan Gorge, but said it represented “a case of government outsourcing its core business to an under-resourced NGO”.
Lock also questioned the strength of a RAP to guide corporate behaviour if there is no “red flag” for potential breaches. “All corporates have risk management systems in place for supply chain logistics, occupational health and safety: what about cultural safety or reconciliation?” he asked.
Browne and Lock were also concerned about the focus on ‘cultural understanding’ in the terms of reference versus ‘cultural safety’, which requires non-Indigenous people to be self-critical about their own biases and beliefs and how that may manifest in policy, practice, and approaches that are inherently dangerous for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
“Reflecting on whiteness and privilege is an issue for mainstream organisations, and even more so for big corporates,” Browne said. “They need to reflect on their own culture: on what is toxic, and what harm is caused.”
See Croakey’s archive of related stories on Dan Murphy’s.