Dirty Business: How Mining made Australia (Episode 3): mining as political power player highlighted by indigenous Australia’s fight for justice

Jacob Hickey, “Dirty Business: How Mining made Australia (Episode 3)” (2012)

Final and best episode in a three-part series, this documentary examines the mostly unhappy relationship between the mining industry and the indigenous peoples of Australia. Much of the film is a chronological timeline of the Australian First Nations’ fight for recognition in Australian law as the original owners and custodians of Australia’s lands and resources against attempts by mining companies, aided and abetted by Federal and State governments, to throw locals off their land and seize it for mining purposes. The episode follows First Nations’ attempts to understand Australian law and legal principles and use them to present their case and protest injustice, and to mobilise help and other resources when the law and government fail them. Dramatic incidents such as the presentation of the Yirrkala Bark Petitions to Federal Government in Canberra in 1963 and the failures of the Whitlam and Hawke governments in the 1970s and 1980s to assist First Nations peoples in their applications for justice are covered in some detail. The court cases initiated by Eddie Mabo against the Queensland government which overturned State acts that conflicted with the federal Racial Discrimination Act of 1975 (Mabo -v- Queensland No 1) and which overturned the concept of terra nullius in favour of the common law doctrine of aboriginal native title are mentioned here.

Viewers get a real sense of the stupidity of mainstream Australian society in refusing First Nations’ requests for social justice and fair treatment. Time and again, First Nations activists bone up on Australian law, petition Federal and State governments and individual politicians, organise rallies and protests, and appeal to the general public’s sense of justice and compassion. Mining companies use scaremongering tactics and advertising to convince Australians and their governments that First Nations’ drive for equality and land rights will deprive them of their material comforts and create an apartheid society in which blacks claim all the best land and its wealth, and everyone else is left with nothing.

The narrative takes a David-versus-Goliath approach and presents the First Nations’ fight as a continuous, almost torturous uphill battle with all layers of government and mining management steadfastly ignoring or even resisting calls for social justice and fair treatment of Australia’s indigenous peoples. The climate of confrontation gradually changes to one of co-operation over time as ordinary Australians discover that First Nations peoples’ demands are not unreasonable and that they do deserve the right of traditional ownership of their lands and should be able to work with mining companies in extracting valuable minerals and at the same time preserve the natural environment and ecosystems in the areas where mining is done.

The coda can be quite surprising and not a little depressing: the whole time, all many First Nations communities are asking is to be consulted whenever a mining company wishes to work on their land, and to be able to nut out a fair deal for everyone. Many First Nations groups now regard mining as presenting the best opportunity for them to lift their people out of poverty, provide jobs for them and help educate their people so they can participate fully in modern Australian society and culture. If only white Australians had overcome their fears and stereotypes about First Nations peoples and agreed decades ago to recognise their traditional ownership and laws and to consult and negotiate with them, then two or three generations of activists would not have needed to carry the same old fight over and over and resources could have been shifted into finding ways of eliminating poverty among native communities ages ago. People would not have had to fight or go to jail or die in vain if everyone could have worked together in the first place. It has to be said though that mining companies do consist of people who are the products of the wider society, as are also governments, and the sea-change in attitude that took place over decades and which eventually enabled the First Nations people to win social justice and have the terra nullius principle in Australian law struck down is the unacknowledged backdrop to this episode. For this to have happened, enlightened governments had to be elected and people in the media, in education and in trade unions and other organisations had to work with First Nations people and bring their cause to the wider public. Now that a major part of the battle has been won, it does seem ironic that many First Nations communities are now falling out with social democrats and social justice supporters over the issue of agreeing with and allowing mining in tribal lands.

The episode summarises all that has been covered in the series by saying that mining, for better and for worse, has shaped Australian society and culture and Australians’ attitudes to the land they walk on and manipulated governments and public opinion for their own benefit. and will continue to do well into the future. Given the current controversies over fracking for natural gas in many parts of Australia, with many communities facing similar problems that First Nations groups did (and still do in some parts of the country), I’d say Hickey and Company don’t need to be fortune-tellers to tell us that.

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