Thinking global, living local: Voices in a globalized world

How the Resource Curse Manipulates Good Governance in Australia

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Natural Resources are supposed to be the greatest gift a country could discover. Undoubtedly, Australia takes advantage of this gift they have discovered. You can “discover” land and resource, but are you really “discovering” it or just finding it again? In a world where everything is about ‘getting rights to access or exercise things’ for example property rights, human rights, citizenship rights, who asked the Aboriginal Australians if their land could be used to create burgeoning cities and how the benefits from this would be distributed? The plain fact is that, nobody asked.

In Australia, mining companies are relatively brutal in their approach to land. How does Australia reconcile the interests of its people with its search to meet energy demands? The question is, what people? After attending a gathering held by the Benawarra Community Development Association in Brisbane, I heard stories from uncles and aunties of a tribe that spoke about the history of Brisbane, what the river meant to their tribe and what our new bridge named ‘Kurilpa’ really means. They spoke humbly about their experience, pausing to tell us about some of their people that had been taken away during the ‘Stolen Generation.’ I couldn’t help but get angry at what my country had done, I felt a little responsible for what had happened and I felt like I was being attacked because I was part of the ‘Australians’ that had taken and continue to take away their land, but then I listened carefully to what was being said, ‘We must come out of this together, as a nation.’ But what was it that we had to come out of? Was it just the Stolen Generation or was it more? They spoke about a dying existence, a people yearning for their voice. Who wasn’t letting the people speak, I wondered?

Mining is an essential ingredient to this whole dilemma. Australia has to meet its energy needs and to export its coal, it is perhaps one of the major reasons why Australia maintains its strong economy. But what has it done in the process to achieve such successful economic results? I guess it has done again what it did in the early 20th century, it has sacrificed the livelihoods of some to benefit others. The threat to livelihood of some Australians is never more evident than in the Northern Territory Intervention of 2007. The indigenous population of Australia, the Aboriginal community, won a landmark case in 1993 called the Native Title Act, which essentially gave Aboriginal Australians the right to re-claim ownership over land taken away during British colonial rule.

While the Native Title Act was a step forward for Australia, the Northern Territory National Emergency Response Act of 2007 reversed this. This intervention enables the government to seize land previously held by Aboriginal communities. To add further insult to injury, the Racial Discrimination Act was also suspended. It is quite suspicious that the land, which is being seized in the interest of ‘protecting children’s rights,’ is actually land which is rich in mining potential. Despite the intention of the Australian Government to act on recommendations given in the report, ‘Little Children are Sacred, many criticisms have emerged towards the government due to their failure to implement any of the recommendations in the ‘national emergency.’ The decisions by the government in 2007 and onwards has caused considerable conflict with its Aboriginal population, many loopholes have been found in the government’s intervention programme, suffice to say that it looks more and more like an excuse to freely access mineral resources. Seizing land and suspending the Racial Discrimination Act so that it doesn’t apply specifically to the community of West Arnhem means the government can’t be stopped from doing what they want with the land including displacing peoples and suspending their right to exercise their human rights. How do we come to terms with the fact that our nation is causing the slow extinction of an entire people while we light our houses and blow-dry our hair? Could we find better ways to use the funds earned from the coal extraction to benefit ALL Australians and not just some or should we totally reconsider how to generate energy and instead invest in ways that don’t impinge on people’s rights?

What is the future of the relationship between resource extraction and good governance? Transparency and accountability may be essential pillars of good governance, but the countries talking the talk, aren’t necessarily walking the walk. It’s fair enough to put pressure on developing nations with the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) and upon looking through the list of countries that have intended to join, Australia isn’t one of them.

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Lourdes Gomez Twitter: @shmershmezLourdes

I live in Australia where I work as a policy specialist, writer, editor and researcher. I am a qualified sociologist and currently completing a degree in law.