My 3 days in the Pilbara with Fortescue CEO: “Gerry, you’ll see for yourself, and nothing is off the record”

National Indigenous Times award winning journalist, PhD researcher, an academic
with expertise in understanding racism and long-time social justice campaigner Gerry Georgatos has reflected on a recent look-in of Fortescue Metals Group operations.

PHOTO: "We spent a total of three and half hours in the air with the helicopter over the vast Pilbara sea of Fortescue operatons - The Solomon-Firetail mine railway spur, part of the 700 km of rail to the delta of Port Hedland. A 3 km Fortescue train loaded with high grade iron ore. Looking down at the vast sea of operations I thought 'there is room for all of us." Image, Gerry Georgatos

Alongside well-known Queensland-based Aboriginal educationalist and reformer Dr
Chris Sarra and alongside this newspaper’s editor, also a long-time rights activist and accomplished academic, Stephen Hagan, the three of them were invited by both the CEO and Deputy Chair of the Board of Fortescue Metals Group, Neville Power and legendary Herb Elliott respectively, to a three day tour of their mine sites and projects throughout the Pilbara.

Gerry Georgatos - Fortescue is the brainchild, heart and soul, of billionaire Andrew Forrest, who retains a one third share of the company while generally
busying himself with his multi-million dollar charity, Australian Children’s Trust. Mr Power and Mr Elliott wanted Georgatos, Sarra and Hagan to experience with a first-hand witness what Fortescue is doing to improve the lives of Aboriginal peoples who would otherwise languish in abject poverty.

Resource mining companies are employing record numbers of Aboriginal peoples at
pro-socially disproportionate rates to non-Aboriginal Australians. Aboriginal peoples make up 2.6 per cent of the Australian population however the four year young Fortescue workforce has an Aboriginal workforce at near 11 per cent of its total workforce.

I visited an expansive Fortescue Port Hedland facility where Aboriginal peoples
make up near 30 per cent of the total local Fortescue workforce. The Port Hedland delta is Australia’s busiest port. Fortescue’s goal within the next couple of years is to double its Aboriginal employment rate. At the rate Fortescue is going at this means that within a couple of years they will be employing at least one in every 500 Aboriginal persons in Australia.

At their Pilbara based Christmas Creek mining site they will employ a workforce
of 2,500 Australians – at least 500 will be Aboriginal persons, and in statistical terms that is one in every 1,200 Aboriginal persons in this country who will be working on that one particular site.

Working onsite as a fl y-in-fly-out (FIFO) is a tough gig, with generally 12 working hours daily, seven days a week, however no-one earns less than a $100,000 per annum (in terms of equivalency to full time work). I met scores
of Aboriginal people working for Fortescue, as I have with other mining companies too, who have gone from poverty and unemployment to $100,000 annual salaries.

Our resource companies, all of them are self-built enterprises, high risk ventures often coveted by debt, and often much maligned for allegedly not paying enough in taxes and royalties in terms of sovereign returns. After seeing fi rst-hand what I did I must hence ask are they not therefore part of the solutions to
eliminating inter-generational abject poverty among Aboriginal people? Yes, they are.

When you visit Fortescue operations and experience them as I did then the evidence is indisputable. During the last half century our Governments have upheld many legislative changes in terms of reducing the swathe of abominable
oppressions thumped on Aboriginal peoples by vile ignorance and putrid self-interests – our Governments have jumped on the crest of cultural waves, to the will of the people, on the unfolding human rights and social justice languages – and changed a few things however they haven’t done the spend to extricate
Aboriginal peoples out of Third World like poverty.

Australia is rated second out of 187 countries in terms of social health and well-being and various wealth factors on the United Nations Development Program’s Human Development Index however our Aboriginal peoples when extricated out of the Australian population would fi nish up in the bottom 50 of that index, among the world’s poorest nations.

Governments, Federal and State, continue to fail our Aboriginal peoples in terms of moving in leaps and bounds to Closing the Gap. Despite burgeoning Aboriginal middle and upper classes, and more working class Aboriginal families there continues the Third World conditions and the worst forms of poverty for hundreds of thousands of our 600,000 Aboriginal peoples.

During the last year I have given Fortescue somewhat of a torrid time with sustained coverage on various issues that most news media has bypassed – with one story after another about their Solomon Firetails mine, Yindjibarndi rights to the Country the rich Solomon iron ore deposit sits on, and of the controversial feud between the federally determined (2005) prescribed body corporate, the Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation (YAC) and their counterpart, formed in
December 2010, the Wirlu-murra Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation (WYMAC).
My stories have been picked up by major news media such as the ABC’s 7:30 Report
and Associated Australian Press. It has been alleged, and Fortescue refutes these allegations, that Fortescue conspired to capitalise on a divide between the less than 1,000 Yindjibarndi peoples and opportunistically funded the formation of WYMAC.

During the last year I have persisted in trying to secure an interview with Andrew
Forrest, to get his side of the story while also wishing to discuss any number of other nonrelated issues – and also about the good work of his children’s charity. It must be said that Mr Forrest is a philanthropist, and despite my hope that someday people will not have to be at the discretion of philanthropy, he has donated hundreds of millions to worthy causes, and with $54 million freely given to various charities from his foundation this last Christmas past.

Fortescue has generally offered me interviews with people high up, from within the echelon – with those in executive directorial positions and I respect these offers however they are not the same as an interview with the heart and soul of the organisation, with its founder, Andrew Forrest – for in part his mantras and
beliefs guide Fortescue.

If Mr Forrest someday grants me the interview, without caveats as Mr Power and
Mr Elliott with moral propriety at the fore so did, my respect will be unashamedly won as I will see this as a strong signifi er of authentic
respect, and one that the readership of The National Indigenous Times will respect and appreciate. It will be a powerful gesture for one the nation’s richest persons to reach out to Aboriginal peoples nationwide through this
newspaper and which for many of our readers is the only newspaper they read.

Firstly, I will preface this opinion piece with my unreserved belief that what I saw and heard first-hand throughout Fortescue’s Pilbara operations in reference to Aboriginal employment participation and the most worthy support structures was beyond most of my expectations and therefore credit must be given to Mr Forrest, to Mr Power and to Fortescue – indeed they are ‘making a difference’ – anyone
who would write or say otherwise after visiting their operations and meeting the people on the ground is either blinkered or biased.

I don’t agree with their views on what the Native Title Act means or should mean,
nor do I agree with their views of what the right to ‘self-determination’ means or should mean, and it is not just a matter of agreeing to disagree, it is rather a matter of the stoush continuing, however rather in the form of peaceful discourse, as violence in any form will not get most of us anywhere.

However I have come away from this trip with a better understanding where Mr Forrest comes from in terms of his much publicised perspectives and therefore what he may be about, similarly so with Mr Power and Mr Elliott and therefore of the Fortescue Board. I better understand them than I did before now enriched with the aggregation of formerly missing content to their rationales to some of the very poor language that is often used by them or attributed to them – ‘welfare
dependency’ and ‘we are not going to just give them bags of money’.

I said to them they need to articulate what they mean rather than confuse the general public with one-liners that to many people will certainly smack as racism – and let us remember that the veils and layers of racism are many, and within these veils and layers most of us are caught up. Australia languishes
in a hostile identity crisis in reference to its understanding of ‘others’, and to this day continues with a hostile denial of its various racist identities; this goes right to the highest offi ces in the nation, and yes I mean including
the Australian Government and the Office of the Prime of Minister.

However, since my three day trip alongside Mr Power and Mr Elliott and with many of their colleagues I have spoken highly of what Fortescue does within its very organisation for Aboriginal peoples whom enter its ‘family’(workforce), and the reason I have done this is because this is the truth.

Fortescue do care, and so does Andrew Forrest, he does care. In my heart, to my
mind, I do believe they care, and that they are evidently doing what they can in the meritocratic ways they think will best serve the interests of Aboriginal peoples who have long been denied opportunity. This is not to say I agree with some of the practices or the ways they go about to generate what they perceive
as well-meaning.

Fortescue has many untold stories which are in the interests of the common good, and these stories need to be told, and told again and again, and they need to be told well, in depth, right from the hearts and minds and souls of those who benefi t - whose lives have changed for the better. Despite the fact that I will continue to challenge Fortescue on one issue after another as is my way as a journalist and as a social justice campaigner, I will also tell their good stories, which are many and myriad bright, and I will bring these narratives to the readership of the National Indigenous Times every week for the remaining time, which is now not long, that I have left with this newspaper – a newspaper
which in the last 18 months has become the premier Indigenous-specific newspaper in the nation, and with its imprimatur for the time being deeply etched on the Australian political landscape.

I will bring these stories to our readers because it is the right thing to do, and it may help to bridge a wide divide between peoples which was never warranted and never should have occurred. I hope the stories I will tell in Fortescue’s name will make a positive difference. And after my departure from the National Indigenous Times I will continue to unfold these stories – and also those good
stories belonging to other similar organisations which understand social responsibility, social inclusion and civil society, and who understand that humanity is a coalescing and that we have a responsibility not just to ourselves however also to each other, to everyone.

At one of Fortescue’s remote mine sites I enjoyed an outdoor twilight dinner with
hundreds of hard working good people, and in the wallow of a humid evening I chose to sit at a table with twelve Aboriginal ladies – some of these ladies worked in catering, others in administration, and quite a few drove trucks,
and these are no ordinary trucks, huge monsters!

All of them were on more than $100,000 per annum. One was from Roebourne, another
from Port Hedland, another from Perth, and another from Wyndham and each of them said the same thing to me when I asked them what the opportunity of working with a resource mining company meant. “It is a foot in the door…” They said not only had their lives changed,some like a jack-in-the-box extrication out of difficult poverty, however life also changed for their immediate families and to some measure for their extended families. Example is our only mortal legacy. They weren’t just relieved to be there, whether it was Solomon-Firetail, Cloudbreak, Christmas Creek, Port Hedland Fortescue sites, they came across to me as
authentically happy.

Fortescue has knocked itself out in trying to do the right thing by its workforce, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, and the support mechanisms and milestones are near levels of the highest calibre outcomes from the best that
any long-term psychosocial counselling can generate. It is pro-social reciprocity, respect for the ‘other’ and a never give up sort of attitude
to those that queue up for their assistance.

However let us always remember that the queue is long and supply does not meet demand despite the best intentions and best efforts of Fortescue, Rio Tinto, BHP, Woodside and Chevron. The Forrest inspired striving to urge employers nationwide to employ Aboriginal peoples is utterly commendable however it is limited, and it cannot come at the expense of historical and contemporary cultural identities
and belief systems, and therefore my argument in reference to that what I saw as Aboriginal employment practices at Fortescue are indeed part of the solutions, a signifi cant part of the solutions however they cannot claim to be the solution.
If I did have a criticism of Fortescue, and similarly of other resource mining giants, it is that they have not adequately reflected Aboriginal employment within middle, upper and executive management levels and in for instance their Perth Fortescue head office, with hundreds of staff, however I do know they are
striving to remedy this and we must remember that they are only effectively a 4 year young company despite being the world’s fourth largest iron ore producer.

However, it must be noted that Fortescue works diligently in ensuring the success of Aboriginal business operators who have built their success on joint venture contracts with Fortescue and other resource companies. In the Pilbara alone Fortescue has had a hand in generating 47 such Aboriginal operators, and this is hugely signifi cant, because all of them go on to employ others who are Aboriginal, and so the Aboriginal middle and upper classes increase their numbers.
In Port Hedland our itinerary of visits included an hour at Fortescue’s Vocational
Training and Educational Centre (VTEC) and I learned fi rst-hand of comprehensive
support programs Fortescue provides to Aboriginal peoples from various problematic
circumstances that other employers would never unencumber. Fortescue operatives will work alongside Aboriginal peoples seeking to change their lives to secure Extraordinary Licences for those whom Courts have suspended or banned them from driving, and hence ensure their subsequent training and employment, and without blinking an eyelid therefore eject them out of the worst of abject poverty and effectively end the cycles that led many of them again and again into prison, and
now into $100,000 jobs.

They don’t give up on them despite issues, such as ill health, depression, illiteracy and criminal records. This is the type of affirmative action we need. The VTEC is supporting one person who is in Roebourne Prison at this time
however he has a job waiting for him with Fortescue upon his release. My PhD research is in Australian Custodial Systems, and I have visited prisons, alongside others, to inspire those incarcerated into various pathways
post-release, and I know what it means to them to know that you have someone waiting for you post-release to support you, to respect you, to give you that damn break at long last.

The great good that I have seen first-hand in what Fortescue does cannot be adequately transferred from me to you in this lone article and I will bring these stories to you in the weeks ahead, as will Stephen Hagan and Dr Chris Sarra.

The conundrum that has hit me is that Fortescue is the conveyor of great good in
the name of the common good, however at the same as this great good there is a vicious dispute in the heart of the Pilbara amid the Yindjibarndi peoples, and indeed between the Yindjibarndi and the Fortescue.

It breaks my heart to see what I have seen during my three day trip within the Fortescue megalith and alongside Mr Power and Mr Elliott, both whom I came to understand and respect, and hence to refl ect upon the extreme dispute between the Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation (YAC), with its nominal leader CEO Michael Woodley, and the Fortescue.

Michael Woodley was not able to negotiate a land access agreement with the Fortescue because of world views so far removed from each other that with years passing they gave up on each other. Fortescue does not want to accede to 0.5% royalty payments, uncapped, from its iron ore production on Yindjibarndi
Country, nor does it believe that it should give YAC free reign on how to spend such monies – I do agree with acquittal, however that weakling Offi ce of the Registrar of Indigenous Corporations (ORIC) and also the National Native Title Tribunal (NNTT) are not set up to ensure best outcomes for Aboriginal
Corporations; there being more than 400 of them nationwide.

The explicit fl aw in all this is the Native Title Act, watered down firstly by Paul Keating himself in 1992, then buggered by John Howard, and then with no bona fi de defi nition, other than the word ‘compensation’, no Government, State or Federal has wanted to do the right thing to ensure legislation that comprehensively defi nes the intentions of the Act and how the objects of the Act should function. It has all been left to the discretion of the Courts, which languish without beaconlike edicts.

Michael Woodley argues for ‘industry standards’ in seeking compensation from
resource companies, however there really aren’t any ‘standards’ - some provide mutually agreed compensation, others catapult the poor in to what they can get, such as my friends out Kununurra way with the Final Ord River Agreement, and others like the YAC will fight what they see as the good fight in the name of what they believe is their due even if it means a divide among themselves, such as
the one that exists and has led to Yindjibarndi families splitting and community gently pitted against each other and now we have YAC and WYMAC instead of Yindjibarndi. The tragedy in this is that this is not a win-win but one half
gets something and the other half gets nothing.

I would like to live the day, and I believe there is every chance, that people of great good in many different ways such as Mr Forrest, Mr Power and Mr Elliott can sit at the table with Michael Woodley and achieve that win-win.

Life is short and arguing is worthless, be it in the Courts or through the news media, and the Australian political and social landscape is changing, we are all pushing for a humanity that carries one and all and ensures narratives do not go untold; far too many do go unheard.

Michael Woodley is only 40 years old however despite being so young he is the
Yindjibarndi’s peoples senior most Law Carrier. He sounds too young to be their
most knowledgeable person of Culture, Lore and Law however please refl ect on the tragic median in terms of longevity of life for Aboriginal peoples.

Most Aboriginal peoples, and certainly most Yindjibarndi have died before six and
half decades of life. Roebourne is a town with a history that had been much troubled by the most deplorable poverty and neglect than is known this day - by its people coming off the victomology from living in missions, and of those outcast into no-man’s land after the pastoralists’ strikes and the Aboriginal
Workers’ strikes.

Abandoned, neglected, scorned, most of them fell into alcoholism, including many
of Michael Woodley’s family, his uncles, his cousins. Most Yindjibarndi and Wirlu-murra Yindjibarndi were smashed by alcoholism till as such time as the town effectively went dry in order to save its people. And it was Culture, Lore and Law, the Women and the last of the Men with Knowledge, such as Michael’s
grandfather, Woodley King, and the legendary Ned Cheedy (who died last year aged 106), who rebuilt lives of the young Yindjibarndi and hence the Yindjibarndi peoples as a whole.

There are great stores of knowledge and history among many Yindjibarndi, Women
and Men, however the Men formally speak for the Yindjibarndi according to Lore, and from within them some are the Carriers of the Laws and the Lore, and Michael Woodley is apparently the senior most carrier of their Laws. I remember the day that the Chairman of the YAC Board, Stanley Warrie pointed to
Michael Woodley and said to me “He is our Law Carrier,” and then one by one so did the others who were present when it was explained to me what a Law Carrier meant.

At the end of our three day trip we finished up in Roebourne and at long last I met the Wirlu-murra Yindjibarndi, previously having only talked to some of them by phone or ad hoc on the streets of Roebourne, as I have visited Roebourne four times in the last year.

I saw amidst them what I have seen amidst the Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation folk, that they are equally just, kind and dignified and they are equally ‘salt of the earth.’ Remedy is not afar if the will is there and many have the capacity to bring it forth sooner rather than later and I hope this will be the case. We need not waste our days in hopeless and cruel dispute and especially when this comes at the cost of human worth and human merit, it’s just bullshit to do so.

Neville Power is also a pilot – planes and helicopters – and he personally flew the company copter from one mine site to another. I listened to every word that he and Mr Elliott uttered during the fl ights, about the mine sites, about the country we were flying above at about only 1,400 feet altitude. It is a vast sea of Pilbara land that is intertwined with megalithic Fortescue operations – My eyes followed hundreds of miles of Fortescue railway and I watched the 2.7 kilometre Fortescue trains speed across the Pilbara with their rich iron ore
cradled in huge wagons to Port Hedland to fill some of the world’s largest ships and onwards bound to countries such as China.

I looked down at the Solomon rail loop, the Solomon rail spur approximately 130 km
long. Fortescue has the world’s heaviest haul line with a 40 tonne axle load capacity. Each train carries up to 33,000 tonnes of mostly high grade iron ore. Each train has 240 wagons. Currently, there are 13 Fortescue iron ore trains daily from Cloudbreak, Christmas Creek and Solomon.

The rail infrastructure includes 700 km of track and 10 bridges. I looked down at all this, listening to Mr Power and Mr Elliott and thinking there is room for all of us. The Yindjibarndi peoples are minnows in a vast sea of Fortescue operations stretching over tenements belonging to numerous Native Title groups. I see the day that the fight between Yindjibarndi and Fortescue will end because in the end there is good in everyone, I have seen it for myself within Fortescue and in what they do for Aboriginal peoples and I have seen it in the Yindjibarndi peoples and in what they are prepared to sacrifi ce for what they believe in.

The good in each other has to come together, crafted, melded, coalesced as the common good, not just for each other’s sakes however as an example to everyone nationwide.

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