Iron ore wealth – inequity through reversible governmental failure

Jul 27, 2023
Conveyor belt moving iron ore in Western Australia's Pilbara region.

It is time for the Australian citizenry and First Nations to resume their rightful ownership and custodianship of the land’s eco-geology.

The present inequity between the country’s wealthiest yet internally feuding family and the nation’s struggling working and homeless poor is obscene. As judged by the Gini coefficient, inequity is increasing in Australia and is relatively greater in mining districts and major cities. Parliaments have a primary responsibility to reflect and ensure the welfare of their jurisdiction’s citizens. The Nobel Prize in Economics winning Elinor Ostrom found that communities thrive and achieve security when they agree on their Commons, which includes the natural environment and its resources, air, water, earth, and space. Sanctions apply to those who transgress. For too long, Australia has considered most of its territory as relatively ‘worthless’ being remote from the coast, dry and arid. Now, we are awake, as our Indigenous peoples have been for thousands of years, to Australia’s rich ecology, whose integrity is at the very core of our ultimate survival as humans. We know better that it has vast mineral wealth, much of it where first nations peoples have written their story back at least 60,000 years in rock art, have identified and respected ecosystems which confer habitability, and ultimately been displaced from it. This land, with its inestimable value in time, landscape, and socioecology, is our collective Commons.

When one person, Lang Hancock, happened to notice from a private aircraft years ago that Australia might be rich in iron, and confirmed that it was so, should that have allowed him, his family, and descendants the right to exploit it for personal gain in perpetuity? Would philanthropy exonerate the grievous custodial and ‘opportunity loss’ by the rest of us? It hasn’t and is not expected to be, not even to the extent of sports outfits for a women’s sports association! An export tax maybe, as attempted in effect by the Gillard government, duly removed by her Abbott successor? No, that failed. A levy into a Sovereign Wealth Fund as in Norway? No. Support for Indigenous Health and Wellbeing programs, or their ancient visual rock art as World Heritage? Lang Hancock reckoned First Nations People should be allowed to disappear, or worse.

Now, this family of immense wealth at the expense of Australia and the world’s heritage is squabbling in our courts amongst themselves about who owns what. If they don’t know, then most of us do: it is the nation’s citizens. We have a parliament. It needs to intervene in these proceedings and ensure the nation’s heritage returns to its rightful stewards. It should pass legislation with the urgency that climate change and international institutional breakdown now require of us, to rescue a planet at risk of livelihood insecurity and human inhabitability.

The federal and state governments, along with relevant regulatory authorities should focus on how mining law should take into account the broader and pressing socioecological concerns we have. At the very least, licences often have limited tenure of some 21 years. But renewed effort must redirect mining capacity away from vested interests and to human and planetary security. In particular, Attorney and/or Solicitor Generals, along with the resource and environmental ministers’ should prioritise and channel mining pursuits so that we all benefit, just as we do with the community-rating of education, health cover and retirement benefits. We can also be mindful that such an approach would help securitise the growing needs for renewable energy, rare elements in electrified transport such as lithium, for water, avoidance of increasing microplastic environmental contamination, and a digital world itself dependent on material science, energy and satellite transmission – and an associated shift to more ecosystem health disorders. This is of immediate importance.

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