It’s too late for Juukan Gorge but Warragamba dam is on the horizon

Shakepeare said: “Tis the sport to have the engineer hoist with his own petard.”

And indeed, there is some satisfaction in seeing the petard that hoisted the Juukan Gorge also sending some of Rio Tinto’s top brass flying out of the executive wing.

The three chief miners had already lost their bonuses in the usual slap on the wrist administered to those who embarrass the shareholders.

But such was the public outrage that real penalties were imperative to the company. And as a result, some good may come of the atrocity.

The destroyed caves were, quite literally priceless: their loss is immeasurable, but the 46,000 years of human habitation was worth absolutely nothing in dollar terms – which is why the bean counters believed they could be blown up with impunity.

However, their cynical insouciance was misplaced. The culture is now such that our First Nations must be given not only respect and acknowledgement, but serious action when their wishes are clear and specific.

And after all the waffle about misunderstandings and flawed communication have been removed, there can be no doubt that Rio Tinto was faced with a real choice: preserve or wreck. Their decision was that the profits were worth the risk and that any backlash from the explosion that followed could be contained.

But the nation judged otherwise.

The reaction was fierce and immediate, and it extended well past the bleeding-heart lefties the miners are used to dealing with. And it threatened not only the company’s own brand; the whole industry had to be considered.

The immensely popular Western Australian premier moved in, promising new laws to prevent any repetition. The mainstream media demanded not just an apology – which eventually came – but punishment. So RioTinto cut its losses.

Last week’s sackings may not be sufficient, but they are a signal to all the miners, and indeed to industry in general, that running roughshod over indigenous history and culture will come at a cost. In future consultation must be sincere and the desires of the traditional owners taken seriously.

So to start with, the consequences – including those that may be unforeseen, although that was not the case with the Juukan Gorge – must be properly assessed and evaluated. And if there is to be development, it must be transparent – reasons must be given and explained before the TNT is planted.

Perhaps the biggest problem in the past is that the miners slip their decisions through without public scrutiny and the public accepts them as inevitable – it was a bloody shame, but now it is done and dusted, time to move on.

If nothing else is achieved, such deliberate negligence will be much harder to manage. And for that, if for nothing much else in this unhappy exercise, we should be grateful. The Rio Tinto moguls may not have been hoist in vain.

The next test will be in Sydney, where the plan to raise the Warragamba dam will obliterate scores, perhaps hundreds, of ancient sites, among them rock art which has not even been properly identified. Watch this space.

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Mungo MacCallum is a veteran political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy.

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