January 31, 2019 / 5:15 AM / 21 days ago

Miners BHP, Rio urge permanent voice for First Nations in Australia's parliament

SYDNEY/MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Australia’s two biggest miners on Thursday backed calls for an indigenous advisory body in parliament, saying Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s opposition to the proposal did not “stand up to scrutiny”.

The Rio Tinto's company logo is featured on a TV monitor at the mining company' annual general meeting in Sydney, Australia, May 4, 2017. REUTERS/Jason Reed

Australia has struggled for decades to reconcile with descendants of first inhabitants, who arrived on the continent some 50,000 years before British colonists.

The opposition Labor party has promised a referendum on the advisory body if it wins a general election due by May.

BHP Group and Rio Tinto issued an unusual joint statement to support a constitutionally enshrined body to advise parliament on indigenous matters.

“A First Nations’ voice to parliament is a meaningful step toward reconciliation,” BHP Chief Executive Officer Andrew Mackenzie said.

“It would empower indigenous Australians and it would make sure indigenous people have a say on the legislation, policy and programs that shape indigenous lives, families and communities,” he added.

The constitution makes no reference to indigenous people, whose leaders have struggled for generations to win recognition for past injustices, since European colonization in the 1700s.

The government only issued a formal apology to indigenous people in 2008.

Morrison’s conservative government late last year rejected the proposed advisory body comprised of elected indigenous Australians, saying it would create a de facto third chamber in parliament.

“These fears don’t stand up to scrutiny,” Mackenzie said, referring to a 2017 report by indigenous leaders that recommended the advisory body.

“The final report... found that there was nothing to fear from giving indigenous Australians the constitutionally-enshrined voice they deserve,” he said.

Australia’s roughly 700,000 indigenous people track near the bottom of its 25 million citizens on almost every economic and social indicator.

“In taking any leadership position, in corporate Australia, you always hope that it invokes support from others,” Joanne Farrell, managing director of Rio Tinto Australia, told Reuters.

“We hope that other corporations will come out in support as well...let’s get the debate going and let’s get on with it.”

Both miners are involved with a strategic body to promote reconciliation, she said.

Though not included in the initiative, Australia’s third-largest miner, Fortescue Metals, said, “We commend those in the business community who, like us, are committed to closing the gap and ending disparity and we welcome a respectful and constructive discussion.”

Morrison has angered indigenous people by refusing to consider moving the Australia Day national holiday, which they describe as “Invasion Day” because it marks the 1788 arrival of the British fleet.

During a visit to Brisbane on Thursday, Morrison said he disagreed with the mining companies, but added, “I want to see indigenous families in jobs. I want to see indigenous kids safe and I want to see them in school, because that’s what gives them a bright future.”

Reporting by Colin Packham; Editing by Darren Schuettler and Clarence Fernandez

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