Feb 13, 2014

Rio Tinto’s Gove plant never delivered on indigenous hopes

Rio Tinto will close its Gove smelting plant, which is not necessarily a bad outcome for the Yolngu people. ANU professor Jon Altman says employment opportunities are better sought elsewhere.

On November 29, Rio Tinto announced that it would suspend production of alumina at its Gove refinery. It was hardly a surprise; the smelting plant was reputed to be losing Rio Tinto $20 million to $30 million per month and closure was based on the company’s commercial accountability to its shareholders. It had become increasingly clear that even with access to cheap gas to offset the burden of dependence on heavy fuel oil the Gove operation was commercially unsustainable.

It is ironic that suspension was announced soon after the 50th anniversary of the Yirrkala bark petitions made to the Australian Parliament in 1963. The anniversary was a timely reminder of iconic Yolngu opposition to mining on their traditional lands, an opposition unjustly dismissed by Justice Richard Blackburn in the NT Supreme Court in 1971. The legal principle of terra nullius on which Blackburn relied was later judged wrong in the High Court Mabo judgment of 1992.

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2 thoughts on “Rio Tinto’s Gove plant never delivered on indigenous hopes

  1. Dawson Colin

    An article with much potential for recycling: substitute “Australian mining industry” for “Rio Tinto”, and “Australia” for Aboriginal Land Council”.

    The wildly overstated community benefits fit every story, it’s just the amounts that change. The breathtaking entitlements are familiar too – 84 years without consent of the custodians!

  2. trash

    I had the belief that the licence/grant/agreement for mining the Bauxite was dependent on there being a refinery (not a Smelter! kindly get that bit right) in the NT. So the ‘1960s dream’ was not Nabalco’s (mostly owned by Alusuisse) dream but the cost of doing business with Darwin.

    I do wonder if mothballing the refinery should terminate the ‘dream’ – or is it only the “presence” of a refinery that counts?

    Back in the day, Alcan (the then owners – a *metals* company) were running along a track that had ended Bauxite exports – and hence justified that $3B upgrade – equipment had been removed.

    Pretty much the first thing Rio (a *miner*) did was reinstate that export system – the writing was on the wall 5 years ago, it just needed to be interpreted.

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