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.