After a series of high-profile cases of corporate failures, the way big businesses in Australia treat Indigenous customers will be examined by a parliamentary inquiry.
The destruction of Juukan Gorge by Rio Tinto was one of the most recent inexcusable acts, but it is not alone. Woolworths was forced to abandon plans to build a liquor warehouse near three dry Aboriginal communities. Earlier this year, Telstra was fined $50m by the federal court which found it had exploited Indigenous customers by signing them up for phone contracts they could not understand or afford.
Each time, the onus has been on Indigenous communities to raise the alarm and bring wider attention to the issue.
The minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, now wants how corporations engage with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander consumers to be the subject of a parliamentary inquiry.
The House Indigenous Affairs Committee, headed by Liberal MP Julian Leeser will investigate the issue, building on recent inquiries looking at Indigenous employment and small business, as well as the inquiries into some recent examples of corporate treatment of Indigenous consumers and communities.
“I think effectively, corporate Australia needs to not only talk the talk, they need to walk the walk as well,” Leeser said.
“What we are looking at here is how corporate Australia engages in a meaningful way with Indigenous consumers and what we can do to encourage greater cultural understanding among the corporate sector of Indigenous consumers – not only where there has been bad practice, but also looking at where there has been best practice – particularly the impact of Reconciliation Action Plans in changing and improving the culture generally.”
The destruction of Juukan Gorge, a 46,000 year-old site of global archaeological significance was found to be one of “countless instances where cultural heritage has been the victim of the drive for development and commercial gain”, a parliamentary inquiry found.
At the time of its fine for exploiting Indigenous mobile phone plan customers – one of the largest ever handed down – Telstra chief executive Andy Penn said it was a “deeply challenging and disappointing chapter” in Telstra’s history.
It was only after a long battle, led by Indigenous health groups, that Woolworths pulled the pin on its Dan Murphy’s plan, with a panel commissioned by the supermarket giant in response to backlash found there was not enough consultation with the local Indigenous communities.
Asked if it was finally time for corporate Australia to do the work, instead of leaving it for Indigenous communities to fight, Leeser said the inquiry would look at what engagement was currently occurring.
“We’re looking at where that has clearly fallen short in the past, and what people need to do to improve that engagement,” he said.
“This will be a holistic examination of some of those past issues, but also a look at where people are getting it right and looking at what are the things that are put in place to try and steer corporate Australia in a particular direction.”
The committee has been ordered to report back to parliament by 31 March next year – a date which could see it made obsolete if parliament is dissolved for an election before it is handed down.