- BY:PAIGE TAYLOR
- From:The Australian
- April 15, 2013 12:00AM
WOODSIDE, its joint-venture partners and the Barnett government are “morally obliged” to pay out a $1.5 billion social benefits package attached to the aborted plan for a gas hub north of Broome.
Former head of the Kimberley Land Council Wayne Bergmann, who was central to the deal, has described the agreement that traditional owners signed for the James Price Point gas hub as a once-in-a-lifetime chance to move beyond welfare and create real jobs and opportunities for indigenous people.
Yesterday he said he still believed the resource sector offered the most opportunity for Aboriginal people, for the smallest impact on the country.
And he was scathing of environmental groups who had suggested the Kimberley economy could grow through eco-tourism and the arts.
“They argued for an alternative future, well, where is it?”, he said.
“Where is their solution? Where are the jobs and the training? Where is their economy? A number of our senior traditional owners have been in the art industry and the eco-tourism industry for over 20 years and they’re still broke.
“Tourism projects require multi-million-dollar assets to generate income – to create enough jobs we’d need to generate the sorts of visitor numbers that really would destroy the environment. We were faced with the reality of the resource sector and its potential impacts.
“But, done properly, a resource project can provide opportunities for people with, I think, a smaller impact.”
The decision by Woodside and its joint-venture partners to walk away from plans to bring gas from the Browse Basin ashore at James Price Point sparked celebrations in the town of Broome when it was announced on Friday, but the Aborigines who voted for the gas hub expressed disappointment that the social benefits package of jobs, housing, education and health programs now appeared lost.
Mr Bergmann said it was wrong for Woodside, its joint-venture partners and the state government to pay only what they believed they were legally required to pay. “There was no legal right to that deal; it was broached politically and now they need to honour the bargain,” he said.
Yesterday, a Woodside spokeswoman said negotiations were conducted in good faith and the company had so far paid $3.7 million to Aboriginal organisations as part of the agreement, in line with its promises about the funds that would flow ahead of a final investment decision. “We will sit down and review the agreement in line with our next steps in the evaluation of the Browse resources,” the spokeswoman said.
“Additionally Woodside and the Browse joint venture will continue to support a range of voluntary social investment activities in the West Kimberley.”
The state government’s $300m contribution to the package was subject to a series of milestones, most of which were related to the establishment of an LNG precinct with a foundation proponent.
That is now up in the air, and Mr Barnett has described the situation as a tragedy for indigenous people who made a brave act of self-determination that was controversial in their community.
Mr Bergmann said there were important lessons to be learned from the disastrous gas hub negotiations. He believed the KLC was “on track” to find a site that traditional owners could accept when West Australian Premier Colin Barnett and Woodside became aggressive.
He believed the benefits package would have led to enormous change for Aboriginal people, but the negotiations were much harder than they should have been because of Mr Barnett’s threat to compulsorily acquire James Price Point if they did not agree. “You can’t come in and pulverise Aboriginal people into a corner so they have no choice but to sign off on deals – you don’t create healthy societies by doing that,” he said. “If this is the way industry treats some of the most disadvantaged people in the world, and it is accepted by government, a standard has been set that is inconsistent with our international obligations.”
Mr Bergmann left the KLC after helping to broker the $1.5bn benefits package in 2011 and now runs KRED Enterprises, an initiative of the Kimberley Land Council that is negotiating deals between Aboriginal people and resource companies across a 250,000sq km cultural block in the Kimberley and Pilbara.
Mr Bergmann said yesterday he believed the repeatedly botched attempts to compulsorily acquire James Price Point for the gas precinct was a factor in Woodside’s decision not to proceed.
“Had the government done this the land tenure would have been secured a year ago; the delay in timing has added to the escalation of project costs,” he said.