Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are advised that this post mentions and contains images of deceased peoples.
Leaving no one behind is the theme for this year’s International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples on 9 August. We caught up with Professor of Politics and Public Policy Ciaran O’Faircheallaigh from the School of Government and International Relations to talk about his social impact and negotiation work for Indigenous organisations and communities. Working with resource development companies, Professor O’Faircheallaigh strives to span the gap between Indigenous culture and commerce on behalf of organisations and communities across Australia, Canada and Papua New Guinea.
Professor O’Faircheallaigh first came to Australia from his native Ireland in 1975 to complete a Masters’ degree, and again in 1977 on scholarship from ANU to complete a PhD. During his time in Darwin as a Research Fellow at the North Australian Unit of ANU, he became interested in Indigenous issues associated with his research area in foreign investment in mining.
Ciaran eventually settled with his family in Brisbane, taking up a position in Public Policy within what was then named the Griffith University School of Social and Industrial Administration. This trajectory led to his research in impact assessment and negotiation, which would continue to drive his work 30 years later.
‘One fundamental principle for me is that when you consult with people, you begin by asking them how they want to be consulted with, which is what we did.’
How did you get into your research area?
I became involved in the whole area of engagement with communities through one of my PhD students working at Hope Vale and eastern Cape York. Hope Vale is a tiny community and at the time were negotiating with Mitsubishi on a mining lease. So, when my student mentioned to the community council that I knew a lot about multinational mining companies, they asked me to come and talk to them about helping with their negotiations.
As a result, we ran what’s called a ‘community-controlled impact assessment’; a different approach to the usual Environmental Impact Assessment, controlled by companies/government decision makers, which are normally very unfriendly to Indigenous people and involve very limited consultation. We decided we would do our own, using the community’s objectives—a different methodology, driven by the community itself. This engagement was the first time this was done in Australia, I believe.
One fundamental principle for me is that when you consult with people, you begin by asking them how they want to be consulted with, which is what we did. Different groups were involved—one example included FIFO (fly-in-fly-out) workers (all male) and their wives at home. Consultations were moved to people’s verandas—at night, when we would sit and yarn to people. This was done across the community and we documented people’s issues—these were used as the basis for negotiations via a log of claims.
What outcomes are you hoping to achieve with your research and practice?
Simply to create a more even bargaining situation, or a more even playing field, between the huge mining and oil and gas interests that operate on Aboriginal land and the Aboriginal people whose land they are exploiting—it’s a very uneven playing field. Corporations and governments have huge amounts of money…Aboriginal people are politically marginalised. They are four per cent of the population. They are dispersed across the country. There is only one federal parliamentary seat in which they have a majority of the electorate, so it’s very hard for them to get any sort of political purchase. They still face institutional racism. They face some media that doesn’t understand them and is often hostile to them. It’s an immensely unfair and uneven playing field. So, I guess that’s what drives me and what my agenda is: to try and apply my research to make the playing field a little bit less uneven—particularly my research on negotiations. My most significant research thread over the last 20 years has been a focus on negotiations between Indigenous people and commercial interests—extending beyond Australia, including comparative work between Canada and Australia.
Tell us about one of your favorite projects.
A project north of Broome that was called Browse LNG Project—a gas field which is off the Kimberley Coast. It has about one quarter of all Australia’s known reserves of natural gas. Protagonists were Woodside Petroleum, the Kimberley Land Council (KLC) and the Government of Western Australia.
The corporations wanted gas factories up and down the coast, while the KLC wanted a single location where you could bring gas ashore from all the sources. They wanted to control/limit the impacts. The WA government agreed (2007 – 2011).
Through a contract between Griffith University and the KLC, I worked with the KLC and the Traditional Owners Task Force to create a hub—to look at potential sites (engineering requirements). We managed an Indigenous Impacts Assessment for the project. One site was eventually proposed (James Price Point). There would be enormous impact and it was important to do a range of studies to document and manage this impact. We conducted social and heritage cultural impact assessments, an archaeological study as well as an ethnobiology study (plants/animals/cultural significance). We looked at whether there was a Free Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) process, which entitles indigenous peoples to determine the outcome of decision-making that affects them. I managed teams in each area, working with traditional owners and specialist consultants, and I personally managed the social impact assessment team. This included a team of Aboriginal people, many in their early 20s (both male and female). The state government (WA) was the proponent who would negotiate leases for the companies to use the hub.
A State Agreement Act was signed between Western Australia, the KLC and traditional owners. This provided that no further LNG development was allowed along the Kimberley Coast and that there would be no industrial development using gas as its raw material. The project did not go ahead for commercial reasons, but some benefits were locked in for a time, for example, $2 million a year granted for 20 years for Woodside’s project, which was the first that was approved.
Problems have developed lately in a few projects because of impending mine closures, including the Argyle Diamond Mine in the East Kimberley, owned by Rio Tinto. Agreements created opportunities for good salaries and jobs for Aboriginal employees and these are soon to end. A lot of research still is needed in this area.
‘I am not interested in theoretical debates for their own sake. I’m only interested in them if they link up with implementation and practicality.’
What are you currently working on?
I have become more involved again with communities, working face to face, in two areas: negotiations on mining leases and Aboriginal trusts—getting maximum benefit possible from royalties from mining agreements.
These areas link into my research—negotiating is one thing; implementing is something else. Currently I’m working with a trust in western Cape York which receives royalties from a Rio Tinto bauxite mine. This mine was expected to last another 20 years, generating about $1 million a year in income. Mining is now expected to end in 2026, but to generate higher revenues during that time. I’m working with the trust on how to manage its income, to make sure that when mining ends benefits continue for the Aboriginal community. There is a research agreement between Griffith University and the trust, I attend board meetings; the board is unusual in that all six of its directors are women. We have developed an investment strategy with financial advisers who work well with Aboriginal people. A long-term investment fund has been set up—a capital fund (millions of dollars) whose interest will allow future operations.
These are the main areas—I’m still working in negotiations, but really focus more on implementation and making sure the benefits accrue underground.
I am not interested in theoretical debates for their own sake. I’m only interested in them if they link up with implementation and practicality.
What is your advice to HDR students and what’s the best approach to publishing?
Find an area that you’re passionate about, and that engages you intellectually—and stick to it!
Be selective. When someone comes up and says, ‘can you write a book chapter about this subject?’ say ‘yes I can write, but not about that, I want to do it about this’. Nine times out of 10 they will say yes—one thing HDRs feel is that they have no bargaining power. What the editor wants is something that is high quality that will engage readers and they are happy to negotiate. Decide on the central theme of your research and stick with that. Don’t do it if it doesn’t engage you at an emotional or an intellectual level.
That’s my advice: NEGOTIATE!
‘So, celebrate richness, diversity and resilience. But also recognise that many of the world’s Indigenous people are in a very powerless position.’
Finally, considering your background and interests, what does the International Day for the World’s Indigenous Peoples mean for you, and what should it mean for us?
It’s a recognition of the diversity and richness of Indigenous cultures around the world. Indigenous peoples speak the bulk of the world’s 7,000 languages. Governments and states have tried to wipe them out culturally—Australia’s policy for decades and decades was to wipe them out via cultural assimilation.
So, celebrate richness, diversity and resilience. But also recognise that many of the world’s Indigenous people are in a very powerless position…absolutely have their backs against the wall. If you’re Indigenous in Myanmar, if you’re in Brazil, your existence is still under threat. Every day.
The United Nations Day for Indigenous Peoples recognises that and provides an opportunity to reaffirm your commitment to supporting them. So that’s what it means to me. As a researcher, it’s an amazing opportunity to speak directly with these communities. You could read every document on the Queensland Government website on treaty, but this gives you little sense about what’s really going on. Engaging with Indigenous communities allows you to get this sense of what is happening on the ground, and at the same time to feed information from your research back to communities.
You can read more of Professor Ciaran O’Faircheallaigh’s work on Griffith Research Online.