In the wake of Adam Goodes’s retirement, AFL chief executive officer, Gillon McLachlan, buoyantly pledged to “fight all forms of racism and discrimination on and off the field”. The validity of McLachlan’s defiant statement is again under intense scrutiny as the AFL’s corporate partnership with Rio Tinto remains firmly intact.
It remains despite the company’s heinous conduct in obliterating a 46,000-year-old heritage listed site that is of innumerable significance to not only the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura traditional owners, but all of humankind. Yet the AFL sees nothing wrong, with administrators neglecting the opportunity to disclose details of the multi-year deal, and maintaining continuity with the relationship.
As the AFL idles in complicity, other companies and peak bodies have not minced their words or compromised their promises and mission statements.
Related: The fight over the Aboriginal flag
Reconciliation Australia rightfully revoked its endorsement of Rio Tinto as an Elevate RAP (Reconciliation Action Plan) organisation and suspended the company from the RAP program. Most recently, the $52bn superannuation behemoth, Hesta, called for an independent review on all of Rio’s agreements with traditional owners, citing that “a change in the ranks won’t mitigate this risk for [their] investors” and that an “independent inquiry needs to investigate all of Rio’s agreements”.
Whilst some institutions have acted immediately and others as more information comes to light, the AFL’s administrators have continued to put the games finances first and in the process of doing so, further cemented the code’s existing precedent of granting influential figures and corporate partners impunity, regardless of their moral, ethical and legal violations.
In June, almost a month after the iron ore magnate desecrated the Juukan Caves, leaked audio from an internal staff meeting captured a damning admission from Rio Tinto’s chief executive, Chris Salisbury, who admitted that the company was not apologetic for the act itself, but apologetic for the distress it caused.
The ongoing federal parliamentary inquiry, which commenced on 6 August, has subsequently unearthed a series of findings that only exacerbate Rio Tinto’s brazen malfeasance.
Thus far, the inquiry has bore witness to Rio Tinto’s directors’ attempts to distance themselves from responsibility, despite their own internal review concluding that they could have acted multiple times to stop the blast from going ahead, but, instead chose to line up their lawyers and public relations team to deal with the fallout that would inevitably follow.
The inquiry has found the 7,000 culturally significant artefacts that were extracted from the Juukan Gorge caves – including stone, wooden tools and a plait of hair that establishes evidence of human habitation dating back 46,00 years – are being stored in old shipping containers. The unconscionable comparison is storing mummified pharaohs from the Egyptian pyramids in rubbish bins.
The public has also learned of the gag clauses that have been put in place to stop traditional owners from speaking about the contents of the commercial agreements and their ongoing concerns for protecting their sacred sites. On top of these silencing clauses, traditional owners also have to seek permission from companies to lodge additional paperwork to protect their cultural heritage, with companies having the right of refusal and authority to dismiss these pleas.
Although the inquiry still has plenty of ground to cover, including the parliamentary commission taking an aerial tour of the Juukan Gorge and hearing the in-person testimonies from the PKKP traditional owners, it is evident that current legislation empowers Rio Tinto to abuse, coerce and manipulate traditional owners into an arrangement and not a dignified and equitable agreement.
It is not the first time in 2020 that the AFL’s relationship with Rio Tinto has been placed under intense scrutiny. The company was given the opportunity to ingratiate itself with the Australian public through sponsoring the State of Origin For Bushfire Relief game in February of this year.
It is a satirical headline that you would expect from a parody social media account when you consider the mining and resources industry is responsible for up to 7% of global greenhouse-gas emissions and one of the worst contributors to the climate catastrophe that transformed our continent into a crazed inferno last summer.
And just recently, McLachlan and the AFL’s clubs stood in solidarity with the Free The Flag campaign throughout the league’s 16th annual Indigenous round. The league was applauded for their stance, and rightly so. However the juxtaposition of their response to Rio Tinto’s environmental terrorism suggests that the administration is happy to pick the low hanging fruit and provide performative actions as long as it does not effect its balance sheets.
Whilst companies, the broader populace and even governments to a degree, draw a line in the sand, the AFL has yet to come out from behind what can only be described as a phantasm veneer.
If McLachlan truly does stand against “fighting all forms of racism and discrimination on and off the field” then corporate partnerships with mining magnates must be revoked and the code’s revenue model adjusted so sustained economic growth can be achieved without plummeting Aboriginal people into further despair.