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Adjournment speech: A tribute to Neville 'Chappy' Williams

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 24 Jun 2014

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (21:47): I would like to move on to another issue. I would like to take this opportunity in the Australian Senate to pay tribute to Neville 'Chappy' Williams, an Aboriginal elder from western New South Wales. He has made an enormous contribution to Australia. As a former bantamweight boxer, Chappy knows a thing or two about a tough fight. After knocking out the official Australian bantamweight contender, Billy Booth, at the Golden Gloves in New South Wales, he nearly made it to the Tokyo Olympics in 1964. In the end he was not able to travel to Japan, because he was too poor to go, and he did not have the support. 

Chappy is an elder of the Wiradjuri people and traditional owner of Lake Cowal and its surrounding land. This is where he has been involved in another tenacious battle, this time against Canadian mining conglomerate Barrick Gold. This is a campaign that has gone on for over a decade. It is in this capacity that I have met Chappy on a number of occasions. It was in 2001 when I first met him, as a Greens New South Wales MP. I remember him talking about mining being the 'death of our dreaming; the death of our law' as he showed me around Lake Cowal during one of my visits to the region to discuss the impacts of mining with him and other representatives of his community. 

Chappy's experience with mining operations in his country was not the first time he had seen outsiders impose their values on his community. He spoke very movingly about his early memories of hiding in the long grass when welfare officers came to Lake Cowal. As in other parts of Australia, in this area children were forcibly removed from their families. Chappy felt the pain of the stolen generation and as he relayed the stories you could feel that pain. 

Lake Cowal is the largest inland lake in New South Wales and an important wetland for birds who come from all over the world to breed. It is very much valued by the locals. It is also a site of special religious significance for the Wiradjuri people and part of their ancient homeland. You might think that its combined ecological and cultural value would safeguard it from the environmental and social dislocation associated with open-cast mining that Barrick Gold wanted to bring to this area, but you would be wrong. This is what Chappy has devoted so much of his life to stopping and now to dealing with. He has worked so hard to protect this area. For much of the time he has been up against Barrick Gold, a company that describes itself as a disciplined mining multinational. That is its own language: 'disciplined'. This company appears, however, to run rings around state and federal regulators. Maybe that is what they mean by 'disciplined'. 

Australia is a signatory to the Ramsar Convention, a global agreement to protect wetlands. Chappy and his colleagues have worked to have the Ramsar Convention respected in Lake Cowal—something which Barrick Gold and the New South Wales government have failed to do. But the 227 species of bird that would be at risk from any cyanide spill at the Barrick Gold mine at Lake Cowal count for little against the profits to be made by a Canadian mining baron. Those are not just my words. From what we have heard about Chappy's meeting with the CEO of Barrick Gold, we understand why those comments are made. 

The company itself is happy to advertise its environmental and social credentials. It states: 

Our success depends on our ability to develop our resources responsibly and share the benefits of our business with local communities, governments and other stakeholders. 

Certainly Chappy said to me many times that they did not see any of this sharing. When pressed on the practical application of that statement, this company is evasive. That is what Chappy has found so frustrating. With members of his community and supporters Chappy has taken on this mining company. This is an inspiring story that takes us from western New South Wales to Canada and beyond. 

In 2007 Chappy Williams travelled to Canada for the company's annual general meeting. His intention was to confront Barrick Gold owners and its CEO, Peter Munk. Viewing the YouTube of this work is an instructive illustration of what local communities are up against. You could not imagine two worlds further apart than when you watch what goes on at one of these AGMs compared to a visit to the Aboriginal communities around Lake Cowal. Chappy, a quietly-spoken man, puts his case across simply and succinctly. The response comes straight from the corporate playbook: first, the pleading of ignorance—'I'm only the CEO; I can't possibly know what my company actually does' is a summary of the defence. Peter Munk's actual words were: 'I don't have the knowledge to debate.' Then, 'We're a business; what did you expect?' which is coupled with the 'Don't blame us—we only get away with whatever the government allows us to do.' But then, as the Barrick Gold PR man said: 'We are in for profit, as you know, we are a free enterprise, so please, it's the state authorities that are there to protect you.' In that sentence the corporate responsibility line is exposed for the spin that it is—passing the buck, pushing it back onto the state government—a government that we know is so weak when it comes to dealing with mining companies and enforcing decent standards. 

Undeterred, a year after that meeting with the CEO, Chappy took his people's fight to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. That was in 2008. The permanent forum is an interesting body. It was established by the United Nations in response to demands from Indigenous peoples for a high-level permanent body at the UN. The forum provides an opportunity for the world's Indigenous peoples to speak out against the multiple injustices they face and to seek restitution. The Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was 25 years in the making, bringing Indigenous peoples' organisations and governments together to draw up concrete rights that could be enforced. When it was put to the UN General Assembly in 2007, 144 countries voted in favour, with only four voting against it. Shamefully, Australia was one of those four. Since then a statement has been issued by the Australian government on these issues, and it does go some way to rectifying that quite shameful position when we stood against those 144 countries. 

I remember when I was at Lake Cowal Chappy talked to me about the importance of this development at the United Nations, and he was inspired to take the battle of his people at Lake Cowal to this international forum. In 2008 he said: 

There is a world of difference between the "free, prior and informed consultation" with communities affected by mining advocated by the World Bank and the "free, prior and informed consent" in the Declaration. Communities are poorly protected by Australian law. 

Chappy also said: 

As Aboriginal People we have absolutely no power within the colonial legal system to protect [Mother Earth]. We have no right of veto. There is no recognised Aboriginal sovereignty over natural resources. Under the Native Title Act, Traditional Owners can only agree to benefit from the desecration and destruction of our Mother. This is an abuse of our human rights and many of the rights in the Declaration. 

That was the theme of many of the speeches that Chappy has given from Lake Cowal to Sydney to Canada and to New York. 

Chappy Williams has really been in a David versus Goliath campaign and this has continued, despite Barrick Gold being granted permission to extend the lifetime of the mine to 2024. Chappy describes it as his 'sacred duty to protect Lake Cowal and our ancient cultural heritage'. He says: 'We will never give up. I will fight to the bitter end.' I must say that having been to Lake Cowal, having met with Chappy many times, having heard the stories and having heard him speaking at large and small events, I find it moving, but also very sad, because Barrick Gold at the moment does have the upper hand. Chappy gives beautiful poetic speeches, which are very moving, but it is disturbing when you hear him speak about the destruction of Aboriginal artefacts and about the challenges that he sees when it comes to the freedom of his religion and how he feels the cultural connection with his country is being denied. I do thank Chappy for the enormous work he has done for his communities and all of us—sharing those experiences for the natural environment around Lake Cowal and the lessons we can learn from the way he undertakes his work in a very peaceful and respectful and yet very strong way. 


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