The Henry (Whalebone) Tax Review

How the Resources Tax will disadvantage Aboriginal Australia and what can be done about it.

For  Lew Nannup - master trainer, role model - who paved the way before anyone else

Henry Whalebone was one of the first graduates of Ngarda Civil and Mining's innovative Heavy Plant Operator training progam in 2008. Along with 28 others he and his brothers Michael and Richard participated in an accelerated training program for Aboriginal men and women.

In eight weeks they obtained a Heavy RigidDrivers licence as well as tickets to safely operate and be further trained in bobcat, bulldozer, excavator and grader operations. They also obtained a first aid certificate. 27 of the 28 participants went on to be offered jobs within the mining industry at a minimum of $70,000 per annum.

The Whalebone's small Aboriginal community at Marble Bar has been transformed by the incomes that the brothers have earned since 2008. About a quarter of a million dollars has been injected into their community which was totally dependent on welfare before they began their mining careers. As well others have been inspired to follow their example and they have become extra-ordinary role models for their peers. The credit for all of this belongs to Ngarda Civil and Mining and its then Chairman Barry Taylor.

But the question is how can Henry and his brothers continue to prosper? how can their achievements be emulated? how can we create more role models like the Whalebone brothers? more accelerated training programs for Aboriginal people entering the mining industry? and why has the Henry Tax Review and the Rudd government's reponse to it completely ignored all of these matters?

Henry and his brothers will benefit from the higher superannuation payment that the Rudd government has recommended which Ngarda will now make into his retirement savings from 2012. But the resources tax will clearly disadvantage his Marble Bar Community in that it will create a disincentive for mining companies to invest in projects in his region. It may also discourage mining companies from investing in training programs like the one Henry and his brothers participated in because it will make it much tighter for companies to invest in the relatively high costs of such training programs.

The initial Heavy Plant training program was an enormous success but it was never continued because of the enormous amount of red tape encountered when dealing with the notorious Commonwelath department DEEWR. as well as a string of Job Network and State government departments. The company simply decided to bear the costs itself and now runs its own mining academy in a joint venture with BHP at Yarrie which is relatively close to the Whalebone brothers community. This was a courageous decision by Ngarda.  With its heavy costs and no government support worth having,many of the original ambitions of the training program cannot be met. Now the resources tax will create another disincentive for mining companies to be involved in innovative training programs for Aboriginal people. Instead they will have to cool their heels in the usual array of ineffective TAFE modules which do not have a guaranteed job at the end of the program.

As it stands Ngarda's current training program involves on-site mining training with all trainees full accommodation, residential costs and all trainer and capital equipment and plant costs borne by the company. The resources tax will take funding that might have been invested in such training back through the innocuous filter of Canberra allocations, State government departments and miles of red tape. Ngarda was already a pariah in the field. No other company had gone so far and had such success with Aboriginal training. The original idea for Henry's program was to impart knowledge from mining elders in concert with encouragement from traditional Indigenous elders. It also employed a whatever it takes approach to employment. If it was necessary to spend a morning in a court overturning convictions that might keep a candidate from being employed in the mining industry then that was what was done. Many of these extra, beyond training efforts have had to be abandoned because of their high costs. Similarly  a Iife long training and coaching culture to help people who were given a job to stay in that job has also been largely abandoned. This was particularly important for the five women graduates as well as those with strong cultural commitments. But it was just too expensive for the companies to bear.

Beyond amending the resources tax what is needed is  a 100 per cent tax deduction for Aboriginal training costs. This is what will make Ngarda move back to its original program and encourage other mining Companies to follow Ngarda's lead.

Surely Ken Henry understood these issues, he had spend some time at the Cape YorkInstitute under the tutelage of Noel Pearson and beyond Ken Henry surely the Rudd government would have understood the collateral damage of the Resource Tax on Aboriginal Communities in remote areas that need, at the very least, a neutralising exemption for Aboriginal mining training.

The Resources Tax will actively disadvantage people like Henry Whalebone, his brothers and their families. Unlike mainstream Australians, who live predominantly in urban areas, 2/3 of Aboriginal Australians live in regional and remote communities likeMarble Bar. So while many urban based Aboriginal people will benefit from the resources tax, the majority, who are already very poorly served by basic public utilities and amenities, will lose out.

The Rudd government could fix this grave problem easily. It could provide mining companies with a 100% exemption for all the costs of Aboriginal employment and training in the mining industry. This would in one fell swoop reinfranchise Henry Whalebone and his brothers and make Ngarda's initiative a beacon for other reluctant miners who would rather pay for token basketball games and the like than seriously train Aboriginal workers or hire Aboriginal contractors.

Certainly this would be a very effective way of ensuring that mining companies based in Australia start to really invest in Australia's future.

Peter Botsman coordinated Ngarda Civil and Mining's original Heavy Plant Operator Training Program.