The lone ranger

Wednesday, 01 February 2023

Damon Kitney

    Where is everybody? It’s the question former WA Treasurer turned director Ben Wyatt GAICD has been asking about the absence of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander colleagues since joining ASX boards in 2021. In a rare interview, he says boards will have to wrestle with much more prominent social licence issues in the decade to come.

    When Ben Wyatt GAICD announced his shock decision to quit politics in February 2020, it wasn’t long before the then Western Australia Treasurer received a phone call from Woodside Petroleum and Qantas chair, Richard Goyder AO FAICD.

    But Wyatt soon reversed his plans in order to help see WA through the all-enveloping COVID-19 pandemic. However, by November 2020, with a critical state budget under his belt, he announced he would not contest the March 2021 state election.

    “When he got serious about going again, I was a sounding board for him on the ins and outs of being a non-executive director versus taking an executive role,” says Goyder. “The more I got to know him, the sooner I was going to pop the question about him joining the Woodside board — subject to the views of my colleagues.”

    Wyatt — who had made history as the first First Nations Australian to hold the role of Treasurer at a state or federal level — again made history in June 2021, becoming the first First Nations board member of an ASX 200 company when he joined the board of Woodside. That same week, it was announced he would join the board of Rio Tinto, which was still managing the fallout from its destruction of a 46,000-year-old sacred site in Western Australia’s Pilbara region in May 2020. Wyatt took up the Rio directorship in September 2021.

    Alone in the boardroom

    What surprised Wyatt most about the early months of his non-executive director life was the loneliness. He repeatedly asked himself the provocative question: “So, where is everybody? Where are my Aboriginal colleagues?”

    Wyatt recalls that he had heard “every chair of every top 200 Australian listed company” say that more First Nations people were needed on boards.

    “But where are they?” he asks. “Even though it’s unusual having an Aboriginal person join the board of a large listed company, the concept itself is so well- ventilated. I was surprised that I had come and there was just no-one around. We’ve been talking about this for so long.”

    Wyatt believes there is now a solid group of First Nations people with the experience to add value to large public company boards — and not just in the executive ranks.

    “Over the past 20 years, you have seen the emergence of a cohort of Aboriginal people with significant commercial and governance experience, particularly in the governance of service providers,” he says. “That is not irrelevant to the experience and skill set of a commercial board. So there are people around. You don’t actually need affirmative action on this, because if you look, you will find them.”

    Wyatt would like all large companies providing a service to Australians to be thinking about how they might go about developing a First Nations person to join their board. “I’d like to think that five years from now, it will not be unusual,” he says.

    The son of two school teachers, Wyatt was born in Wewak, Papua New Guinea, and grew up in regional WA. He studied at Duntroon Military College in Canberra and the London School of Economics before working as a barrister and solicitor with Minter Ellison in Perth, and for the WA Director of Public Prosecutions. In 2006, he moved to politics, standing in the seat left vacant by the resignation of then Premier Geoff Gallop AC. A successful 15-year career in politics followed.

    But now, Australia’s newest listed First Nations director, the nephew of federal Aboriginal Affairs minister Ken Wyatt and son of the respected senior public servant, the late Cedric Wyatt, who died in 2014, is adamant his transition to the boardroom should not be defined by the colour of his skin.

    “You are not there because you are Aboriginal, you are there because your Aboriginality brings a perspective that is valued,” he says. “I don’t want to see chairs of boards appointing Aboriginal people as directors because they’ve got Aboriginal issues. They need to see value in the perspectives and experiences of Aboriginal people.”

    Richard Goyder acknowledges that Wyatt was something of a “captain’s pick” at Woodside, but reiterates that his background in treasury and finance makes him well qualified to assist the company with its growth agenda. “It goes back to the question of finding the right person, and if they are Indigenous, it is a big plus,” says Goyder. “At Woodside, we have lots of challenges and he will help us get through them. One of the really good things about Ben is that people know he is a pioneer, but he doesn’t play that card. [His heritage] doesn’t play into my relationship with Ben other than that he has a very good understanding of issues around Indigenous Australians.”

    Joining Rio Tinto

    Wyatt was Aboriginal affairs minister in the WA government when Rio Tinto blew up two ancient rock shelters at Juukan Gorge in the Pilbara. The incident triggered an international controversy and the eventual resignation of the CEO and chair. The destruction of the caves had been approved in a deal between Rio Tinto and the land’s traditional owners (the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura peoples) seven years earlier, before Wyatt became a minister. (A federal inquiry heard that Rio Tinto had not told the traditional owners there were other options aside from the destruction of the site.)

    Rio Tinto had also been severely criticised in a WA parliamentary inquiry for its workplace culture. Last year, the company commissioned an independent review by former Australian Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick AO, which found a systemic organisational culture of bullying, harassment and racism in the organisation.

    Wyatt was initially approached to join the Rio Tinto board by its former chair, Simon Thompson. He thought long and hard about being the director of a company that had been rocked to its core by such a scandal.

    “Once I accepted Woodside, I thought, well, this is the direction I’m going in now,” says Wyatt.

    “About the same time, the conversations with the now former chair of Rio began. I thought about it really deeply and took a fair bit of advice from some Aboriginal leaders whose opinions I value.”

    Goyder reveals he counselled Wyatt to take the role if he [Wyatt] felt the miner was committed to changing its approach to cultural heritage issues and restoring its reputation.

    “I encouraged Ben when Rio reached out to him,” says Goyder. “I told him to do his own due diligence to ensure they were doing it for the right reasons, and, of course, he did that.”

    When he was eventually appointed to the board, Wyatt said publicly that he was “deeply saddened and disappointed” by the events at Juukan Gorge. That didn’t appease the critics. Some believed that given his previous senior roles in government, he should have waited at least two years to join a big corporate board, especially Rio Tinto.

    Senior First Nations leader Pat Dodson, who sat on the Juukan Gorge Senate inquiry, said Wyatt’s appointment brought no credit to Rio Tinto and that it would do nothing to restore the firm’s reputation after the disaster. He claimed that First Nations people, especially those whose sacred sites are endangered by mining, would “rightly be sceptical” about the appointment.

    Wyatt says that he and Dodson have known each other for many years and that he was somewhat taken aback by the criticism.

    “We’ve talked at great length about the importance of Aboriginal voices and Aboriginal perspectives in corporate Australia, both in terms of the senior executive ranks and on boards,” says Wyatt. “So, I was surprised because it was entirely consistent with what he’d been demanding of corporate Australia for a long period of time. I get that Pat was angry — and probably still is angry — about what happened at Juukan, but my view is that you have got to get in and make sure Rio Tinto can regain a social licence that has some value. The rebuilding of that social licence is something I’m genuinely interested in.”

    Importance of social licence

    When in government Wyatt helped draft the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Bill 2020 (WA) designed to better protect significant Indigenous sites by compelling miners to consult early and meaningfully with traditional owners. But the bill has been criticised by some traditional owners, who say it doesn’t allow First Nations groups the final veto over what land is destroyed in a mining lease deal.

    Wyatt says companies — especially miners — need to develop a much stronger understanding of the First Nations decision-making process. He argues that what is important to a traditional owner group is often quite different to the commercial pressures of a publicly listed company and says First Nations governance practices can be employed by boards to balance ESG issues with shareholder returns. More broadly, he believes that in the wake of the Juukan Gorge disaster, it is possible to resolve the tensions between the agendas of mining companies and the preservation of First Nations culture and heritage across the nation.

    For a start, he believes that with the introduction of native title legislation decades ago, there has been a much better and more equitable negotiating position between mining companies and First Nations groups.

    “But there are also expectations now in corporate Australia around how you negotiate and partner with First Nations people,” says Wyatt. “It’s now really front and centre in what boards think about and what senior executives think about. There will always be tension, but it is resolvable. The Aboriginal partners need to see value in a partnership with a mining company, whether that is value in the terms of the dollar sense or the broader corporate culture. That is, Aboriginal people actually are going to be part of the decision-making process, they are actually going to be important in how a mine is designed, implemented and run.”

    He says Rio’s move in February this year to reach agreement with the Yinhawangka Aboriginal Corporation (YAC) — on a co-designed management plan to ensure the protection of significant social and cultural heritage values as part of the proposed development of the Western Range iron ore project in the Pilbara — showed what was possible.

    In November, Rio also signed an agreement with the Yindjibarndi people — who have long been engaged in a bitter legal battle with Andrew Forrest’s Fortescue Metals Group — to provide them with $20m a year for at least the next 10 years in return for granting Rio continued rail access across their traditional lands to deliver iron ore to the ports at Cape Lambert and Dampier.

    First Nations impact

    “The Aboriginal decision-making process values that kind of longer-term consideration of the impacts on country,” says Wyatt. “When you speak to asset managers, that is certainly something they are now factoring into how they manage those sites. It’s less transactional, basically.”

    Wyatt has long held the view that constitutional recognition is fundamentally important to First Nation peoples and believes corporate Australia has a role to come on board with the proposal to give First Nations Australians the right to be heard on legislation that affects them. This is despite some criticism, including from Northern Territory Senator Jacinta Price, who identifies as a Warlpiri- Celtic Australian, and calls the “voice to parliament” another “virtue-signalling... gravy train”.

    “As a company you are going to be required to declare a position,” says Wyatt. “That doesn’t need to be contentious. Because the point I keep making is, the idea that the federal parliament is required to speak to Aboriginal people about laws that might impact them — many state governments have been doing that for some time. The Commonwealth proposition itself isn’t that contentious.”

    As WA Treasurer in 2018, Wyatt successfully legislated for the introduction of procurement policies that supported First Nations employment. Prior to 2018, there was no policy in place to set targets to measure contracting outcomes for First Nations businesses in the state. The policies have since seen consistent year-on-year growth in WA government contracting with First Nations businesses, with the latest statistics showing the state procurement policy has exceeded targets for First Nations goods, services and work contracts, with more growth in its third year of operation.

    “They do work,” says Wyatt. “They have an impact and they give Aboriginal businesses confidence to expand. I’m a big fan of the procurement policies of governments and corporations. All boards have to be alert to how they are perceived in the local communities where their companies operate.”

    He is also supportive of Reconciliation Action Plans (RAPs), which since 2006 have enabled organisations to sustainably and strategically take meaningful action to advance reconciliation. Hundreds of Australian corporations, governments and community organisations have since released RAPs endorsed by Reconciliation Australia, the national organisation promoting reconciliation between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the broader community.

    “RAPs are important for companies to recognise how to employ more people and create more opportunities,” says Wyatt. “There is a strong maturity in RAPs now, which is to be applauded.”

    Risk and reputation

    Wyatt has long known and respected Gilbert+Tobin managing partner Danny Gilbert, the lawyer who last year authored a landmark independent review into retailing giant Woolworth’s flawed consultation process for a new big barn liquor store in Darwin.

    The review found that Woolworths prioritised commercial objectives over good relations with the community and was insensitive towards local First Nations people. Most significantly, it said Australia’s largest retailer did not meet the standards expected of a leading corporate citizen when it pursued plans to open the store in the face of overwhelming community opposition.

    “It’s an amazing thing for a company to do because it wasn’t a judicial thing or a parliamentary demand — Woolworths just did it,” says Wyatt. “But it highlights that the legitimacy of what you do in a company has a lot more challenges to it now. Companies have come a long way, but in the next decade, with more volatility globally and more government intervention, I suspect this social licence debate is going to be more intense on boards globally. Publicly listed companies have higher expectations on them. But you’ve got to be aware that the social licence expectation evolves really quickly. You’ve got to be trying to predict the solution and be ready for it, because it sometimes changes really fast.”

    This plays into Wyatt’s broader concerns about what he calls “growing hostility” in the Australian community towards traditional public company structures. “The complexity I am seeing in the boardroom is the rapidly changing investment environment,” he says.

    “What are appropriate ownership structures for that? For the first time, public company structures are under challenge — private equity now has the scale to challenge,” continues Wyatt. “There are other options for how organisations are owned. Whereas, I still think companies that are really important to communities should be publicly listed because of that level of transparency and public expectation, and the ability of people to also share in the ownership of those firms.”

    While he says some companies have been the authors of their own reputational demise, he worries that public scepticism towards the motives of corporations has grown more hostile in the past five years. “One of the biggest changes humankind has had to grapple with is moving to eradicate carbon from our industrial system,” says Wyatt.

    “It’s a huge change, and creates a lot of uncertainty and hostility. Perhaps as a result, people see corporations more as an avoider of local obligations. That’s a real danger because companies I’m involved with and others are really important for the success of local communities. Corporate Australia has to get back into the narrative around being part of why they are important to their local communities.”

    Wyatt says this also extends to business leaders being prepared to take public positions on important policy issues for the country. “There are significant business leaders around the nation who I would like to see more and more engaged in some of this public debate around all sorts of different things. Whether it’s around the global regulatory environment, climate change or whatever. You do want to hear the perspectives of those who invest capital and [hear] what is important to them as they invest that capital.”

    In the wake of the cyberattacks on Optus and Medibank, Wyatt is also concerned that the dynamic nature of the cybersecurity threat means that a comprehensive and long-term commitment to cyber resilience must be embedded within the culture of the nation’s boardrooms. “Cyber was a small part of my risk radar in government, but it is now large on my radar in the corporate world,” he says. “There is real risk you can have your corporate reputation ruined by a failure in a cyber event.”

    Network value

    Wyatt was respected during his time in government for being able to engage with all sides of politics in robust debates on policy issues, especially the then federal Coalition. He believes the skills he honed from countless hours of cabinet meetings can now be successfully applied to the corporate world.

    “When you sit in a cabinet room, with every decision you make you are on a high alert to the impacts across a community,” he says. “A good government has its eyes and ears open to the community through mechanisms for feedback, input and opinions. That is what politicians perhaps bring to boards, that perspective. They also bring the knowledge of how government operates.”

    Goyder says Wyatt’s political background has already added value to Woodside board discussions, especially his ability to think on his feet and have a good presence in the boardroom.

    While the power of the Goyder network effect in Perth would seem to have been at work in Wyatt’s new board roles, the Woodside chair plays down its influence. “Where it is helpful is in the mentoring, and potentially being able to connect to people — and I certainly do that with people [who] have value to add,” says Goyder.

    “I know the perception might be a bit different, but most board appointments now are through search firms. They come up with a list of candidates and recommend them to a board subcommittee, which recommends them to a board. The captain’s pick, or so-called ‘boys’ club’ appointments, are largely a thing of the past. You can put people into a process now, but do no more than that. Ben was obviously different. In the Woodside case, he was a captain’s pick because I thought he was exceptional. And he has proven to be so to anyone who has seen him in the role.”

    Wyatt, who is also on the boards of the Telethon Kids Institute in Perth and the West Coast Eagles football club, believes he is already making an impact in his new public company roles. “Rio is showing already the important signs about its own recovery in its relationship with traditional owners, its relationship with the community and Australia more broadly,” he says. “I’d like to think I’ve had an impact on that — and similarly with Woodside.”

    But after just 18 months of public company life, he is determined to keep his feet firmly on the ground. The week he was appointed to the Woodside and Rio Tinto boards, he had a telling conversation with his mother, Janine. He recalls it regularly.

    “My late father was a very high-profile Aboriginal person from WA, who was very engaged in Aboriginal and mainstream politics,” says Wyatt. “So, when it was announced that I was joining the boards, the immediate focus was on me being that first Aboriginal person, which was the same as when I became state treasurer. I said to Mum, ‘You know, Dad would have liked this, he would really have liked it a lot.’ He would have been very happy and proud of me, but he also would have told me, ‘Make sure you are there because you can do the job’.”

    Rio Tinto’s 2022 Communities and Social Performance Disclosure Report states that the AAG is focusing its attention on high-level policies. This includes the work of Rio’s Everyday Respect taskforce on workplace culture, as well as the company’s approach to protecting and managing cultural heritage.

    Yu told media in 2022 that the presence of Ben Wyatt on the board was “a good start” for First Nations representation.

    Wyatt says the next shift for companies is to understand that it’s not just a matter of a commercial relationship with Indigenous communities, it’s about a social licence to operate.

    “Mining companies tend to be at the frontline because what they do has an impact on land, country, an environmental impact and a social impact,” he says. “The Aboriginal decision-making process values that kind of longer- term consideration of impacts on country. [It’s] much better now, as a result of that.”

    Rebuilding trust

    Nearly two years on from the tragic breach of trust and values that led to the destruction of Juukan Gorge in May 2020, Rio Tinto has undertaken 11 community and social performance commitments to address the cultural and systemic failures identified in internal and external reviews.

    These commitments range from remedying and rebuilding its relationship with the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people, establishing a new communities and social performance model, and increasing First Nations leadership and cultural competency, to improving governance and planning systems and establishing an Australian advisory group. It has also committed to publicly sharing the feedback of traditional owner groups on its progress and their expectations.

    The Australian Advisory Group (AAG), set up in February 2022, provides guidance on current and emerging issues to Rio’s CEO Australia and the executive committee. Chaired by ANU vice- president (First Nations) and Yawuru man Professor Peter Yu, its members include Michelle Deshong, Nyadol Nyuon OAM, Yarlalu Thomas, Djawa Yunupingu, Ethics Alliance director Cris Parker and Shona Reid. The first AAG meeting was held in March 2022.


    Ben Wyatt at #AGS2023

    Ben Wyatt will speak at the Australian Governance Summit in Melbourne this year as part of a panel session on the topic, The Governance of Government. Register for a virtual ticket to AGS23.  

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