Autonomy through Mining Wealth or Government Dependency: Operations of the Neoliberal State

From the Series: The Pilbara Crisis: Resource Frontiers in Western Australia

Photo by David Caloren, licensed under CC BY NC.

Large-scale, open-cut iron ore mining in the Pilbara region of Western Australia is well established, as are the Aboriginal organizations that have been developed to manage this resource wealth. The Aboriginal organization that I have been following over the years—the Gumala Aboriginal Corporation (GAC) and its offshoots, Gumala Investments (GIPL) and Gumala Enterprises (GEPL)—have gone through many iterations since they were established in 1998. The GAC was originally developed under the Rio Tinto Yandi Land Use Agreement in order to administer a so-called community development package.

The Aboriginal native title holders in the region of the Yandi mine, as the beneficiaries of the GAC—the Banyjima, Innawonga and Nyiyiparli language groups—have grown from approximately 300 people in 1998 to over 1,200 in 2015. As this catchment of beneficiaries has grown, the benefits of the community development package have also increased substantially, particularly during the “ramp up” in production in the early 2000s. The GAC is now one of the largest Aboriginal corporations in Australia and the largest in Western Australia. According to a 2014 video, they distributed over $40 million in direct grants to their members over the previous four years.

Beneficiaries who serve on the various boards of the GAC, GIPL, and GEPL have become adept at navigating the language of the transnational corporate world. Aboriginal people in the Hamersley Ranges region of the Pilbara cannot escape from industry environmentally, economically, socially, or politically. With over ten open-cut mines operating in this region alone, many board members of the GAC are also party to other land-use agreements. Indeed, some individuals sit on such a range of committees and boards that their participation is a full-time occupation.

Over time, the Member Services arm of Gumala has stepped in to play the role of service provider to the organization’s beneficiaries. Indeed, the services being provided have diversified to include building and resourcing early childhood centers in, as well as supporting educational assistance programs that partially cover the cost of school fees, books, stationery, uniforms, and school lunches.

An early focus of Member Services was homeland infrastructure development, which initially included road improvements, tractors, sheds, medical facilities, and a community bus. One of the four homelands, which are decentralized settlements of between eight and fifty residents, received funding to establish essential services. Today, an ongoing home renovation and maintenance project operates across all four homelands and six larger communities where Gumala beneficiaries reside. Each homeland and community also receives support for cultural activities that take place at nearby lore grounds.

Elsewhere, I have written about the worry that the money being spent by the GAC on essential services could have been spent on fostering small-scale business (Holcombe 2009). If mining monies are used to pay for basic social services that are citizenship rights, then a significant economic asset cannot be used to overcome economic disadvantage. Homeland infrastructure development and funding for basic education are, indeed, cases of substitution funding. In the early 2000s, there was significant funding channeled into small business, and so this substitution appeared inconsequential. With the significant decline in profits over the last few years, however, concerns about this pattern have grown. As the CEO of the GAC recently explained: “We have to cut programs. . . . Most members would agree that if they had to choose between cutting funds to education or business development, they would choose business development. . . . We regret the fact that . . . until the iron ore price recovers, we won’t be able to provide business development assistance.”

The ideology of market-driven social services is nothing new on the resource frontier of the Pilbara region. The state government has always been a marginal presence, leaving the mining industry to develop most of the towns, roads, housing, and infrastructure, including one of the largest privately owned railways in the world. Unlike other regions or states without mining, the region cannot bemoan the state’s retreat. When the conservative federal government recently announced its plans to withdraw funding from remote communities and homelands in Western Australia, they underscored this market ideology. The genealogy of this neoliberal discourse can be traced to the viability debate prominent in public discourse since at least 2005, wherein homelands and small communities were labeled “cultural museums” populated by residents leading “recreational lifestyles” (Johns 2009, 22).

The correlation between the economic autonomy that mining monies provide and the reduced risk of community closure is clear. Yet it is only by direct engagement with the mining economy that members of the Banyjima, Innawonga and Nyiyiparli language groups have managed to gain some independence from the policy whims of government. Meanwhile, not all Aboriginal groups have had access to this mainstream market economy. The uneven spread of mining largesse is based on the chance distribution of minerals below the surface of a group’s country. Chance has thus established two classes of Aboriginal people in Western Australia: those who have access to the mining economy and can, to a significant extent, be self-sustaining, and those who are at the mercy of the government.

The whims of the global economy have to care for the remote dwelling Aboriginal population, and while the largesse is there from the market, those encompassed by the GAC are the relatively privileged. The market takes the benefactor role via the corporate social responsibility of the transnationals, in this case Rio Tinto. For the sake of the GAC beneficiaries one can only hope that the organization's investment arm, GIPL, is making economic decisions that are sustaining beyond the mine life.


Holcombe, Sarah. 2009. “Indigenous Entrepreneurialism in the Context of Mining Land Use Agreements.” In Culture, Power, and Economy: Indigenous Australians and Mining, edited by Jon Altman and David Martin, 149–70. Canberra: Australia National University E Press.

Johns, Gary. 2009. “No Job No House: An Economically Strategic Approach to Remote Aboriginal Housing.” Canberra: Menzies Research Centre.