Investors have welcomed Rio Tinto president Simon Thompson’s decision to leave the company after accepting that he was “ultimately responsible” for the mining company’s decision to blow up the former rock shelters in Juukan Gorge in Pilbara.
Thompson will not run for re-election to the board next year in a decision following the September resignations of chief executive Jean-Sébastien Jacques, head of corporate relations Simone Niven and iron ore chief Chris Salisbury.
Separately, non-executive director Michael L’Estrange will step down after this year’s shareholders meeting. Rio Tinto said it needed to reduce its workload after “major surgery.”
L’Estrange wrote the internal review of the Juukan Gorge disaster, which was later criticized by Senator Pat Dodson as an “unsatisfactory job” that was “full of piss and corporate jargon.”
Ian Silk, CEO of Australia’s largest pension fund AustralianSuper, said the resignations of Thompson and L’Estrange gave Rio an opportunity to appoint more Australians to the board.
He said it was “appropriate and timely” for Thompson to help with the transition from Jaques to Jakob Stausholm, who was named CEO in December.
“However, as Mr. Thompson has said, he is ‘ultimately responsible’ for the failures that led to the Juukan Gorge incident and, as a result, his resignation is a fitting recognition of that failure in governance,” he said. Silk.
The group of activist shareholders at the Australasia Center for Corporate Responsibility welcomed the departures of Thompson and L’Estrange, but said other directors, including Sam Laidlaw, should also consider their positions.
Laidlaw, who chairs a compensation committee that approved payments for outgoing executives, and another senior independent director, Simon McKeon, will serve as joint chairs as Rio Tinto seeks a permanent replacement for Thompson.
“I am proud of Rio Tinto’s achievements in 2020, including our excellent response to the Covid-19 pandemic, a second year in a row without fatalities, significant progress with our climate change strategy and strong returns to shareholders,” said Thompson .
“However, these successes were overshadowed by the destruction of the Juukan Gorge rock shelters at the Brockman 4 operations in Australia and, as President, I am ultimately responsible for the failures that led to this tragic event.”
ACCR’s legal advisor, James Fitzgerald, said there was “no realistic prospect of Rio Tinto rebuilding its relationships and reputation while those responsible for the degradation of its culture remained on its board.”
“The departure of Thompson and L’Estrange suggests that Rio Tinto is also very aware of this.
“News of his departure is welcome, but other directors such as Sam Laidlaw must reflect on whether continuing as directors is in the interest of the company and its shareholders.”
National Native Title Council CEO Jamie Lowe said Rio’s election of a new president would be “critical” in driving cultural change at the company.
He said he disagreed with Thompson when he said Rio had “taken decisive action” to address the failures at the company that led to the Juukan Gorge debacle.
“We have seen evidence, but it has been minimal,” he told ABC TV. “I think they tried to cover it up with the internal review.”
Labor Indigenous Affairs spokeswoman Linda Burney said Thompson’s recognition that the destruction of the Juukan Gorge was “a source of personal sadness and deep regret” was “important.”
“I sincerely hope that this recognition is one more step towards a substantive cultural change, not only within Rio Tinto, but in the mining sector as a whole, which sees companies working more closely and constructively with traditional owners to ensure may incidents like this never happen again. “
L’Estrange’s review found that Rio received four separate reports detailing the importance of the Juukan Gorge rock shelters to the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) peoples in the years between government approval to destroy the site in 2013. and the detonation of the explosion last May.
They included: a 2013 ethnographic survey indicating that the site was “of great importance to Puutu Kunti Kurrama, in the old days and still today”; a 2014 preliminary report from an archaeological study, paid for by Rio, detailing signs of continuous occupation for 46,000 years, including a 4,000-year-old belt of hair that DNA testing revealed showed a direct genetic link to the PKKP living today ; the final 2018 report of that archaeological study which said the site has “the amazing potential to radically change our understanding of earlier human behavior in Australia”; and an ethnographic survey in 2020 highlighting the importance of the site to the PKKP.
In a Senate investigation last year, Rio Tinto’s vice president of corporate relations in Australia, Brad Haynes, said that no one on the senior executive team had read any of those reports before May 2020 “because we were always operating on the basis of that there was consent “.
At the same hearing, Jacques said that Rio had not told the PKKP that it had considered and rejected options to expand the mine that would have left the sacred sites intact.
The destruction of the site was outlined in a lengthy and complicated partnership agreement in 2011. Once permission to destroy the site was granted under WA’s outdated Aboriginal heritage laws, it was removed as a roadblock from Rio’s operational maps.
The evidence presented to the Senate investigation showed that the PKKP repeatedly expressed its concerns directly to the company. The association agreement contained non-disparaging clauses that prevented the PKKP from publicly expressing its concerns about the site.
Minutes of meetings held by Rio in the days leading up to the site’s destruction show that the company hired lawyers for a possible court order against the PKKP in case the gag clause was breached. The PKKP issued a press release the day after the sites were destroyed.
The PKKP and Indian Affairs Minister Ken Wyatt declined to comment on Thompson’s resignation.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism