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Emerging issues impacting First Nations in transmission infrastructure planning

A review of Federal and State government approaches to transmission reveals inconsistency and a lack of accountability for ensuring commitments to First Nations outcomes.

A new discussion paper ‘First Nations and the Clean Energy Transition: Emerging Issues in New Transmission Infrastructure’ by the First Nations Clean Energy Network reviews current energy system governance and transmission planning against First Nations outcomes including participation, co-design and co-ownership.

It finds that despite all government’s stated ambition for First Nations participation in Australia’s energy transition, there is presently a lack of commitment to embedding First Nations outcomes in transmission planning prior to decision-making.

The rules for the development of transmission infrastructure must incentivise First Nations outcomes, including genuine partnerships.

Yet, in all major Rewiring the Nation transmission project funding commitments to-date for transmission infrastructure (NSW $4.7billion, Victoria $2.25b, WA $3b), only the Western Australian announcement includes a reference to First Nations.

None of the funding announcements include any commitment, or legislative or policy framework, as to how First Nations outcomes are embedded in these significant investments of public money.

The reform of the regulatory framework that underpins our energy system is a key aspect of Australia’s energy transition to clean energy. 

Governments have choices available to them, and a strong guiding hand in how these choices are exercised and how the market operates. This includes ensuring consistency of rules and regulation and facilitating equitable outcomes for First Nations people. 

Being in charge of the rules and regulation of the energy system means that First Nations-related outcomes can be achieved both in the ways that projects are funded, and through linking social and economic outcomes for First Nations throughout those rules determining how the planning, investment, construction and operation of transmission (monopoly) assets occurs. 

This is not a new playing field. Other jurisdictions like Canada have achieved better equity in transmission outcomes for Indigenous people by having more explicit legislative targets.

For example, incentives could be developed in Australia that facilitate access to the concessional finance made available through the Clean Energy Finance Corporation’s (CEFC) administration of the Rewiring the Nation fund where projects embed First Nations outcomes into their design. Yet, while the CEFC has a First Nations Investment screening approach, there is no positive requirement or direction in the CEFC’s Investment Mandate to consider First Nations outcomes, or in its governing legislation (unlike the National Reconstruction Fund Corporation Act 2023 (Cth), and unlike the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility Investment Mandate).

Given the CEFC’s Investment Mandate provides it with direction on how it will invest budget allocations of $20.5 billion for Rewiring the Nation, the $1.3 billion Household Energy Upgrades Fund and the $500 million Powering Australia Technology Fund, this is a significant deficiency in the ability of the CEFC to positively contribute to First Nations outcomes which could be immediately changed.

The construction of new transmission infrastructure presents an opportunity to correct past dispossession and to facilitate First Nations’ self-determination and participation in clean energy infrastructure. 

Such First Nations outcomes could be realised, regardless of tenure arrangements, by facilitating equity ownership of transmission infrastructure by Traditional Owner groups and their representative organisations. 

In turn, ongoing social licence can be better guaranteed through such meaningful engagement, communication and planning with impacted communities, and through obtaining free, prior and informed consent (FPIC).

Providing incentives for First Nations outcomes will accelerate the clean energy transition by providing certainty, in turn reducing risk and cost. 

Discussions about First Nations involvement in new transmission infrastructure in Australia must move urgently beyond check-box-type consultation to rights-based conversations about genuine partnership and participation in all stages of the necessary transmission infrastructure build-out, including benefit sharing, partnerships, equity and ownership. 

There is no more room for delay.

The lack of progress in building the required transmission capacity to expand our energy system and decarbonise is a strategic challenge for Australia. 

Extending benefit sharing to First Nations people and communities via transmission infrastructure planning, investment and execution will ensure First Nations people are both participating in and benefiting from Australia’s energy transition. 

It will also mean projects are more likely to be developed at the pace required with risk minimised.

The transition to renewable energy can be fair and just, occur at the pace necessary and avoid lengthy disputes, and can deliver mutual cultural, social, economic and environmental benefits to people, and the country.


Authored by Kathryn Ridge, PhD Candidate, guest contributor with the First Nations Clean Energy Network








Thanks to Nikola Johnny Mirkovic for use of the photo.