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From ‘morning teas’ to speed dating: How clean energy collaboration with First Nations is evolving

Speakers at the first day of the First Nations Clean Energy Symposium in Adelaide today dived into a range of topics, from land tenure to negotiating with proponents, getting community-led projects up and running, to trends in global financial markets highlighting opportunities for First Nations in Australia.

The marked theme was collaboration, the sharing of knowledge and learnings, and the opportunity that presents itself as long as the reins are held, for First Nations, and for the whole country to reduce delay in the necessary energy transformation.

In addition to global sessions looking at how far other First Nations have come in their clean energy journey, the breakout sessions got down to business. Key First Nations leaders and associated experts and advisors described how clean energy partnerships on First Nations land and businesses across the supply chain can be set up for the economic and social benefit of First Nations communities.

“Despite having native title and all the levels of recognition you can get through a colonial system, the outcomes are still not certain for us”, CEO of Gunaikurnai Land and Waters Aboriginal Corporation Daniel Miller told the audience.

“To have support from government about what we’re bringing to the table is really important. 

"That recognition, it's not just the right thing to do, it’s necessary because we as Traditional Owners need to have the confidence to build community benefit models that work.”

Speakers agreed in every session that the offering of “morning tea” engagement, jobs and cultural awareness training is not even a negotiation point, because they should already be on the table as given.

“It starts with consent”, said another speaker Professor Robynne Quiggin, one of the First Nations Clean Energy Network’s twelve steering group members, and a member of the Net Zero Agency Advisory Board. 

“We will define what consent is - not the parties that come to us. No project just starts and finishes - FPIC needs to be applied at every stage of the process.

“There's legislation coming through to set up free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) more permanently. We’re not necessarily the key focus, but we are there.”

Speakers also talked about the need for massive upskilling, with Professor Peter Yu describing the scenario of owning the risk ourselves, “which means we’ve got to build the capability ourselves”.

Workshops at the Symposium looked at the many steps different First Nations groups are making to ensure they are at the table in major negotiations about clean energy projects being designed for their country.

One speaker said his group had clear expectations that had to be met by the many proponents knocking on their doors.  

“We told proponents to go away, and then set up a speed dating meeting structure and gave them all 15 minutes over two days, and then did it again on a third day. Each time we added more strategic direction from us. 

“It was time consuming, the same meeting ten times over, but it was our way of controlling the timing.”

This was a common theme arising from the significant amount of interest First Nations groups around the country are getting from the private sector, and that is, First Nations clearly and fiercely setting the agenda with companies, not the other way around.

First Nations know they have land and waters, and that it’s needed for this energy transition.

“And there's power that comes with that,” said one representative, “regardless of tenure arrangements”.

“We’re trying to split the conversation with proponents around protecting country -- compensation – and value-sharing -- a function of the project’s output.

“Companies not prioritising First Nations leadership are making poor and risky business decisions.”

Representatives from Barngarla Determination Aboriginal Corporation, Sonja Dare and Jason Bilney told the audience “we get the proponents to pay for our lawyers”. 

“Because they want to make deals on our Country, to get the best outcomes for communities on country, we get the same amount of lawyers that they have.

“We also make sure we invoice them for meeting with us, and that our lawyers draft the contracts, locking companies into agreements at a base rate with milestone payments at every stage. If we want changes, we can renegotiate. 

“We’re starting from the stronger position. And because they’re all competing for our land - they have to outbid each other. Sometimes you end up with a better deal.”

Jason suggested First Nations groups could review old agreements to see where points of leverage are.

“You can’t turn back time, but there may be technicalities that can be renegotiated in order to get a better agreement.

“Some companies won’t offer ownership, so do shares, and get the dividends of that project. We need to get in so that in the future we have a stake.”

Another First Nations group said they use contracts as a means to establish relationships with another party, finding legislation and policy hasn’t worked.

“We then build into contract arrangements that we have responsibilities for Country, like building in cultural knowledge clauses to the agreement making process, stipulating how cultural knowledge can and can’t be used, and separate from IP.

“We also assess whether a project is life-giving against our own values and our responsibility to land, and build ‘whole of country’ responsibility into agreements, not just site-specific to projects.”

All up, the outtake of Day One was that projects are de-risked when they have deep First Nations engagement, and where FPIC across the project lifecycle includes the power to say no.

“Real equity in our businesses going forward is critical,” says Joe Morrison from the Indigenous Land and Sea Council.

A sentiment shared by Karrina Nolan, co-Chair of the First Nations Clean Energy Network.

“It’s not just about clean energy, it’s about our futures and also about the nation’s future, because we can’t move forward without First Nations front and centre of Australia’s energy revolution.”