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Risks and opportunities for First Nations in Australia’s energy transition

Enabling and empowering First Nations to play a key and central role in Australia’s renewable energy transition goes beyond just social licence issues.

When it comes to land and waters and the tenure required to support renewable energy infrastructure, challenges abound to establish a policy and regulatory framework that doesn’t perpetuate the legal fiction of terra nullius (“land belonging to no one”).

With new regulatory and policy systems being designed by governments across Australia to facilitate a rapid transition to renewable energy, access to and engagement with First Nations Country and Sea Country for renewable energy infrastructure will be essential and inevitable.

The Jukaan Gorge tragedy has demonstrated to us all that these sorts of standards — whereby the law passively permits destruction, or leaves protection of cultural heritage and native title rights and interests to corporate social responsibility policies — as ineffective and wholly inappropriate.

Across the globe, First Nations are moving beyond minimal corporate social responsibility and tokenistic approaches to demand a new realism. In this new reality, First Nations are no longer just the passive hosts of projects or mere regulatory hurdles to clear.

The finance sector too is increasingly engaging with this new realism, and the foundations on which the myth of terra nullius was established are rapidly eroding.

A new paper by Jonathan Kneebone from the First Nations Clean Energy Network highlights two examples which demonstrate recent Government failure to fully engage with this new reality. 

If governments continue to perpetuate the fiction of terra nullius, Australia will miss opportunities for the development of a renewable energy sector that best ensures First Nations as active participants and supporters.

By including and embedding First Nations as partners in the energy system transition, and the right to free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) in policy, legislative, project approval and financing systems and processes, we can ensure the transition is fair and just for First Nations, can occur at the pace necessary, will avoid unnecessary legal contestation, and will deliver ongoing mutual cultural, social, economic and environmental benefits to people and country.


Read more of Jonathan's paper here.


This is an excerpt from his paper, which was first published in the Australian Environment Review.


Thanks to Izzy Gibson for the image!