The Bribery Prevention Network: fighting corruption in Australian mining

Scarlett Evans 7 January 2021 (Last Updated January 6th, 2021 17:37)

A new Bribery Prevention Network, including key representatives of the mining industry BHP and the Australia-Africa Minerals & Energy Group, has been established in Australia to provide a hub supporting businesses in countering bribery and corruption. We find out how corruption affects the Australian mining industry, and how changes can be made to ensure operations at home, as well as abroad, are ethical and sustainable.

The Bribery Prevention Network: fighting corruption in Australian mining
“Looking at corruption prevention, we had to determine what sort of information people needed and how to bring it all together,” said William Witham. Credit: Pxhere

A declining public tolerance for malpractice is spreading across industries, driving stakeholder demands and steering business models towards the pursuit of achieving a more environmentally and socially responsible world. The new Bribery Prevention Network (BPN), hosted by Global Compact Network Australia, is one of the most recent expressions of this, established as an online hub collating concise information on how to ensure best practice is maintained in mining operations. The network is pitched as offering companies’ guidance for not only their domestic projects, but also to help their navigation of international markets that may hold societal and cultural expectations that oppose those at home. 

Gathering relevant resources into one, accessible, location is a significant step in opening up transparency and communication on the matter of corruption in mining – in particular shining a spotlight on the areas for improvement on our own doorsteps. However it is very much a preliminary step in actually ensuring ethical practice is maintained and there are legislative and company changes that are also needed for the concept to land. 

A social network

AAMEG CEO William Witham says that while the BPN is currently a solely online initiative, the hope is that it will expand to the physical – ultimately offering seminars and workshops to stimulate a more hands-on kind of learning. 

“We’re looking to build on what we have, growing the network and repository of knowledge to include person-to-person activities”, he says. “I think people need some concrete evidence, and a concrete kitbag, before they embark on overseas operations, so they can know firstly whether they want to go there, and secondly how to operate in those countries if they do go.”

“We’re still trying to figure out what phase two is going to look like, but word of mouth is very important,” he adds. “Even though the website is very professional, we need to reach people on a more personal level. It has to ultimately be a network of people, not just a website.”

The motivation behind the BPN came from a number of catalysts, such as pressure from the OECD for Australia to do more on foreign bribery prevention and a general recognition that education on industry corruption was needed.

“When I started in the industry around three years ago, I certainly felt there was not a lot of education going on out there,” says Witham. “Looking at corruption prevention, we had to determine what sort of information people needed and how to bring it all together. We want to get experience from people who have already been there, made the mistakes, and learned the hard way. Having this knowledge is especially important at the moment, when Western countries have close to a zero tolerance towards any form of corruption and bribery.”

The ultimate aim is to have the ethos of ethical practice integrated into a company’s day-to-day operations, and having resources out there to guide business practice is a solid aspect of this. But alone, it will likely not be enough. 

An Australian focus

An understanding of how corruption affects operations at home and abroad is necessary before the issue can be effectively targeted. While it is easy to believe that the problem predominantly affects overseas operations – with much media attention paid to instances of child labour and environmentally unsound practice in remoter districts of the world – it is as present in Australia as elsewhere.

In 2017, Transparency International Australia (TIA) conducted a review of mining corruption in the states of Queensland and Western Australia, seeking to find the areas where change was most needed. Speaking with Hannah Clua-Saunders, National Project Coordinator of TIA’s Accountable Mining program, she says that significant amounts of change are required at a domestic level before we can truly focus on international issues. 

“The BPN is a concrete example of where we can achieve change but it is not an end in itself,” she says. “We need to see Australian companies strengthening their anti-corruption policies and procedures and being advocates for reducing corruption risks in Australia and overseas.”

A key risk that the group identified was inadequate due diligence investigation into the character and integrity of applicants for mining approvals, including a lack of ‘investigation of beneficial ownership’. The research also emphasised the need for public interest and input to ensure transparency is maintained, as well as a ‘robust media’ to deter corruption and increase accountability.

Now the current gaps in the industry have been identified, Clua-Saunders says that legislative and systemic changes are required. 

The report was the starting point on that so now we have evidence of what the risks of corruption are,” she says. “Now we need to work collaboratively (government, industry, civil society, academia, and communities) to find some powerful solutions, and drill down to the points within the approval system where we can actually stop corruption from getting a foothold.”

The public’s role

A major area identified for change is increasing the dialogue between the public, mining companies, and government. 

There can often be limited meaningful community engagement in mining approval processes – this can happen both in Australia and also when Australian listed companies are operating overseas,” says Clua-Saunders. There are a lot of questions in Australia at the moment around what is meaningful community consultation. For example, at what point within a project should the public be made aware of it? How and who should be engaged and to what end?” 

“It is important that the Australian public understands how our natural resources are governed,” she adds, “what benefits should be flowing on to the public from mining, and to be able to hold governments to account to govern in the public interest.”

Without an awareness of social perception, mistakes can be made, especially with the growing public pressure for environmentally and culturally sound practices. A recent example where this has fallen short is the blasting of Jukkan Gorge in the Pilbara, where the tide of public opinion turned vehemently against Rio Tinto. The issue also highlighted the need for more transparency around native title parties, with the current lack of due diligence afforded to indigenous communities meaning that applications for mining projects in these areas are rarely – if ever- denied.

Addressing the problems at home as well as abroad are integral to the pursuit of a morally sound industry, with legislative reform, education, and public input all being pieces in the jigsaw. While we may be waiting some time for systemic change, the BPN’s establishment opens the door for these conversations to happen more freely.

“I think the BPN is a really good step,” says Clua-Saunders. “The aim of it is to provide businesses, particularly small–medium sized businesses with the tools and resources they need to prevent corruption. There are a number of legislative changes we need in Australia to reduce corruption, but legislative reform is a slow process. The BPN recognises that in the absence of legislative reform, government, industry, and civil society can still progress other mechanisms to strengthen anti-bribery and corruption measures.”