3 Dirt Cheap 30 Years On; Uranium Mining on Aboriginal Territory in Kakadu

Dirt Cheap 30 Years on

Dirt Cheap 30 years on: the story of uranium mining in Kakadu

Effective Cultural Capabilities and Maintaining a Culturally Safe Space

By Kate Murphy, Chloe Ledger Nicole Green


  1.                 Introduction

Cultural capability is paramount in developing equitable, safe and culturally diverse learning and working environments. Cultural capability needs to be continually addressed and appropriately fostered to become ingrained in professional and academic cultures.

1.1 Background

This report will discuss the topics of cultural capabilities and the maintenance of culturally safe spaces, using examples from two culturally important meetings held at Oenpelli, Northern Territory, in the late 1970’s, and included in the film ‘Dirt cheap 30 years on: The story of uranium mining in Kakadu’ (Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation [GAC], 2013).  The overarching theme of cultural capability can be expressed in ensuring cultural safety (Bin-Sallik, 2003) and safe spaces (Harless, 2018), and by working towards generative interactions (Bernstein et al., 2019). The use of cultural capabilities is fundamentally essential in ensuring equitable and safe learning and working spaces for all. Safe spaces are a place where people are comfortable in expressing their opinion free of judgement or humiliation (Harless, 2018) and feel that what their opinion and standing will be treated equally with others.

1.2 Aim

This report will firstly provide a summary of the interactions that took place over these two meetings, a description and analysis of the culturally significant behaviours, and then make recommendations that could be implemented to create cultural safety and safe spaces. Recommendations will be made on how cultural capabilities could be applied to make improvements that would help to achieve culturally safe (Bin-Sallik, 2003) and equitable interaction for all involved. With hope, these recommendations will produce positive outcomes for future cross-cultural interactions through the creation of generative interactions (Bernstein et al., 2019).

1.3 Scope

The interactions analysed are between three key stakeholders: the Mirrar people (Traditional Owners of Kakadu), the Northern Land Council (NLC), and representing the Commonwealth Government (in partnership with the mining company), Minister Ian Viner.  Concepts such as Bias (Kandola, 2013), Power relations (Cummins, 2009), Privilege (McIntosh, 1988), Cultural border crossings (Aikenhead, 1996), Equitable relationships (Gorski, 2014) and Diversity and Inclusivity (Bali, 2016) will be used to analyse this interaction.


  1. Summary and Observations

2.1 Summary

The first meeting included representatives from the Mirrar people, and members of the NLC, with the main speaker being Galarrwuy Yunupingu (NLC Chairperson). Conversation with Oenpelli Councillor, Rachel Maralngurra, is included in the observations and analysis.  This meeting was to discuss the Mirrar people’s disapproval of the Ranger uranium mine agreement, and the fact that they needed more time. The NLC chairperson informed them that although discussion was required by law, the mine could still go ahead without their approval (GAC, 2013).

Three weeks later another meeting was held with Ian Viner who was determined to see the uranium mining go ahead at Jabiru.  Representatives of the NLC, and a small number of Traditional Owners also attended (the Oenpelli Council Chairman refused to leave his car). Ian Viner advised that the Australian Government had approved the mine as they believed the agreement was fair.  The NLC accepted the agreement, most likely under pressure, and afterwards the lawyers gave Toby Gangale (Traditional Owner) who had said ‘no’ to the agreement and some of the Mirrar people gifts of pens (GAC, 2013). During the meetings, the Mirarr people make it clear they do not want mining to happen on their land. However, their opposition is ignored, and as a result of the pressure placed on the NLC the agreement is signed to commence mining.

2.2 Observations

The below table sets out observations made while watching the interactions over the two meetings at Oenpelli.  Observations of cultural safety issues and cultural capability are highlighted referencing communications across the three stakeholders.


Table 1 Observation of Interactions

Interaction Signs of Bias Diversity & Inclusion Power Relations & Cultural Border Crossings Privilege & Generative Interactions

Traditional Owners during 1st meeting


-Mirrar people discuss negative impacts a new town would bring

Minister points his finger and uses strong hand gestures during the interaction towards the Mirarr people.

Mirarr people have heads hung and appear saddened.

Clear physical separation of stakeholder groups. -Mirrar people believe chairperson not on their side

-Seating positions

Ian Viner only participant to speak during the interaction.


NLC Chairperson warning in 1st meeting


-It was mentioned that the chairperson may have felt biased as he had lost his own lands

NLC Chairperson warns that the government can sign the agreement even if Mirarr people oppose.

He says that they (the Aboriginal people) will always be objects to be pushed around.

-Listening to Mirrar people’s side but not taking that into account -Chairperson advising there is no choice but to sign

Ian Viner’s comments during 2nd meeting


Minister states that the government knows that the Mirarr people do not want mining to go ahead, but he has had to listen to the voice of not only the Aboriginal people but the whole of Australia. -Mirrar people seem disengaged, shown in body language -Ian Viner advising the mine is going ahead -Ian’s comments that the discussion has been going on for 6 years

Events after the 2nd meeting



-Ian tells Toby he can show him the park -Ian speaks to the Mirrar people about their gifts of pens

(Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation, 2013).

  1. Analysis

3.1 Signs of Bias

Bias is holding a preconceived idea or opinion about someone or something. Kandola (2013) states three ways of holding bias, noticing difference, experience, expectation and priming, and finally, the way we form groups.

There were signs of bias evident in the discussion around the proposed Ranger uranium mine agreement during the first meeting at Oenpelli, and the scene could not be described as a culturally safe space.  Rachel Maralngurra is interviewed and shows fear that if the agreement goes ahead the new town and people arriving would bring drinking problems and destruction of their sacred places.  There was also talk amongst the Traditional Owners that the NLC Chairperson may have been biased in his support of the agreement, due to his previous loss of country (GAC, 2013).  Binna Kandola discusses that once we have made up our minds about something, we stop processing new information, and our expectations of how something will unfold can create a “self-fulfilling prophecy” (Facing History and Ourselves, 2013). Kandola (2013) explains that being unaware of bias can result in coercive power relations. The Minister’s comments show his bias is held in favour of the economic interest of Australia as a whole. As a result, the Mirarr people have not been given equal representation. Harless (2018) describes the importance of culturally safe spaces, and that ‘dignity safety’ is an expectation that one will be treated fairly, respectfully, and essentially equal to other groups.  It is also explained that this can be particularly difficult when there has been a history of negative stereotyping and emotional abuses.

The physical divide between the stakeholder’s ties into how we form groups, with a preference for people like ourselves (Kandola, 2013). The white members of the NLC sit together, the Indigenous members of the NLC sit together and the MP sit/stand with the Oenpelli TO. Choosing to be with people in our ‘group’ feels more culturally safe in a culturally unsafe situation (Bin-Sallik, 2003).

3.2 Diversity & Inclusion

There is a lack of cultural capability shown during the meetings, which is highlighted in the overall lack of understanding in diversity and inclusion practices.  The Chairperson advises that the Minister can sign the agreement on behalf of the NLC. Also, that before the agreement is signed, the NLC must explain to the Traditional Owners what is in the agreement and that they say yes to the agreement.  With this interaction it seems the opinions of the Mirrar people, although mentioned, are not important to the other stakeholders.  During the second meeting the Mirrar people look sad with their heads lowered as Ian Viner is speaking, which shows how they feel about the insensitivity and lack of inclusion in his speech.  Harless (2018) explains how non-inclusive behaviour perpetuates and normalises discrimination towards groups of people. After the meeting, Ian shows his lack of inclusion by telling Toby Gangale he can show him around the park. There is no respect shown in the way he orders this instead of asking (GAC, 2013).    Including a group is not inclusive, if this on the terms of the dominant group. Bin-Sallik (2003) describes a culturally safe space as one where people feel emotionally and physically safe and there is shared respect, this is not shown in these interactions.

3.3 Power Relations & Cultural Border Crossings

In coercive relations the dominant exerts power over and at the disadvantage of a non-dominant (Cummins, 2009). Collaborative relations generate power through exchanges with others, which enable and empower (Cummins, 2009).

Senior Mirarr TO Toby Gangale demonstrates collaborative relations when he shares parts of his ontology, he explains the importance of the land for the MP and how stories are shared to protect sacred places. These complex culturally sacred places interlink with all areas of Indigenous ontology and cannot be mapped out using westernised ideas of ownership (Banerjee, 2000).  Despite the differences between Indigenous and Western ontologies Toby Gangale is forming generative interactions by fostering deeper social connections and understanding between the two cultures (Bernstein et al., 2019).

Coercive relations of power are shown in the influence of control by a dominant group over a subordinated group, which operates by normalising incorrect assumptions (Cummins, 2009). Cultural border crossings occur when we move between cultures or subcultures different to our own.  One notable positive border crossing (Aikenhead, 1996). is seen at the first meeting, when lawyer Dean Mildren reads out the statement addressing the wishes of the Oenpelli TO and the MP in English, he then asks for it to be translated into Gunuwinku. Dean Mildren recognises that a cultural language border needs to be crossed so that all stakeholders fully understand what the statement says.

There is evidence of a problematic border crossing when an unnamed TO shares that if Mr Viner came and worried his people in the old days he would have been speared. The TO culture and his knowing about indigenous law form part of his ontology, making it almost impossible for him to acknowledge Australian law in this situation to achieve a positive culture border crossing. (Aikenhead, 1996).

The decision to mine in Kakadu shows a complete lack of cultural awareness and capability when cultural border crossing. When the Minister acknowledges the Mirarr people’s opposition, he shows bias by leveraging national interest and rejects the Mirarr people’s spiritual connection to the land. Aikenhead (1996) says that when crossing cultural borders, it is essential that the beliefs and ontologies of other cultures are acknowledged and recognised to avoid power imbalances. During this interaction, the Mirarr people’s ontology is disregarded in favour of the dominant culture’s economic interest in the land.

The dominant society put legislative changes in place to prevent the Traditional Owners from being able to exercise any control over their own land, and they were “constantly fighting being assimilated into the dominant system of rules” (Katona et al., 1998, p. 9).  Ian Viner speaks in a very authoritative tone and says the mine will go ahead as the Government thinks it is a fair agreement, and afterwards the Mirrar people are given pens as a gift.  Ian says to Toby, “Look after that pen…that’s a very important one” (GAC, 2013). This shows a lack of a successful border crossing, as Ian is not adjusting his behaviour to suit the culture and beliefs of the people he is engaging with (Aikenhead, 1996).  He has not shown knowledge of what is important to the Mirrar people, and this contributes to creating an unsafe space.

The use of coercive power by the Australian government resulted in an inequitable outcome for the Mirarr people. Coercive power can be described as a dominant group or individual using their power to gain control of or agreeance from a subordinate group or individual to their disadvantage (Cummins, 2009). The Minister placed a significant amount of pressure on the NLC to get the agreement signed, and in the end the Mirarr people became worn down. The Minister used manipulative language and spoke of the national interest during the interaction to gain agreement from the Mirarr people. The use of coercive power often results in the subordinate succumbing to the pressure (Lunenburg, 2012), which can be seen in this situation resulting in the signing of the agreement.

The Chairperson advises the Mirrar people that they all were entitled to be pushed around, and that this will happen forever.  His speech showed his intent to demonstrate there would be no point in disagreeing with the Government (GAC, 2013).

NLC chairman Galarrwug Yunupingu represents the MP. However, when addressing the TO he warns them that the government has the power and they will be forever pushed around, demonstrating he is not acting to empower the people he represents (Cummins, 2009). The NLC was developed to protect the Indigenous, instead they were fueling their feeling of helplessness (Katona, 1998).

Galarrway’s comments to the Mirarr people indicate their opposition was never going to be heard or valued. His comments represent a long-standing Australian history of racism, disempowerment and dispossession that Aboriginal people have been subject to and are still subjected to (Dungeon et al., 2010). Galarrway’s comments show the bias held by the mining officials and coercive power relations used by the Australian government to oppress the Mirarr people’s opposition to mining on their land. This interaction was held only a decade after the referendum in 1967 that saw Aboriginal people allowed to be recognised as Australian citizens and gave the Australian government the power to make laws specifically for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (Dungeon et al., 2010;  Reconciliation Australia, 2014). The typical bias held towards Aboriginal people at this time resulted in the use of coercive power relations to subordinate the Aboriginal people. Due to a lower population of Aboriginal people and the lack of acknowledgement of their cultural knowledge western dominant theories and narratives have overpowered leaving Aboriginal people in an inequitable position as the most disadvantaged population in Australia (Cummins. 2009; Dungeon et al., 2010). The warning given demonstrates the prevalence of power and inequity. While the Mirarr people were included in the decision and allowed to oppose, it was apparent that their voice was never going to be valued equally.


3.4 Privilege & Generative Interactions

Privilege as described by Mcintosh (1988) often goes unseen and unacknowledged, the dominant group are taught to ignore their privilege, protecting it from change. Diversity suggests neutrality, where having people of different backgrounds benefits all (Bali, 2016).

Privilege is evident in how the meeting is arranged, the NLC sit on chairs while the MP and TO are on the floor. The meetings are led by the NLC and later the Minster, both do not foster collaboration with the MP or TO.  Ian Viner fails to acknowledge his privilege when he asks the TO to “protect and preserve your culture in a way that will contribute to the whole of Australia”. His words imply Western Culture takes precedence over Indigenous culture and is accepted as long as it benefits the Western world.

Ian Viner acknowledged the TO as the owners of the land at Jabiru and that the TO would prefer that mining did not happen. However, this was only acknowledged after the Australian Government had decided that mining would go ahead regardless. The TO were consulted out of necessity to meet ethical requirements and Ian Viner superficial remarks feigned diversity and inclusion while continuing to oppress the Indigenous (Bali, 2016).

Privilege can be seen across both meetings, and generative interactions either do or do not occur.  Ian Viner speaks forcefully and declares that negotiations have been going on for too long, and that other countries need the uranium for their factories and electricity (GAC, 2013).  Ian’s statements show a high level of privilege as he may feel his way of seeing the situation is ideal, and his work to ‘benefit’ the Mirrar people will help them live more like him (McIntosh, 1988).  It seems that the rights of overseas partners are more important to him than the rights of the Mirrar people to keep their sacred land. This shows he feels entitled to his privilege and expects to be respected and acknowledged, as is the case when systematic privilege has been conferred (Pease, 2010).  The Traditional Owners believe the Chairperson may not be on their side as he lost his own lands, but it seems this was not discussed between both parties and was simply opinion.  Bernstein et al. (2019) advise that generative interactions cannot be achieved unless a particular set of practices are in operation, including collaboration and valuing each person’s belonging.  Generative interactions were achieved in the seating arrangements of the first meeting, where the Mirrar people were likely comfortable seated on the floor but arranged seats for the visitors so they would feel comfortable.

The power used in this scenario is a result of unacknowledged white privilege. If privilege and power go unacknowledged can cause the oppression and disempowerment of an individual or group’s culture (Cummins, 2009; McIntosh, 1988). The Minister stated that this was a fair agreement for all stakeholders involved. However, as this interaction did not occur in a safe space, the use of coercive power saw the singed. The result was an inequitable outcome for the Mirarr people.

Cultural capabilities can be described as an ability to use cultural knowledge and awareness when interacting with people from other cultures in a way that is appropriate to them and respects their beliefs and practices (Creedy et al., 2018). The Mirarr people have their heads hung visibly upset by the agreement. The Minister uses strong hand gestures during the meetings which display power and shows disrespect to the Mirarr people. This displays privilege and its ability to grant members of a dominant cultural group with power and better access to resources than people of subordinate cultural groups (McIntosh, 1988; Zufferey, 2012).  The Mirarr people never had equal standing in this situation which is shown through the body language used. The imbalance of power and privilege in this scenario has resulted in failure to meet the precept required for generative interactions (Bernstein et al., 2019).


  1. Recommendations

4.1   Managing Bias

Everyone has bias, however, if this is acknowledged and a conscious choice is made not to stereotype it does not need to influence interactions (Kandola, 2013). The stakeholders can create a more culturally safe space by recognising their bias and making the conscious choice to engage in just and fair, equitable interactions.

A recommendation for managing bias, is to make that a focus when preparing for interactions.  By deciding to make fairness a goal, and that you will not stereotype, unconscious biases can be reduced (Facing History and Ourselves, 2013).

To manage bias and ensure it does not lead to the use of coercive power, it is vital first to become aware of and acknowledge bias (Kandola, 2013). Being aware allows people to prevent making assumptions and think deliberately helping to reduce adverse outcomes during interactions (Berg, 2017).

4.2 Diversity & Inclusion

A recommendation for promoting agency when working towards diversity and inclusion is not to simply include different types of people, but ensure all views are equally heard and that views of the dominant group do not oppress the views of others (Bali, 2016).

4.3 Power Relations & Cultural Border Crossings

Collaborative power relations should be nurtured by the NLC and Minister rather than exercising their power to oppress and control the Indigenous. Collaborative power relations enable the minority to amplify their voices, generating feelings of empowerment (Cummins,2009). The NLC should proactively advocate for the MP without agenda, this will not only empower the MP but create more culturally safe interactions.

A recommendation for challenging coercive power structures is to create an empowering environment where people know they will be respected and heard, this empowerment is generative as the more someone feels empowered the more power is generated for others (Cummins, 2009).  Cultural border crossings can be more successfully achieved by an attentiveness to other cultures and a genuine desire for cooperation (Aikenhead, 1996).To prevent coercive power, one must acknowledge their privilege in a situation and how this can lead to an inequitable interaction (Gorski, 2013). By acknowledging privilege, positive interactions are more likely to occur. Bernstein et al (2019) says that one of the precepts required for generative interaction is ‘Repeating interaction opportunities with high frequency and over extended time’. Frequent positive interactions that acknowledge privilege will encourage empowerment and collaborative relations of power leading to a more equitable outcome.When crossing cultural borders, it is essential that each cultural ontology is acknowledged and has an equal voice. This can be done by acknowledging bias held towards dominant cultures views and how bias can change the way we interact with other cultures. Having cultural awareness allows people to alter their behaviour to ensure they are interacting in a culturally safe way (Aikenhead, 1988).

4.4 Positive Culture Border Crossings

The stakeholders need to sensitively recognise when a cultural border is being crossed and acknowledge everyone as an individual with a different culture background (Aikenhead, 1996). Positive culture border crossing could be promoted in the ‘Dirt cheap’ interaction if each stakeholder is given the opportunity to feel valued and recognised when discussing their cultural stance.

4.5 Managing Privilege, Diversity  & Generative Interactions

A recommendation for managing privilege and working towards generative interactions is to create “intentional community building activities” including privileged, less advantaged, and different cultural groups, and to do this regularly (Bernstein et al., 2019). An essential step in ensuring an equitable interaction is acknowledging privilege held and the power imbalance privilege can cause (McIntosh, 1988).

The Australian Government needs to recognise their unseen privilege in order to develop equitable relationships with the indigenous people. It needs to be acknowledged that not all the stakeholders are entering the interactions on an equal footing (McIntosh, 1988). For the interactions to truly represent diversity the TO needs to be consulted so all stakeholders are equally represented and not just box to be ticked.

By acknowledging privilege, the adverse effects of power become visible, creating a safe space where these imbalances can be challenged. By challenging privilege, future interactions with individuals or communities affected will occur in a respectful and equitable way (Zuffery, 2012).


  1. Summary and Conclusion

The documentary analysed shows how an unsafe space is created through a lack of cultural awareness and capabilities and can result in a negative outcome. This documentary is an excellent example of the adverse outcomes that occur from culturally unsafe interactions.  The recommendations provided demonstrate how the use of cultural intelligence such as acknowledging privilege, managing bias, rebalancing power relations and managing cultural border crossings creates a safe space where generative and collaborative interactions can occur.

In summary, across the two meetings there was a lack of cultural capabilities shown, and it is clear that these meetings were not safe spaces for the Traditional Owners.  If the other stakeholders had a genuine concern for achieving cultural safety for everyone involved and had created generative interactions, then positive communications would have been evident, including collaboration and valuing of individual uniqueness

The interactions show how coercive power relations, privilege and bias are used to oppress the minority to benefit their agenda. The Australian Government fails to acknowledge when a cultural border needs to be crossed to develop the cultural understanding to recognise the impacts mining has on the MP’s ontology. All the stakeholders need to improve their cultural capabilities for this to become a culturally safe interaction. Analysing unsafe cultural interactions can assist workplaces and educational institutions in developing frameworks for forming culturally safe spaces and building generative interactions.


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