Friday 08 Oct 2021 | 03:42 | SYDNEY
Friday 08 Oct 2021 | 03:42 | SYDNEY

Canberra missing on resources governance

13 May 2011 09:00

Alexandra Guáqueta is Lecturer in the School of International Studies at Flinders University. She was invited to address the 2011 Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights Plenary.

Australian governments pride themselves on being 'good international citizens' and 'creative middle powers'. Academics and commentators often compare Canberra favourably with like-minded countries including Canada, the Netherlands and the UK. The US is usually held up as the bad boy contrast – think the ICC, land mines etc.

Yet, in one important area for the future of the Australian economy and Australia's reputation as a good international citizen, Canberra's lack of action is oddly discordant with this proud self-image. Canberra has not joined up to the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights that bring governments, firms and NGOs together to establish norms on the operations of extractive industries in emerging markets.

Yet Australia is home to many large and medium-sized players in the extractive industry, with increasing investments in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America. Access to these markets will depend not only on trade treaties and financial returns, but on the adequate management of risks. Today, companies are expected to comply with key social risk management standards. If companies don't follow these standards, they could face community opposition to their projects and could even be forced to divest.

Over the next decade, the Voluntary Principles will surely focus on bringing BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, China and India) and their companies in. Australian businesses will want to make sure there is a level playing field to compete in these markets. Canberra's support and participation in advancing the Voluntary Principles will help them achieve that.

Some weeks ago in Washington DC, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton found time to address the Plenary of the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights. Given what was going on around the world – Libya, Ivory Coast, Syria, Japan – her endorsement constituted a clear signal of US commitment to the initiative. 

Canada, Colombia, the Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland, the US and the UK are very active members of the Voluntary Principles and are using it to create a rules-based international system and exercise good global citizenship. The initiative complements their policies in the UN and the OECD when it comes to dealing with weak governance zones around the world. BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto as well as AngloAmerican, Shell and other large companies also see the commercial benefits of this initiative and are already part of the group.

Canberra should do the same. As a resource-rich middle power it has enough weight to make a difference. And given the nature of the social and political challenges in weak governance zones, it will need the innovative collaboration between countries, NGOs and businesses that this group offers. Joining the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights is no brainer.

Photo by Flickr user code poet.