Tiwi Islanders take aim at bank’s complaint rejection

Keira Jenkins |

Santos’ offshore gas project off the Tiwi Islands has drawn a lot of controversy.
Santos’ offshore gas project off the Tiwi Islands has drawn a lot of controversy.

Traditional owners say they have been brushed aside by ANZ after their complaint to the bank about its funding of the Barossa gas project was dismissed.

The group of Tiwi and Larrakia traditional owners lodged the complaint in April 2023, along with 11 other Australian and international banks, over a $US1 billion (A$1.5 billion) loan provided to Santos for its Barossa offshore gas project.

Prepared by Equity Generation Lawyers, the 39-page complaint asked ANZ to publicly accept it had contributed to adverse human rights impacts on traditional owners.

It also asked for a public apology and for the bank to pay compensation and the profits from the loan to affected Tiwi communities.

In a letter to the traditional owners, ANZ confirmed the group’s complaint would not be accepted as Santos had not consented to participate in the process.

“Among other criteria, ANZ’s human rights grievance mechanism framework provides that ANZ may only accept a grievance into the Mechanism if the customer consents to the disclosure of a current or former lending relationship and to participate,” the letter said.

Tiwi traditional owner Therese Wokai Bourke said she felt ignored by the bank’s rejection of the group’s complaint.

“I feel so insignificant. ANZ have brushed us aside like some bothersome insect,” she said.

“ANZ make my family and I feel tiny, almost invisible, like we don’t matter.”

ANZ’s grievance framework was introduced in 2021 to respond to human rights complaints, after the bank’s Cambodian arm approved a loan to a sugar company, which forcibly seized land from 681 families in collusion with state authorities.

ANZ said the grievance mechanism had “paused” its assessment of the Tiwi complaint in July 2023, while a “parallel process” was underway.

Processing of the traditional owners’ complaint resumed in December 2023.

Ms Bourke said Tiwi Elders had invited ANZ chief executive Shayne Elliot to meet with them multiple times.

“The ANZ CEO agreed at their AGM last year to come to the Tiwi Islands. We still haven’t seen them,” Ms Bourke said.

“Then they give us one phone call … after all this time, and say ‘sorry we don’t accept your complaint because Santos won’t accept it’.

“It’s absolutely disgraceful.”

Tiwi Islanders lost a Federal Court case against Santos’ Barossa gas pipeline in January.

Traditional owners argued the pipeline would disturb the travels of an ancestral being of fundamental importance in their culture, Ampiji, a rainbow serpent, and the Jirakupai or Crocodile Man songline.