A small detail spotted during Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s press conference on the weekend has erupted across social media, leading to a fierce debate on Monday about perceptions of political independence.
At the centre of the controversy was his choice of clothing — the PM was wearing a Rio Tinto hi-vis shirt during a visit to the mining giant's facilities in Western Australia's Pilbara region. It’s led hundreds to question whether someone in Australia’s top job should be donning clothing produced by a multinational mining company — particularly an employee shirt with “Anthony” stitched in above his right pocket.
While Australian prime ministers are no doubt able to make policy decisions without being influenced by mining companies, some commentators are concerned about the “perception” dressing in a branded company uniform creates.
One of them is Polly Hemming, from independent think-tank The Australia Institute, who said “at face value” a PM wearing a mining company’s uniform may send a perception that he's a “subordinate”.
“A question we’ve been posing for a while is who is shaping Australia’s policies? Are they being guided by science, or are they being guided by commercial interests?” she told Yahoo News Australia.
Australian Conservation Foundation also has concerns about the PM’s media appearance, telling Yahoo it believes the decision was “inappropriate” as the government is responsible for regulating Rio Tinto, particularly when it comes to emissions.
Why was the PM in Western Australia?
Mr Albanese’s press conference was held in the remote Western Australia mining town of Dampier alongside the company’s head of iron ore, and resources minister Madeleine King. On Monday he is hosting a cabinet meeting with his ministers in Perth.
While he regularly visits the state, on Sunday he toured Rio Tinto’s facilities and then stopped to spruik the company’s contribution to Australia’s economy in front of waiting media. During his four-minute speech he celebrated the importance of Western Australia’s resource industries to the national economy.
His speech focused on the importance of new minerals like lithium that will be required to power Australia’s emerging economy and his hope this will lead to new manufacturing jobs.
Once synonymous with coal, the company divested itself of these assets in Australia. Its operations are now focused around metals and minerals including copper aluminium, iron ore, and diamonds.
But the company has a chequered history. In 2020, the mining company blew up Juukan Gorge, a sacred rock shelter in the Pilbara that was important to Indigenous cultural practices and knowledge systems going back 46,000 years. Rio Tinto has since apologised for this action, and its then CEO Jean-Sébastien Jacques stepped down.
But Juukan Gorge remains fresh in the memory of many in Australia. And this was something Greens Senator David Shoebridge was quick to point out on Sunday after he saw Mr Albanese's press conference. “It takes a conscious effort to put on a shirt for a cause. You think about which one, strip off your old one and pull it over your head for a purpose. This bloke chose Rio Tinto’s shirt. The company that blew up a 46,000-year-old sacred rock shelter for profit,” he wrote on Twitter.
Have other PMs donned mining company outfits?
It’s not the first time an Australian prime minister has donned a resources company’s outfit. This was pointed out by one well-known political commentator whose now viral post from Monday morning pictures Mr Albanese next to former prime minister Scott Morrison.
The tweet by Ronni Salt appears to show Mr Morrison wearing a hi-vis outfit on the day he flew to the Pilbara to complete morning stretches with Fortescue Metals Group CEO Andrew ’Twiggy’ Forrest to the sound of Jimmy Barnes' rendition of Working Class Man. However, on that occasion, you might remember it was Mr Morrison’s pronunciation of the word “barre class” that distracted from the planned media message.
Separately, branding and sponsorships can often also be controversial, particularly when it involves sporting teams or government agencies. Going back to 2014, mining company Santos sponsored two police vehicles in Queensland, leading to an accusation by activist group Lock the Gate that it was a clear conflict of interest.
More recently, there was controversy over a planned netball sponsorship by Gina Reinhart's Hancock Prospecting. Other concerns have previously been raised about Woodside sponsoring the Western Australia surf nippers, and Ampol branding on NSW Surf Lifesaving vehicles.
Yahoo does not suggest that a PM choosing to wear a mining company shirt does influence policy. Prime Minister Albanese's office has been contacted for comment.
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