4. Improving liveability in the Pilbara

The Pilbara region offers most residents security of employment and opportunity for economic prosperity. However, it also presents significant challenges to longer-term residents, including isolation, harsh climate, a relatively high cost of living, a volatile housing market, limited options for education and constrained access to healthcare. As such, despite population growth in the region, a large number of Pilbara residents still live in the Pilbara to work and improve their financial circumstances, with an intent to ultimately relocate to locations characterised by greater amenities, particularly regarding accessing secondary education for their children.

An important and significant exception to this general trend is the First Nations people of the Pilbara region, whose ancestors have lived in the region and managed its lands for millennia. For these people, their ancestral and contemporary ties to kinship and community, as well as their spiritual and cultural connections to the lands, waters and Sea Country of the Pilbara, render them a far more permanent, albeit on average less prosperous, component of the Pilbara residential population.

This chapter provides a brief overview of factors that impact quality of life for current residents and motivate people to leave the region. It then provides pathways to improve attractiveness and liveability in the region. The chapter concludes with a focus on actions to improve First Nations people’s well-being and self-determination.

The Pilbara region incorporates the traditional lands1 of approximately 25 First Nations language groups who have, for at least the past 50 000 years, lived and continuously practised their culture in the Pilbara region (Wangka Maya Pilbara Aboriginal Language Centre, 2023[1])

The various First Nations cultures of Australia, including those of the Pilbara, are among the world’s oldest continuously practised cultures in existence today (Malaspinas et al., 2016[2]). For First Nations people, British colonisation and subsequent industrial development of the Pilbara represent a small share of their history in the region. Colonisation has and continues to have significant impact on First Nations people’s way of life in the Pilbara. For example:

  • The Pilbara region has a complex history of colonisation that involved discriminatory practices, land dispossession, cultural site destruction and killings of First Nations people, including the Flying Foam Massacre on the Burrup Peninsula (Chapple, 2017[3]; University of Newcastle, 2023[4]). In many cases, this resulted in the disruption and loss of traditional territories, dependency upon religious and state institutions, and barriers to economic participation.

  • Discriminatory legislation of historical Western Australian parliaments, such as the Aborigines Act 1905 (WA) and Native Welfare Act 1963 (WA) resulted in First Nations children being systematically separated, in many instances permanently, from their families and communities (hereafter referred to as the Stolen Generations).

  • Since the late 19th and for much of the 20th centuries, the pastoral industry was the main source of employment for First Nations people in the northwest of Australia. However, First Nations people were often discriminated against, with practices that included payment of lower wages thank other workers or payment with clothes and food. In other early Pilbara industries, such as pearling, there is increasing evidence of settlers using local First Nations people for slave labour (Paterson and Veth, 2022[5]). Subsequent removal of the racially discriminative clause from the Federal Pastoral Industry Award meant the introduction of equal wages for First Nations pastoral workers. However, due to pastoralists inability and unwillingness to pay First Nations workers, from the late 1960s onwards, there was a First Nations unemployment and welfare crisis across much of northwest Australia, including the Pilbara region.

High levels of welfare dependency and lower standing across all key measures of socio-economic status, together with intergenerational trauma caused by the circumstances of colonisation and ongoing discrimination, continue to be characteristic of many First Nations communities in the Pilbara. The historical discrimination in the labour market is a source of distrust from first Nations Peoples towards Non-Indigenous employers.

The First Nations people of the Pilbara region have and continue to perform an important role in the reclamation of Australian First Nations rights and the renaissance of First Nations culture. For example:

  • In 1942, First Nations pastoral workers from across the Pilbara met at Skulls Spring (100 kilometres east of the town of Nullagine) to commence industrial action (a walk-off and strike) that lasted three years and remains Australia’s longest-lasting industrial action. The strike led to a series of First Nations pastoral worker strikes across the nation, ultimately resulting in the aforementioned amendments to the federal Pastoral Industry Award.

  • In 1964, Yuwali, a Martu woman from the eastern Pilbara, gained international fame when she had contact with non-First Nations Australians in the Western Desert for the first time at the age of 17 – one of the last generations of First Australians to grow into adulthood in a completely traditional way of life.

  • Across the Pilbara region, there are extensive in situ examples of ancient rock art that, dating back as far as 40 000 years, are some of the oldest known human cultural artefacts still existing in their natural environment – most notably those at Murujaga (Dampier Archipelago) which are currently the subject of nomination for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization World Heritage List.

  • First Nations communities across the Pilbara continue to produce nationally and internationally acclaimed painters and other artists, contributing to Australia’s AUD 250 million First Nations visual arts and craft industry (Australian Government, 2022[7]).

However, as discussed later in this chapter, despite this deep history, continued practice of traditional culture, and contemporary contribution to the reclamation of First Nations rights, First Nations people of the Pilbara remain grossly under-represented with respect to economic participation.

Over the course of the 1950s and 1960s, the discovery of vast deposits of iron ore across the western Pilbara and the repeal of a World War II export ban on iron ore by the Australian government, as well as subsequent offshore petroleum discoveries set the foundation for the industrial transformation of the Pilbara region that, facilitated by state agreements and significant private investment, took place over the subsequent 70 years, and continues today.

Most people who arrived in the Pilbara region at the time did so for employment opportunities rather than lifestyle. A survey of regional Western Australian residents undertaken in 2013 – a decade ago – strongly indicates that most people who lived in the Pilbara region at the time did so for employment opportunities rather than lifestyle and did not intend to remain residents of the Pilbara (WA Government, 2016[8]). As summarised in Table 4.2, the Pilbara ranked comparatively low on most aspects of regional liveability with the exception of impact on financial position and employment prospects.

This survey of residents of regional Western Australia was repeated in 2016 (WA Government, 2016[8]) and, while results were not published in the same detail as they were for the 2013 survey, published outcomes reconfirm the importance of financial motivations for living in the Pilbara region, with over 80% of working-age respondents agreeing that working in the Pilbara was good for them financially, a full 20% above the next closest region.

The 2016 survey was conducted in a different economic environment than its predecessor survey: in 2013, the Pilbara resources sector was rapidly expanding, whereas in 2016, it was passing through peak construction. Notwithstanding its limited published detail, results from the 2016 survey that were disclosed indicate similar motivations for living in the Pilbara region. For example:

  • Just over 40% of residents of the Pilbara who responded to the survey indicated that the region’s economic outlook was the main reason to live in the region, albeit declining from 80% of respondents in 2016.

  • Just over 60% of respondents claimed that living in the Pilbara was good for them financially, decreasing from 80% of respondents in 2013.

  • Just over 40% of respondents claimed that the Pilbara’s economic outlook is an important reason to live in the region, down from just over 80% in 2013.

The 2013 and 2016 surveys indicate that a large share of individuals who migrated to the Pilbara region did so for employment and financial benefits rather than liveability. Furthermore, those who are receptive to the region’s unique lifestyle are often deterred from staying due to family, housing challenges, education or health reasons. The Pilbara’s harsh climate and cost associated with the isolation of metropolitan areas increase those challenges, reducing attractiveness for permanent or long-term residents.

Despite these difficulties, recent surveys of residents in the city of Karratha – the region’s largest and likely most liveable settlement – have revealed a significant increase in the number of people who no longer have plans to leave. In 2011, only 14% of interviewed residents expressed no intention of leaving the city but, by 2023, this figure had risen substantially to 38% (City of Karratha, 2023[9]). It should be noted that an important mark of Karrath’s differentiation from other cities in the region has been its relatively greater investment in housing, streetscape and infrastructure.

In this context, the two main vectors for optimally increasing the residential population of the Pilbara region are:

  • First Nations people who have traditional and customary ties to the region returning to or continuing to reside in the region under circumstances where they can live prosperous and culturally fulfilling lives.

  • Resources industry employees and their families choosing to relocate to the region on a long-term basis, laying down roots and contributing to a larger, more permanent residential population and community, rather than being employed on a FIFO basis.

Progress across these two vectors will create additional demand to drive growth in the local private sector service economy, as well as justify investment by the public sector to compensate for market failure in service delivery. These vectors are a major focus of the following sections in this chapter.

For some residents of the Pilbara region, typically those of a younger demographic with adequate disposable income, the region undoubtedly offers a great lifestyle with the larger population centres (e.g. Karratha and Port Headland) providing urban facilities that are comparable to most small-to-mid-sized Western Australian regional population centres whilst having access to a unique and spectacular natural environment that facilitates outdoor pastimes. However, for many others, living in the Pilbara presents challenges, including isolation, harsh climate, high cost of living and access to housing and services.

The Pilbara region and its settlements are known for their high level of isolation from major metropolitan areas in Australia and the world. By road, the main population centre of the Pilbara, Karratha, is approximately 1 530 kilometres from Perth, the capital of Western Australia, and 2 635 kilometres from the Northern Territory capital, Darwin. It is a two-hour flight from Perth, with no direct commercial flights from other Australian or international capital cities. As summarised in Table 4.3, the Pilbara is also characterised by significant intra-regional isolation, with the distance between settlements also significant.

The Pilbara is hot and dry, with climate change likely to make it worse. From December to March, average daily temperatures exceed 30 degrees Celsius (°C) across the region, with average daily maxima exceeding 35°C from October to March. The annual average rainfall ranges from 300 to 350 millimetres (mm) in the north-east to less than 250 mm in the south and west, with tropical cyclones generating around 25% to 34% of the region’s coastal rainfall and up to 21% of its rainfall up to 450 kilometres from the coast. Average annual temperature across the region is expected to increase by between 0.6°C and 1.5°C by 2030 under low emissions scenarios, rising to between 1.5°C and 3.1°C for medium emissions trajectories and between 3.1°C and 5.6°C for high emissions trajectories (WA Government, 2021[10]; ESCC Hub, 2018[11]).

Furthermore, the region has a high cost of living (see Chapter 2). Prices for goods and services in the Pilbara region consistently exceed Perth prices by a considerable margin (WA Government, 2023[12]). While this is somewhat mitigated by the relatively higher median income in the Pilbara, it also serves as a reason not to reside in the region (i.e. greater spending power is derived from living elsewhere through a FIFO arrangement). Indeed, a survey of Pilbara residents in 2016 (WA Government, 2016[8]) suggested that 58% of respondents cited the higher cost of living as a major motivation for leaving the region.

In large part, the Pilbara region faces a dilemma that is common to many remote regions: recruiting and retaining workers to improve local service provision and thereby increase liveability and attract permanent residents. More than quality infrastructure, labour supply is the main constraint to improving the region’s public services. For employees working in the non-resource sector, the cost of living renders the Pilbara a less attractive place to reside and work. Even though employment terms in these areas typically provide some wage and conditions adjustment in response to the higher cost of living, it is typically not equivalent to full equalisation. This is a common issue for all services in the region, including those three services identified as priorities for greater well-being in the region (Chapter 2): childcare, education and health.

Despite the Pilbara’s specific set of characteristics, the challenges to improve service delivery are common in many other remote areas of OECD countries. OECD studies across other regions with similar challenges in delivering quality service due to labour availability have identified that collaboration across levels of government for long-term investments, anticipated planning with the promotion of economies of scale in service provision (e.g. school networks) and targeted attraction policies for public service workers (e.g. career incentives for rural teachers) are relevant actions to address the issue (OECD, 2021[13]; 2022[14]). In remote areas, relying mainly on private service providers can reduce the inclusivity and affordability of service provision, as the private sector tends to deploy capital in instances where the local market can produce adequate returns.

In this context, this section outlines some of the main challenges that the Pilbara faces in service delivery, including workforce shortage and improving childcare, education and healthcare provision for regional needs.

A common issue for quality service provision in the Pilbara is the labour force availability, which is a common challenge in Australia but further undermined in the Pilbara by the challenges discussed above, particularly the cost of living. Some Pilbara towns have relied on FIFO workers to cover some particular services, which can be a punctual and short-term solution for some services (e.g. healthcare specialists) but a less sustainable option in terms of long-term local development.

Reducing the cost of living, in particular for non-resource workers in the region, would help improve service provision and thereby increase regional attractiveness. Terms that reflect resources industry employment conditions will likely help address the local deficiency in these services by both attracting skilled workers to the region and reducing competition for those workers from the higher-paying resources industry. Unlike most remote regions across the OECD, the Pilbara is a source of income for the state and benefits from a high economic output. Part of this wealth can be reallocated to provide grants or other public incentives to compensate service workers for the high living cost, especially housing.

Beyond living costs, specificities of the work in rural remote areas can also deter specialised workers from coming. Small and multi-grade classroom teaching, multitasking or possible feelings of isolation and long travel times need to be taken into account when setting incentives. According to other OECD studies in remote rural areas, non-financial incentives for service workers could include more flexibility in roles and retirement plans for older staff and strong career and training incentives for newly qualified staff. This could also include the current attractiveness of part-time contracts, as a significant share of service workers in rural areas work on a part-time basis (OECD, 2022[14]).

The Pilbara faces harsh climate conditions including extreme high temperatures (daily maximums exceeding 35 degrees Celsius) and cyclones. This can create multiple responsibilities for regional development such as ensuring the existence of climate resilient infrastructure and systems. Decision makers need to have access to high quality information, consistent data, and capacity to use this information to inform planning (OECD, 2018[15])Tools for encouraging investment in climate resilient infrastructure include spatial planning frameworks, infrastructure project and policy appraisals, and regulatory and economic standards. The Pilbara may benefit from frameworks in other Australian regions and cities facing harsh climate conditions such as the Darwin Heat Mitigation Strategy, a ten year partnership between the Australian Government, Northern Territory Government, and City of Darwin to implement methods to cool and shade the city (CSIRO, 2021[16])

Furthermore, the Pilbara could benefit from its proximity to Southeast Asia, one of the world’s most populous regions and with relatively high levels of unemployment. Australia has a mechanism to allow for a co-ordinated and targeted attraction of oversees talent, the Designated Area Migration Agreements (DAMAs), which are a formal agreement between the Australian Government and what is termed a Designated Area Representative, which can be a state government or regional body such as a local government. DAMAs help regions access a broader range of overseas workers than is available through Australia’s standard skilled visa programme, allowing variation to standard occupations and skills lists and/or negotiable concessions to visa requirements. This effectively allows a region to address specific skills shortages through migrant workers by making visas conditional on the temporary or permanent migrant working in a specific vocation in a specific region for a specific period of time.

In this context, where DAMAs do not exist, the local, federal and state governments should consider establishing DAMAs for key vocations in childcare, health and education to attract overseas talent into the Pilbara region and, where they already exist, stakeholders should advocate for more competitive terms for those DAMAs. This would serve to address the service deficiency in the Pilbara and increase multiculturalism and population in the regional towns. Besides attracting workforce, some specific actions can be undertaken to improve service provision across childcare, education and health.

Accessing quality childcare is a growing issue in the region, as in Western Australia. In fact, recent studies indicate that Western Australia has the lowest overall childcare accessibility in the country (Hurley, Matthews and Pennicuik, 2022[17]).

Childcare shortages deter family attraction and affect female participation in the labour market in the Pilbara. Relocating to the Pilbara region for a higher income implies working in mining operations, which tend to have a work shift roster that makes it difficult for families to care for children during the day if both parents work. This problem affects, to a greater extent, women’s employment possibilities since they tend to be responsible for the majority of childcare (OECD, 2021[13]). The main bottleneck for childcare provision is professional shortages rather than facilities (see Figure 4.2). Private initiatives trying to attract childcare workers report that the majority of candidates identify the cost of living in the region as a significant barrier to considering the education and care sector as a career choice (Thriving Futures, 2022[18]).

Generally, affordable childcare is a pillar of common interest for all stakeholders in the Pilbara. Private companies, local governments and communities will all benefit from improving conditions for working in mining, improving social well-being and opening new business opportunities in education areas. Governments have made it easier for individuals to acquire childcare professional credentials. For example, the Technical and Further Education (TAFE) WA Karratha campus offers free qualifications in early childhood education and care or a Diploma of Early Childhood Education and Care. Likewise, mining companies have already put in place initiatives to address this issue, mainly by partnering with non-profit organisations. For example:

  • BHP funded the Thriving Futures workforce development programme, available to both qualified educators and individuals to start or advance their career in early childhood education and care, and has partnered with the not-for-profit organisation Child Australia to provide a wage supplement and financial incentives for individuals to upskill themselves as a qualified educator.

  • Rio Tinto and the not-for-profit organisation Y WA have joined forces to recruit family daycare educators in the city of Karratha and the Shire of Ashburton by offering a support system coupled with a funding package from Rio Tinto.

There is scope for further scale and co-ordination among the various private initiatives. Promoting greater co-ordination among privately led initiatives on childcare could help create long-lasting programmes on childcare with long-term funding and goals.

The region benefits from an important network of primary schools (Table 4.4), which is relatively good for OECD remote rural regions. Most settlements in the Pilbara have at least one primary school (grade K-6), with secondary schools (grade 7-12) confined to the larger settlements. However, low satisfaction with secondary and higher education has been a significant deterrent for people to stay in the Pilbara (WA Government, 2016[8]).

There are no higher education institution campuses in the Pilbara; instead, the Pilbara Universities Centre provides facilities and support to link Pilbara residents wishing to undertake undergraduate and postgraduate studies mostly virtually with its various university partners – Central Queensland University, Charles Darwin University, Curtin University, Edith Cowan University and University of Tasmania. A not-for-profit organisation funded primarily by the Western Australian and Australian governments, the city of Karratha and the PDC, its main facilities are located in Karratha, with more limited facilities on offer in Port Hedland.

In Western Australia, public vocational education and training (VET) is delivered through a network of metropolitan, Southern, Central and Northern TAFE College campuses. TAFE is a government-run system in Australia that provides education after high school in vocational areas. In the Pilbara, TAFE campuses are operated by the Northern TAFE College network and include campuses in Karratha, Minurmarghali (Roebourne), Newman, Pundulmurra (Hedland) and Tom Price. These campuses offer various qualifications in mechanical, plumbing, gas and electrical trades and nursing. There are also several private registered training organisations in the Pilbara, including those operated by resource companies for internal training purposes.

While increasing the physical offer of tertiary education in the region would depend on the critical mass available to support such investment, adapting the existing education supply to regional needs and excelling in providing niche training or education in the future of mining and energy challenges can be a distinct feature in the Pilbara. As across the OECD, industry innovation and transformations occur more rapidly than changes in curriculum and programmes in education (OECD, 2021[13]). It includes partnering with universities based in Perth and mining companies to offer a formal and renowned in-place VET option for Australian and international students immersed in the real working conditions in mining communities, including temperatures, distances and availability of human capital.

Moreover, students will be more likely to remain in the region if they are able to attain fulfilling local employment upon graduation. This means vocational training and professional education options should be integrated with school programmes, tailored for current and potential local employment opportunities to support a diverse and sustainable economy, providing a “seamless” transition from school to locally delivered vocational or professional training and career opportunities.

To prepare the regional human capital for the green and big data, robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) expansion of the digital economy and attract new talent in the Pilbara, the PDC, in collaboration with the Government of Western Australia department of Training and Workforce Development, should implement a formal mechanism of collaboration with industry and academia. It can initially focus on identifying the main shortage of skills in the region and then define clear alternatives of action to adapt and create capacitation programmes. Some of these actions can include:

  • Scaling up companies’ training programmes to involve a wider share of the population and make them sustainable over time. This includes both government and indistry support for advocating the benefits of mining to young people (e.g. mining’s role in the transition to net zero) ensuring culturally and gender safe training pathways and work environments designed by women and First Nations people.

  • Promoting apprenticeships or dual programmes to involve different types of populations in the innovation system of mining processes through collaborations of industry and education institutions. On-the-job internships are also mechanisms to durably connect youth with the work of the mining industry while continuing their studies. This might require regulatory changes to insert these models in the formal curriculum of high schools and universities, taking into account that students need to move outside their permanent residency. Local governments could work alongside industry owned and led Jobs and Skills Councils (JSCs) which provide strategic leadership in addressing skills and workforce challenges and identifying skills and workforce needs for their sectors. Local governments in the Pilbara can work with the Mining and Automotive Skills Alliance and the Powering Skills Organisation to ensure regional perspectives are considered in workforce planning.

  • Making available mainstream (private and public) school options to parents so that they can be assured that once they relocate to the Pilbara region, they have school choices available to them that are not dissimilar to other major regional locations and can reasonably make choices in the best interests of their children’s specific educational needs.

  • Partnering with universities based in Perth and mining companies to offer a formal and renowned in-place VET option for Australian and international students immersed in the real working conditions in mining communities.

While facilities are less of an issue in the Pilbara, with most towns having at least one hospital (Table 4.5), the installed capacity might be an issue, especially to attend the FIFO population (albeit most larger mining companies operate their own basic treatment capacity) and conduct more specialised procedures. There are also particular issues associated with elderly care services, resulting in a tendency for older people to relocate to metropolitan centres when they require sustained healthcare. Furthermore, distances in the region present a challenge for emergencies, as secondary health services are located in Karratha and Port Headland (Figure 4.2).

Despite this, the 2016 survey demonstrates that this is becoming less of an issue across regional Western Australia, decreasing from 48% of respondents in 2013 to 35% of respondents in 2016 (WA Health, 2016[19])

In addition to core medical infrastructure, a variety of health organisations and initiatives have been established to address the diverse healthcare needs of the local population in the Pilbara region. Some key players in the region include the Pilbara Health Network, the longstanding Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS), Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Services (ACCHS) and telehealth services. These organisations and initiatives work together with the Western Australian Country Health Service (WACHS) to provide a wider range of healthcare services.

The Pilbara Health Network focuses on providing primary healthcare services to communities in the region. This network collaborates with local communities, healthcare providers and government agencies to identify and address healthcare needs in the area. The RFDS plays a critical role in delivering emergency medical services and primary healthcare to remote and rural areas. In Western Australia, they conducted over 9 000 patient transports and more than 27 000 telehealth consultations in 2020-21, from which many were Pilbara-based patients (RFDS, 2021[21]). The ACCHS, including organisations like the Wirraka Maya Health Service and Mawarnkarra Health Service, provide culturally appropriate healthcare for First Nations communities.

Furthermore, the Western Australian government has implemented telehealth services for medical consultations that do not necessitate in-person interaction (WACHS, 2023[22]). By enabling patients in the Pilbara to consult with healthcare professionals through video conferencing, telehealth reduces the need for patients to travel long distances to access healthcare services. The WACHS plays an essential role in managing public hospitals, community health services and other healthcare programmes in the region.

Additionally, the Pilbara Health Initiative (PHI), a collaborative effort between the state government’s Royalties for Regions programme, the WACHS, and the Pilbara Industry’s Community Council, was launched in August 2009 (WACHS, 2021[20]). Initially a five-year partnership with a budget of AUD 38 244 million but still ongoing, the PHI aims to enhance and improve health services in the Pilbara region, focusing on six strategic priorities: access, infrastructure, response, service provision, sustainability and workforce development. While the PHI implements a range of programmes, its primary goal is to facilitate co-operation and co-ordination among the various health organisations and services in the region to better address the diverse healthcare needs of the growing Pilbara population.

The healthcare gap in the Pilbara can potentially be at least partially addressed through telemedicine and the location of key diagnostic services at an appropriate scale in the region. Arguably, what is more important for younger families is choice and ready and reliable access to services such as general practitioners, dentists, physiotherapists and the like. Initiatives designed to better incentivise family healthcare professionals to establish operations in the Pilbara can assist in this regard.

These priorities are also important for the local First Nations population, yet additional efforts should be taken to design healthcare initiatives that are accessible through culturally appropriate means. Further, and as importantly, is the deployment of healthcare capacity that can address the longer-term health conditions that are substantially more prevalent among the Pilbara First Nations population than amongst non-First Nations Australians (diabetes, kidney disease and heart disease), as well as mental healthcare that is tailored for culture and the specific circumstances of First Nations communities across the Pilbara.

The OECD has identified a number of strategies that help overcome the difficulties in providing services in low-density areas, including economies of scale in resources, infrastructure or labour force (Box 4.2). These strategies can be used as a framework to help address issues for the Pilbara across the different priorities.

Access to affordable housing in the Pilbara region has been a longstanding issue. Past surveys on quality of life (in 2016) indicated that 60% of Pilbara residents were planning to move with the aim of accessing more affordable housing (WA Government, 2013[24]). Despite no recent official Pilbara-wide surveys, the 2023 community survey of the city of Karratha ranked housing as a top-three concern, especially with regards to housing availability and insurance costs. Other towns in the region, such as Tom Price, highlighted during the in-person discussions for this study that housing shortage is one of the top deterrents for families considering relocating to the town. Furthermore, housing prices have risen by 25% over 2015-21, with residential vacancies below 1% (PDC, 2022[25]).

The Pilbara housing issue is a complex one rooted in a multifaceted range of causes, including high volatility in a small internal economy that creates uncertainty for long-term investments, a complex land tenure, high cost of construction and property prices and a reactive state policy approach.

A significant detractor to the growth of the residential population in the Pilbara region is the volatility of the residential housing market. The Pilbara’s economy is, in fact, one of the least diversified regions across the OECD mining regions (see Chapter 2), which, combined with a small internal market, makes the Pilbara’s economy highly vulnerable to external shocks in the extractive industry.

The historic expansion of the residential population in the Pilbara has been highly linked to expansion phases of the resources industry in the region. For example, between 1966 and 1971, the Pilbara’s population more than tripled (from 8 017 to 30 002 residents) (ABS, 2022[26]), which coincided with the commencement of the construction of mine, processing and logistics infrastructure of the Pilbara resources industry (see Chapter 2). Between 1990 and 2016, the correlation between total private new mining capital creation and the Pilbara residential population has been higher in the two most populous local government areas (LGAs), Karratha (r2=0.88) and Port Hedland (r2=0.85), followed by the smaller LGAs of Ashburton (r2=0.77) and East Pilbara (r2=0.80) (ABS, n.d.[27]). Similarly, recent studies have revealed that mining towns in Western Australia are subject to more frequent housing price fluctuations than in cities, as those fluctuations are directly associated with commodity price changes (Miao, 2023[28]).

This volatility creates uncertainty for developers, financial institutions and individuals and, thus, volatility in the housing market. Moreover, the region’s economic volatility has also led the state to adopt a conservative approach to residential land release and development without clear anticipatory policies to waive negative cycles.

The complexity of land tenure in the Pilbara region is part of the challenge. The protracted negotiation, development and approvals process to access land is a function of the complex overlapping interests in Pilbara lands, which constrains the responsiveness of residential land supply.

In the case of the Pilbara, most land that is zoned or suitable for zoning for residential development is held by the Government of Western Australia through a statutory body known as Development WA. Whilst there are areas of freehold title, mainly associated with the various settlements located across the state, these are relatively small areas of land. Indeed, approximately 92% of the Western Australian landmass remains Crown land (WA Government, 2022[29]).

With the exception of small areas in and around the main settlements, virtually all land in the Pilbara region is Crown land (Box 4.3). Crown land can be either unallocated, Crown land that is vacant and has no registered specific use over it, other than potentially an interest in accordance with the Native Title Act 1993 (Cth) – or allocated, Crown Land that is the subject of at least one registered interest but, in many cases (particularly in western areas of the Pilbara region), multiple and co-existing registered interests. Any proposal to undertake an activity on allocated Crown land will be subject to, first, complying with the specifications of all interests in those lands and, second, navigating a process to either gain legal agreement from other interests to extinguish their interest or co-exist with the proposed activity or an administrative process or court determination to compel the other interests to do so.

Notwithstanding the tenure complexities discussed above, Western Australian government projections indicate that there is ample supply of appropriately zoned land in the main population centres of the Pilbara to cater for current and future demand for residential dwellings. In 2020, land capacity modelling by the Western Australian Planning Commission (WAPC) identified capacity for an additional 4 400 dwellings over the medium term in Karratha, including 1 770 new dwellings out to 2030. While there is a history of dwelling construction, recent times have seen a dramatic decline in dwelling approvals (WA Government, 2021[31]).

In the case of Port Hedland, as of August 2021, there were over 400 vacant lots on land zoned for residential development. However, the land capacity modelling by the WAPC suggested a medium-term supply of 6 000 dwellings, including 3 200 within the decade. At the end of September 2021, there were 342 residential lots with conditional approval (WA Government, 2022[32]).

Whether developments are driven by the state or via private developers, the aforementioned demand-driven volatility, exacerbated by the supply of land constraints, has contributed to conservative approaches in the state government to residential land release and development. Other OECD studies in mining regions have highlighted the relevance of establishing a one-stop shop at the government level to address and speed up approval decision processes in a framework of complex land use tenures (OECD, 2021[33]).

The Pilbara housing issue involves numerous stakeholders – aspiring residents, current residents, investors, employers, First Nations communities, builders, subcontractors, etc. Further, it is not clear that market failure exists (i.e. people are still able to live and work in the Pilbara if they choose to do so) and even if market failure is evident, whether it exists to the extent that justifies the investment of scarce public sector resources.

However, the main challenge to residential property development in the Pilbara is more associated with the nature of the residential market: there is limited owner-occupied stock and because demand is driven by the cyclical expansion of the resources industry, the residential property market is volatile in the main population centres, rendering it less attractive to the owner-occupier market.

The portion of residential dwellings that are not occupied by owners (owned by property investors or organisations to facilitate staff accommodation) in Karratha and Port Hedland are 77% and 79% respectively, which is 3 times the state average (28%) (WA Government, 2020[34]; WA Government, 2022[32]).

From a construction perspective, Western Australia is one of the most expensive states in Australia (Townsend & Turner, 2022[35]). In the case of the Pilbara region, this is further exacerbated by the fact that most residential developments are greenfield developments requiring the additional cost of significant headworks, building regulations that require dwellings to be constructed to a prescribed specification with respect to cyclone durability, its remoteness and limited local building services. This results in relatively high residential construction costs and protracted building periods across the Pilbara.

Moreover, during periods of high housing demand, there is typically a significant differential between the market price of a residential property and the valuation that a bank or other financier will place on the property for the purposes of mortgage calculations.

These factors combine to render the purchase of residential property in the Pilbara less attractive and, in many instances, unattainable to people considering relocating and renders employers conservative when considering encouraging employees to relocate to the region.

Overall price volatility of housing is a function of the above-mentioned characteristics of the Pilbara residential property market:

  • The relationship between the residential population and expansions of the Pilbara resources industry, whereby relatively large numbers of people move to the Pilbara population centres for work reasons during resources sector expansions and begin to leave once the region passes through peak construction.

  • Lags in land release, development zoning and development of new residential stock that is a function of the complexities of co-existing tenure, the fact that most new residential developments are entirely greenfield in nature and limited local residential building service providers.

  • Supply constraints are the results of employing organisations, mainly resource companies but also government agencies, owning a significant portion of the residential property stock in the Pilbara region that they rent to their employees.

  • Challenges in financing residential developments and housing purchases that are the result of a significant difference between the cost of development or the price of a dwelling and the valuation a financier will use for the purposes of determining loan collateral, as well as the risk associated with the volatility of the local residential market.

Given the multifaceted challenges of the Pilbara’s housing market and the characteristics of the regional economy, improving the affordability of housing in the region needs a formal strategy and long-term plan from the state government. As has already been seen in the region, the private sector alone will not step in to fill the housing need in the region. Therefore, a clear government policy to address this issue with co-ordination across different state departments and the support of the mining companies is warranted. This involves firms analysing the extent to which this circumstance justifies the investment of public sector resources to intervene in this market in the region, particularly with a volatile demand for housing that relies on the boom-and-bust periods.

A specific task force or multi-stakeholder group can help understand and scope the issue and develop a clear and implementable housing strategy for the region. In doing so, mining companies could also find avenues to improve housing market conditions in the Pilbara and, thus, the well-being of communities, through common agreements to free up land for housing development close to towns or make it easier for employees to buy company-owned homes for example.

This type of task force or alliance mechanism has been established in other remote OECD mining regions. For example, to address the acute housing shortage in the mining boom of the 2010s, the town of Labrador West, Canada, created the Labrador West Housing and Homelessness Coalition, made up of a diverse range of stakeholders that represent the community. This coalition helped to secure funding and build houses through various activities: i) advocacy targeted at raising awareness among the federal and provincial governments; ii) creation of partnerships to raise funds and help build houses; and iii) provision of support services such as housing counselling. The state government could create this task force or coalition inspired by this example (Box 4.4).

As experienced in other OECD mining regions, the government, in collaboration with mining companies, can set a strategy to make counter-cyclical investments in housing stock and reduce construction cost. In some remote mining towns, like Thompson in Northern Manitoba, Canada, the local government introduced a 5% municipal hotel fee in 2009, where there was a 0% rental vacancy rate, to create a reserve fund to support affordable housing, infrastructure and community safety during bust periods (CCPA, 2009[36]). In other regions like Alberta, Canada, the extractive industry has collaborated to support housing construction in the region.

Another option to improve housing supply and free up new land is to change zoning rules to promote densification. Mining regions such as Dalarna County and Norrbotten in Sweden have partly addressed housing shortages through densification initiatives such as incentives to increase the occupancy rate in dwellings, construction of apartment buildings and other high-density residential options. It is noteworthy that densification has been trialled in the city of Karratha by way of the Pelago apartment complex (partly underwritten by the Western Australian government in 2012 via the upfront purchase of some units), albeit this development initially found it difficult to maintain full occupancy, likely a function of most longer-term residents being attracted to the Pilbara for its outdoor lifestyle and space. Despite the cultural factor, densification may be an option to attract new generations, single people or immigrants with another cultural lifestyle who are looking for affordability and accessibility to city services within walking distance.

A unique aspect of the total Pilbara population is its large itinerant workforce. This is partly in response to the fundamental barriers to long-term residency in the Pilbara but largely linked to an industry strategy to ensure efficient access to a large and diverse skilled workforce.

Challenges associated with attracting large numbers of skilled workers to reside in the Pilbara, combined with it being a less costly option (for both industry and government) compared to housing staff in the Pilbara, has resulted in organisations in the Pilbara, particularly those in the resources sector, being highly reliant on a FIFO workforce. The FIFO working model has also provided a buffer for governments to develop local community infrastructure during expansions or construction periods (Haslam McKenzie, 2020[40]).

While organisations tend not to disclose the extent of their FIFO workforces in specific locations, as an anecdotal indication, on the night of the 2021 Australian population census,2 there were a total of approximately 30 000 people in the Pilbara whose current location was outside their normal SA23 area of residence. While this figure will include tourists and intra-regional travel, it is reasonable to assume that a significant portion of the 30 000 visitors in the Pilbara region are FIFO employees and contractors. This suggests a significant portion of the total number of people in the region at any one time and, in the case of the more remote Shires of Ashburton and particularly of East Pilbara, a majority of the people are potentially FIFO workers.

These FIFO employees and contractors come from Perth and other regional centres across Western Australia, capital cities and regional centres from across Australia and worldwide. They operate on shift cycles that are variable, with two weeks on and one week off being a common shift rotation (WA Government, 2012[41]), and when on shift, reside primarily in dedicated worker accommodation facilities that are located in or in proximity to settlements or on remote mining sites.

The FIFO employee and contracting framework used by the resources industry in the Pilbara and elsewhere has been controversial in Western Australia. While the resources industry maintains it is essential to retain a skilled, professional and productive workforce in regional and remote areas of operation, regional communities have consistently advocated for measures to permanently locate workers in the regions. Further, more recently, an identified culture of sexual harassment within FIFO workforces has come under significant scrutiny (WA Parliament, 2020[42]). The 2022 Western Australian Government inquiry into sexual assault in the FIFO mining industry titled Enough is Enough proposes 24 recommendations that can be utilised by regional governments and industry to improve the culture of mining in the Pilbara and ensure a safe and gender inclusive environment, beyond policies to increase female employees in the sector. This includes addressing gender and power imbalances, alcohol use, poor behaviour, and unhealthy workplace culture that are rife in the FIFO working model.

Generally, some initiatives can be undertaken to help minimise FIFO and reduce associated negative impacts on local communities. First, for practical and occupational health and safety reasons, FIFO worker accommodation (or “camps”) should be located within normal commutable distance of the operation. Where operations are remote, this necessitates the accommodation base also being remote. However, where there is an existing settlement within commutable distance of the operation, models are emerging whereby the FIFO work accommodation can be integrated with the residential community.

This allows FIFO workers and their host communities to benefit from an integrated community lifestyle, supports a stronger local economy by creating demand for local services and suppliers and provides the community with access to FIFO camp facilities that might not otherwise exist in the settlement, such as recreational facilities, creating a more harmonious and welcoming existence. However, particularly in smaller settlements, the provision of such amenities by mining company camps can also potentially crowd out small local businesses.

Indeed, it should be noted that this model, if not well considered and managed, can have negative externalities. For example, in the case of smaller communities, service offerings to the local market from a mining camp potentially compete with local small businesses, crowding the less-resourced local businesses out of the small market and potentially leading to community resentment. To this end, a framework and set of development and operating protocols or standards that define how an effective settlement-integrated FIFO camp is designed and operates could be developed. This should be approached on a continuous improvement basis and can help ensure that FIFO camps remain safe, efficient and sustainable over the long term and that they continue to meet the needs of workers and local communities alike (Box 4.5).

Despite the significant wealth produced in the Pilbara region and some improvement in recent decades, much of the region’s First Nations population endure lower than average socio-economic conditions and, in many cases, dire poverty (Chapter 2). From around the time the High Court of Australia determined that Britain’s claim to the Australian continent under the doctrine of terra nullius was void, the nation, through both legislative reform and jurisprudence, has been navigating a return of rights to its First Nations people.

The fact that, on average and compared to non-First Nations Australians, Australia’s First Nations people endure substantial socio-economic disadvantage is a significant national issue (Australian Government, 2020[47]). As with most parts of Australia, the relative socio-economic disadvantage of First Nations people across the Pilbara region is self-evident:

  • From a health perspective, across the Pilbara region, 35% of the First Nations population suffer from long-term health issues (such as arthritis, asthma, cancer, dementia, diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease, lung conditions, mental health issues and stroke), compared to 26% of non-First Nations residents. The difference is particularly large in the case of heart disease, diabetes and kidney disease.

  • The portion of the Pilbara First Nations working-age population that either did not go to school or did not complete early years of secondary school is substantially higher than is the case for the non-First Nations population and the portion of the First Nations working-age population that completed the final year of secondary school is around half that of the non-First Nations population.

  • Higher rates of non-completion of secondary school among the Pilbara First Nations population play out in post-school qualifications. A higher portion of the First Nations population in the Pilbara has achieved the lowest levels of post-school formal qualifications (VET Certificates I or II), with all higher levels of post-school formal qualifications (VET Certificates III and IV, diploma and advanced diploma; bachelor’s degree; graduate diploma or graduate certificate; or postgraduate degree) being characterised by comparatively lower levels of achievement among the First Nations population.

  • Lower labour force participation rates among the Pilbara First Nations population and across the Pilbara. The unemployment rate among First Nations communities is significantly higher than that of the non-First Nations population.

  • This, in turn, translates to higher welfare dependency from both government and mining companies across the Pilbara First Nations community and substantially lower levels of household income.

Improving well-being of First Nations people in the Pilbara needs a comprehensive approach that supports their connection to country through improved land tenure arrangements, enhances tailored education opportunities, and empowers communities to create their own economic opportunities in the region, and manage the benefits to suit their interests. Many of the strategies and policy guidelines in this section are aligned with the previous OECD policy recommendations to improve business and community economic development outcomes for First Nations Australians at the local and regional levels (Box 4.6) (OECD, 2020[48]).

A key component of the Australian Government’s response to First Nations people’s well-being gaps has been the implementation of a form of land tenure known as Native Title. Proclamation of the Native Title Act 1993 (Cth) – the key component of the Australian Government’s policy response to the Mabo High Court decision4 – provides a platform for traditional owners in the Pilbara region to reassert some rights over their traditional lands. The Federal Court of Australia can determine native title claims by traditional owners as either exclusive or non-exclusive. Where native title is exclusive, the traditional owners can occupy the native title lands at the exclusion of all others. However, exclusive native title rights do not amount to full legal ownership of land or waters, and they cannot be sold. For example, if a mining lease or pastoral tenement is issued by the government, activities permitted by the lease can be carried out regardless of the existence of Native Title.

Furthermore, where native title is determined as non-exclusive, the tenure is shared with other land users, such as the holders of mining tenements or pastoral leases (Box 4.7). In a vast majority of cases, whilst the traditional owner holders of non-exclusive native title will have some specific rights with respect to the native title lands, their tenure is typically subordinate to that of other land users. Regardless of rights, third parties wishing to conduct activities on determined native title lands are required to enter into Indigenous Land Use Agreements (ILUAs) with the traditional owners.

In addition to mining tenements and native title tenure, much of the landmass of the Pilbara region is also the subject of pastoral leases that support extensive grazing of cattle and sheep that also intersect with mining tenements and native title interests (Box 4.7).

Regardless of its limitations, First Nations groups and mining companies have entered into arrangements that allow miners to access native title lands for the operation of mines, rail networks, ports and other infrastructure in exchange for royalty payments that are made into trusts for which traditional owner groups are beneficiaries. This substantial and growing resource can potentially be mobilised in the interests of economic empowerment of First Nations people in the Pilbara region.

However, the current system can hamper self-determination as it relies on a network of charitable trusts that holds royalties on behalf of traditional owners. This paternalistic model replicates the welfare system as traditional owners need to seek approval to access their funds. These challenges present an opportunity for the Australian government to design, alongside First Nations people, a revised model that empowers traditional owners to manage their own money and encourages enterprise and job creation.

Given the Pilbara’s significant First Nations population, extensive native title footprint and substantial financial capital held in trust, the state government and other stakeholders in the Pilbara region have an opportunity to show leadership in Australia in advancing the economic and governance empowerment of First Nations people. The United Nations Declaration of Rights of Indigenous People’s principles of self-determination and Free, Prior, and Informed Consent should play a central role in guiding reforms to mining land use in the Pilbara and its impact on First Nations people. Transforming these considerations into actionable initiatives will render the Pilbara a safer and more prosperous place for First Nations people to work, raise their families, and practice culture. The Pilbara can therefore become a good benchmark for the relationships among First Nations people and mining for Australia and other OECD mining regions.

An immediate opportunity in this regard is land management and conservation. As the mining industry progresses, an increasing number of mines are commencing closure phases, requiring land and ecosystem rehabilitation. Enabling First Nations people to apply Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) to the design and implementation of this rehabilitation effort enhances their influence in governance, allows them to lead the restoration of their traditional lands and, through a fee-for-service model, achieve economic outcomes – a framework that is becoming increasingly prevalent across Australia (Barnes, Holcombe and Parmenter, 2020[50]). Further, emerging new sectors such as renewable energy provide an opportunity for the region to reset its First Nations economic participation paradigm.

The significant portion of First Nations residents in the Pilbara who are not engaged in the workforce or are unemployed represent a considerable latent workforce capacity that can be activated for the purposes of enhancing regional productivity and economic diversification. Ensuring local First Nations children leave school with an adequate level of education and training is a key step in activating a local First Nations workforce.

Research has shown that traditional knowledge transfer methods are often more effective than mainstream education models for significant sections of the First Nations community. This highlights the importance of recognising and valuing diverse approaches to education that align with cultural traditions and practices. The region should investigate attracting local investment from organisations such as Studio Schools of Australia to establish broader education options for First Nations students across the region.

Existing education models are partly failing to deliver for a very large portion of First Nations children. The relationship between First Nations peoples and non-First Nations citizens continues to be strained as the result of entrenched and visible racism and demonstrable inequality. Both challenges must be addressed via the education system for the region to flourish. Therefore, in the first instance, to ensure First Nations youth have the scholarly foundation, cultural connection, and pride to prosper as adults in the region, new education models for First Nations children that are designed by First Nations people and incorporate traditional ways of transferring knowledge and skills need to be implemented.

Local First Nations knowledge and cultural teachings, as articulated and delivered by local First Nations elders and educators, must be integrated into the mainstream educational curriculum for all grades so that awareness and understanding are embedded into the fabric of the region.

Furthermore, education can be a means to improve social cohesion. Communities will continue to be divided and unaware of the multi-generational impacts of systemic inequality on First Nations people if there is a lack of mainstream education regarding the historic and current lived experience of First Nations communities. The education system is key to tackling this divisiveness and is well positioned to be a strong and embedded bridging mechanism that can help to drive social cohesion and pride in the unique and valuable knowledge and culture of First Nations people. This will be for the benefit of all members of society and can create a means of driving an inclusive and fully functioning economy.

Also, there is a need for the Pilbara First Nations Capacity Building Program to improve capabilities and skills identification and development. It should include:

  • Further development of post-secondary educational funding programmes in partnership with state and federal governments and industry to advance First Nations engagement in all levels of the economy.

  • Specific training to develop business and conduct joint venture partnerships.

  • Financial literacy.

First Nations groups with native title are required to establish a Prescribe Body Corporate (PBC), which is an Aboriginal Corporation that acts on their behalf. In the Pilbara, PBCs receive royalty payments and benefits from iron ore and petroleum companies for use of their lands. These payments are delivered to charitable trusts that are held by Land Councils and can be requested and distributed by the PBC according to their rules. It is important to note that not all PBCs are governed by First Nations people.

Benefit sharing agreements are negotiated privately between traditional owners and resource companies and establish the terms of land use and appropriate compensation. There are currently an estimated 21 such agreements with 14 traditional owner groups amongst the three main iron ore producers in the Pilbara (BHP, Fortescue Metals Group and Rio Tinto) with the first of these agreements entered into in 1996-97.

With ad valorem royalty rates understood to be in the vicinity of 0.3 to 0.5% of production derived from traditional lands, the charitable and direct benefits trust associated with these structures have accumulated significant wealth over the past decade – estimated billions of dollars in total – wealth that will continue to accumulate over decades to come.

Despite this, early negotiations have been criticised for not delivering adequate compensation to First Nations communities for use of their lands in comparison to the wealth generated through mining activity. However, in recent years and following Rio Tinto’s destruction of Juukan Gorge in 2020 (a 46,000 year old sacred rock shelter) (Rio Tinto, 2022[51]), benefit sharing agreements across the Pilbara between mining companies and First Nations communities have started to be updated to provide greater benefits to communities, respect for cultural heritage, and relationship building based on trust. This includes modernisation of existing impact-benefit agreements and going beyond royalties to include the creation of social and cultural projects in partnership with First Nations communities, such as the modernisation agreement between Rio Tinto and Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation based on a partnership that will deliver community, commercial, and culture projects to the Yindjibarndi people (Rio Tinto, 2022[52]).

Figure 4.5 summarises the estimated number of royalty agreements with key First Nations groups in the Pilbara region with the main iron ore producers.

However, the current trust system brings challenges, most notably in terms of coordination and promotion of self-determination. Many First Nations communities struggle to navigate the current trust system as it follows “mainstream” values and processes that are familiar to non-First Nations Australians, yet do not reflect First Nations ways of doing business. This makes navigating the system difficult and can result in mismanagement of trusts by both First Nations people and non-First Nations people (Blue and O’Faircheallaigh, 2018[54]). Additionally, the constrained nature of charitable trusts disempowers communities as opportunities for engagement with the economy and the right to self-manage funds is removed (Lombardi and Cooper, 2015[55]).

An alternative system for native title royalties that grants autonomy to First Nations peoples is likely to have positive socio-economic impacts on communities. For instance, control over restrictions on alcohol led by Aboriginal women in Fitzroy Crossing and Halls Creek resulted in a significant decline in alcohol-related hospital admissions, while government interventions regarding alcohol restrictions were less effective (Hudson, 2011[56]; Gray and Wilkes, 2011[57]). Furthermore, compulsory income management programmes for individuals receiving government benefits in Australia and New Zealand were found to be ineffective as they limit opportunities for self-determination (Humpage, 2016[58]). This highlights the significant potential of First Nations autonomy in delivering community programs and managing financial resources. Communities require co-designed royalty systems that centre self-determination and suit First Nations values and practices as well as capacity building in financial literacy so funds can be adequately managed to meet collective interests.

The Pilbara would also benefit from analysing the disparities between native title holders and other First Nations communities. This is important to ensure regional development empowers all First Nations people and allows for economic participation external to native title determination.

In the spirit of self-determination and the “nothing about us without us” principle, any follow-up or proposed outcomes in response to these recommendations need to be agreed to by, co-developed with and overseen by the region’s First Nations people to ensure their traditions, values, perspectives, lived experiences and objectives remain central to all themes covered, processes and outcomes.

According to discussions during the meetings of this study with First Nations people and suggestions by First Nations people of other OECD countries, supporting a space where the Pilbara’s First Nations people, local governments, industry and the broader community can discuss main needs, challenges and priorities for the well-being of First Nations people could be a first step to reach common solutions and strategies. This space can take the form of a First Nations conference or summit in the Pilbara to address topics including:

  • Truth telling:

    • History of dispossession, massacres, incarceration, eugenics and family separation, segregation and impacts of resultant welfare dependency.

    • Specific focus on the impact of mining on the destruction of cultural values and traditions.

    • Nature of intergenerational trauma and its impact.

    • Pathways to healing: the role of tradition, culture, art, education and governance in healing.

  • First Nations visibility in the Pilbara region:

    • Greater integration of cultural learning and understanding in mainstream education curriculum, community programmes and industry workforce training programmes, with regional First Nations people as programme and content developers.

    • Pathways to greater involvement in regional decision making.

    • Ensuring First Nations people’s perspectives and interests are embedded in civic, environmental, and regional economic decision-making processes at the local government, development agency and industry levels.

  • Pathways to economic self-determination:

    • Resources industry, including closure and rehabilitation.

    • New frameworks for participation in new sectors, such as renewable energy.

    • First Nations unique enterprise – tourism, TEK-oriented food production and land and ecosystems restoration, etc.

    • Examining opportunities for self-determination and independence via alternative deployment or application of trust funds.

The Pilbara’s remoteness and hot weather will remain challenges to substantially growing the local residential population. This, combined with the specific human resources needs of the industry on which its economy is entirely dependent – the resources industry – means that it is also highly probable that FIFO communities will also continue to be a characteristic of the total population of the Pilbara region, together with the negative externalities it brings to local communities in cost of living and housing markets.

However, the recommendations of this report help build the conditions to diversify the regional economy and phase out the short-term development approach brought by the high reliance on the resource industry and the void of a coherent and realistic long-term development vision for the region. Putting the goal of improving people’s well-being at the top of the development agenda will help both the productivity of a sustainable mining sector and the liveability and attractiveness of the Pilbara communities. It involves focusing on improving access to quality services and affordable housing and enhancing growth opportunities and self-determination of First Nations people. All this needs to be framed under a long-term master plan that builds on the needs of the Pilbara’s communities and provides them with the financial and policy tools to decide their futures, with sound co-ordination of state departments and mining companies towards the same goal: leaving a legacy in the Pilbara beyond resource extraction.


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[47] Australian Government (2020), Closing the Gap, https://www.closingthegap.gov.au/partnership.

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[54] Blue, L. and C. O’Faircheallaigh (2018), “Indigenous autonomy and financial decision-making in communities”, Financial Planning Research Journal, pp. 39-50.

[36] CCPA (2009), “The housing crisis in Thompson”, Fast Facts, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, https://policyalternatives.ca/sites/default/files/uploads/publications/Manitoba_Pubs/2009/FF_Thompson_Housing_052909.pdf.

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[14] OECD (2022), Shrinking Smartly in Estonia: Preparing Regions for Demographic Change, OECD Rural Studies, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/77cfe25e-en.

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[5] Paterson, A. and P. Veth (2022), The point of pearling: Colonial pearl fisheries and the historical translocation of Aboriginal and Asian workers in Australia’s northwest.

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[4] University of Newcastle (2023), Colonial Frontier Massacres in Australia, 1788-1930, Centre for 21st Century Humanities.

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[34] WA Government (2020), Planning Commission: Karratha: Regional Land Supply Assessment, Government of Western Australia.

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[24] WA Government (2013), Department of Regional Development, Government of Western Australia.

[41] WA Government (2012), Working FIFO - Is It for Me? A Guide for Aboriginal People Who Want to Work in the FIFO Industry, Government of Western Australia.

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[22] WACHS (2023), Homepage, WA Country Health Services, Government of Western Australia, https://www.wacountry.health.wa.gov.au/.

[20] WACHS (2021), Program Overview - Pilbara Health Initiative, WA Country Health Services, Government of Western Australia, https://www.wacountry.health.wa.gov.au/Our-services/Pilbara/Pilbara-health-initiative/Program-overview.

[1] Wangka Maya Pilbara Aboriginal Language Centre (2023), Pilbara Language Families, https://www.wangkamaya.org.au/about-wangka-maya.

[6] Wangka Maya Pilbara Aboriginal Language Centre (2020), Aboriginal Languages of Australia, https://www.wangkamaya.org.au/pilbara-languages/01-indigenous-languages-of-australia.

[49] Western Australian Government Department of Planning, Lands, and Heritage (2022), Native Title Vision Geoservoce.

[44] Yukon (2023), The Hiring Preference, Government of Yukon, https://yukon.ca/hiring-preference.


← 1. Traditional lands refer to lands that form part of the traditional territory of a First Nations community of which they have historically used and occupied and continue to use and occupy. See more here: https://www.lawinsider.com/dictionary/traditional-lands#:~:text=Traditional%20Lands%20means%20those%20lands,a%20map%20attached%20as%20Schedule%20%E2%80%9C

← 2. The Australian Population and Housing Census is a comprehensive population and socio-economic survey of all Australians undertaken by the Australian Bureau of Statistics every five years. The most recent census was undertaken on 10 August 2021.

← 3. Statistical Areas Level 2 (SA2s) are medium-sized general-purpose areas built up from whole Statistical Areas Level 1 (SA1s). Their purpose is to represent a community that interacts together socially and economically. In the case of the Pilbara region, there are four SA2 regions, approximating the boundaries of the four Pilbara LGAs.

← 4. [1992] HCA 23, (1992) 175 CLR 1.

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