As reported in the Sydney Morning Herald:

Mining companies and Aboriginal groups allegedly engaged in “cartel conduct”, including price fixing for work involving ancient indigenous heritage sites, according to claims investigated by the competition watchdog.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission will not act on the claims but will monitor the situation, and asked the groups involved to review their business practices.

Critics say Aboriginal cultural knowledge has been “commodified” and important artefacts and sites are being destroyed to make way for mining developments. However, mining companies insist they have acted properly.

Fairfax Media has learnt the ACCC raised concerns in July about the supply of paid Aboriginal cultural heritage field services to mining companies in the Hunter Valley.

Mining companies can pay groups known as “registered Aboriginal parties” to conduct field surveys and manage or salvage artefacts affected by mining development.

The ACCC investigated claims involving Rio Tinto Coal, Ashton Coal and NuCoal Resources, whereby all registered Aboriginal parties were allegedly paid the same pre-agreed fixed rate for their services. It also investigated claims that only groups listed on a roster held by the mining companies were given work.

It said such conduct, if it occurred, would constitute price fixing and market sharing, and would be anti-competitive.

The watchdog expressed “concerns in this matter” but said “it will not take any further action … at this stage”.

It asked involved parties to “review business practices to comply with the requirements of the [law]” and may consider action “should further allegations be brought to its attention”.

Aboriginal cultural heritage expert Maria Cotter claimed that decision-making on important sites was “being driven by dollar reimbursement and not by informed Aboriginal people making decisions about their heritage”.

“Aboriginality has been commodified in the process so that [people] are being bought to be Aboriginal, whether they have clear connections and understanding of the heritage of a particular place or not,” Dr Cotter said.

Scott Franks, who works with Ms Cotter and is a registered native title claimant for about 10,000 square kilometres of the Hunter Valley, claimed indigenous “blow-ins” from outside the area were engaged by mining companies, regardless of their knowledge or qualifications. Another local indigenous source close to the assessment process supported the claim.

The chief executive of Wanaruah Local Aboriginal Land Council, Noel Downs, deniedcartel behaviour was taking place, but claimed some Aboriginal parties were “attempting to corner the market for themselves”.

Greens MP David Shoebridge said the system encouraged miners and developers to pay Aboriginal groups “in return for the right to destroy heritage, and this money-for-destruction bargain creates deep conflicts in communities”.

A Rio Tinto Coal Australia spokesman said the company ran a “culturally and commercially appropriate procurement process”, involving more than 40 Aboriginal parties in cultural heritage assessment.

An Ashton Coal spokesman said it thoroughly reviewed the way it acquires cultural heritage field services and “we have acted appropriately on all occasions”.

A NuCoal spokesman said the company denied any wrongdoing but “fully co-operated” with the ACCC investigation, which “concluded that no action was warranted”.

A spokeswoman for the Office of Environment and Heritage said when assessing Aboriginal cultural heritage “it may be necessary to engage additional practitioners with special expertise”.