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Rio’s new ‘woke’ boss has another culturally sensitive issue on his plate

It is a particularly interesting response given the very same shareholders had unsuccessfully pushed for an Australian to replace Jean Sebastian Jacques as chief executive of Rio.

The addition of Rio’s new head of Australia Kellie Parker as a back-up act provided a perfect note to the performance.

Stausholm elevated Parker, who hails from the iron ore outback of West Australia, from her former role running the group’s aluminium assets out of Brisbane. She oozes authenticity and looks like she would be more comfortable wearing high vis than high heels.

Back at team Rio, they like the roadshow to be thought of as the “listening tour”.

But it was one that could not have included Rio’s chairman Simon Thompson who last week announced he would bring forward his retirement to next year.

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Rio needed to hear from the new brand of management – those not tainted by the Juukan tragedy.

While Stausholm and his new team are making all the right noises about turning over a cultural leaf, the larger base of shareholders will be expecting that financial returns will not be sacrificed in the process.

The new and much louder voice that traditional owners have rightly found isn’t going away. Indeed the aftershock of the cave blasts has been felt across the globe in the US where a giant copper project is being assessed by Rio in partnership with BHP.

The indigenous Apache tribe of Native Americans had been fighting the proposed development well before the Juukan blast. But thanks to Juukan the issue of native land rights has been elevated to a world stage and all eyes will be on how Rio responds to this pressure.

Large Australian shareholders spearheaded the push for Rio executives and its board to be accountable for failed systems and processes and the cultural breakdown that led to the Juukan episode.

Kellie Parker was promoted to be Australian chief executive from her former role running Rio’s group of aluminium assets.

Kellie Parker was promoted to be Australian chief executive from her former role running Rio’s group of aluminium assets.Credit:Aaron Bunch

These shareholders were supported by a band of British pension funds who are now applying the blow torch to Rio to ensure that an improvement in the resource company’s relationship with the traditional owners in Australia is equally applied to the Apache tribe in the US.

The British funds, which account for $500 million in funds under management, have written to Rio raising their concerns about the US copper project. And they want to see Rio appoint people with indigenous cultural credentials at the upper management or board level.

It is a call that will be broadly supported rather than spearheaded by Australian shareholders.

In the short term at least Australian shareholders will be exercising what heft they have to pressure the Rio board into appointing an Australian chairman.

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