Australia puts pressure on Rio Tinto to appoint Australian chief

Australia has asked Rio Tinto to appoint an Australian as its next chief executive, in an attempt to sharpen the mining giant’s focus on a country that generates a significant bulk of its total earnings.

The Australian government’s treasurer Josh Frydenberg made the request after Rio’s decided to replace current CEO Jean-Sébastien Jacques and two other executives over their role in the destruction of a 46,000-year-old Aboriginal site in Western Australia.

“Rio Tinto is one of the great companies of the world with a proud Australian history,” said Frydenberg on Monday. “With the vast majority of its revenue coming from Australia, it would be fitting to once again see an Australian as chief executive along with the majority of the board.”

The statement coincides with the Australian government’s drive to tighten foreign investment rules and protect strategic industries, as diplomatic and trade tensions with China begin to mount and the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact global supply chains.

Potential Australian candidates for the job – according to bankers and analysts – include Sandeep Biswas and Mark Cutifani, chief executives of Newcrest Mining and Anglo American, along with former Fortescue Metals Group CEO Nev Power.

In the wake of the Juukan Gorge blasts earlier this year, Australian politicians and pension funds have been critical of Rio’s apparent ignorance of the cultural heritage of the Pilbara — an iron ore-rich region that contributes 90% of its earnings.

“There’s no one on that board with any real understanding of the Aboriginal groups who own the country on which they operate,” said Ben Wyatt, treasurer of the Western Australian state government.