Cathy races to back ore project

February 09, 2006

Cathy Freeman with Pilbara miner Andrew "Twiggy" Forrest

IT is Cathy Freeman's proud heritage and determination to help others that has led to her latest venture with multi-millionaire and Pilbara miner Andrew "Twiggy" Forrest.

In her role as an employment advocate for Mr Forrest's export iron ore development, the Olympic gold medallist said the businessman would guarantee jobs to any Aborigine who completed a vocational training program.

Freeman told the crowd of Pilbara worthies in Port Hedland they should use Aborigines to fill skills shortages threatening the construction of other major projects.

"The success of this training program -- forming part of the agreement with Aboriginal claimant groups -- will be an important part of the success of this project," she said.

Hundreds of Aborigines later gathered at South Hedland shopping centre to hear the former athlete promise jobs and opportunities from the $2.4billion iron project Mr Forrest's Fortescue Metals Group is proposing.

A go-ahead decision is expected within weeks.

As patron of FMG's vocational training and education program, Australia's Olympic darling, a longtime friend of Fortescue chief executive Mr Forrest from his days as chairman of Athletics Australia, said there were huge opportunities for Aborigines stuck with the training scheme in the shape of long-term jobs.

While the Pilbara has a skills shortage, Aboriginal unemployment is among the highest in Australia. The FMG project is offering about 800 construction jobs and 300 permanent positions.

In what she said was an unaccustomed role as master of ceremonies, Freeman admitted it was her first time on a mine site. Freeman praised Mr Forrest's vision and his belief in the worth of Aboriginal people. She said it was important that the mining industry recognise the potential of indigenous people.

Standing in 30C heat, Freeman said she had known Mr Forrest for about eight years and his vision for a mining company that employed indigenous people in skilled jobs was a dream she shared.

While Mr Forrest and Western Australia's Planning and Infrastructure Minister Alannah MacTiernan used silver spades to turn the first sod, it was Freeman who attracted the cheers of a crowd of about 150, including many Aborigines.

As Ms MacTiernan said, it may have been a big day for Fortescue and Andrew Forrest -- but it was an even bigger day for people who could say they'd met Cathy Freeman.