Illustration: Rocco Fazzari
The peak of the mining boom is now past. The best of the high prices and giddy rhetoric is a historical artefact: "Commodity prices declined for a few months last year and are noticeably off their peaks," as the Reserve Bank governor, Glenn Stevens, put it this month.
The central bank's index of base metal prices shows they've fallen by 17 per cent since their zenith exactly 12 months ago. The bank's broader index of all commodities is down 10 per cent from its record high last August.
The share prices of Australian mining companies have fallen by even more. The overall sharemarket fell by 14 per cent last year; the resource index suffered a 26 per cent crunch. Mining has continued to underperform the overall market this year.
The boom is not over. Prices may be down but they're still high and export volumes are still strong. But it's now much easier to imagine an end to the episode. The passing of the peak of the boom should be a sobering moment for Australia. The question we should ask ourselves: what will we have left?
The short answer, for most Australians and for the nation as a whole, is precious little of lasting value.
We can reasonably predict a few things already. First, we know that most of the Australian economy will be left badly shaken and traumatised. The commodities boom has pushed up the price of the Australian dollar. It's about 50 per cent higher than its average since it was deregulated in 1983.
To suddenly raise the price of everything you sell to the world by 50 per cent is a very big thing. It's a terrible penalty to all the other exporters - to universities trying to sell courses to foreign students, to tourism businesses trying to sell holidays and conventions to people overseas, and to manufacturers trying to sell average-quality products to a price-conscious world.
You hear calls, almost daily, for the Reserve Bank to cut interest rates to help these suffering sectors. So why doesn't it? The bank holds interest rates at a level to contain inflation, and inflationary pressures are mainly coming from where, exactly? The mining sector, of course. So rates are set, in effect, to the level dictated by the mining boom, not by the needs of the other nine-tenths of the economy.
That's right - mining accounts for only about 8 per cent of Australia's total economic output and employs only about 2 per cent of the workforce. So the other 98 per cent of us are paying interest rates set according to the pressures generated by 2 per cent.
But what of all the wealth created by mining? Of course, mining has generated a vast volume of exports and raised our national income. It now accounts for most of Australia's exports. And it's lifted national income to a level about 14 per cent higher than it would be otherwise, in the best estimate of the Reserve. But what happens to all of this after the boom?
The answer is that it fades away, just as it has in all the previous booms. Sure, some will be retained in the form of buildings and rail lines that have been paid for out of mining profits. Look at the fine old sandstones in Sydney and bluestones in Melbourne, and courthouses and schools of arts in towns across Australia - many are the legacy of mining booms long past.
And some of the big projects inaugurated during the boom will stay in place, cranking out coal, gas, gold and iron ore for many years to come. Mining projects with a total value of $230 billion are planned.
But mostly, like the bustling activity in a fly-in-fly-out mining town, the wealth will just fade away as prices and volumes fall in the future. Many of the big planned projects will be quietly shelved as falling prices make them uneconomic.
So how does the nation capture some of the temporary wealth and hold onto it? There are two obvious answers - a tax on the super profits of the boom sector, and a sovereign wealth fund. Australia is attempting, and botching, one, and not attempting the other at all.
After the shameful surrender of the federal government to the three big multinationals BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto and Xstrata, the mining tax was reduced to a derisory yield of $10.5 billion over its first three years, according to the Treasury. To appreciate how paltry that is, consider that the profits of the mining sector grew by about that much, $10 billion, between 2009-10 and 2011-12.
And the idea of a sovereign wealth fund? The Rudd-Gillard governments and the Abbott opposition have never supported such a fund. There is nothing ideological about this - everyone from the Greens on the left to the International Monetary Fund on the right has urged Australia to capture some of the windfall revenue of the boom in a sovereign wealth fund. But Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott would rather have every available dollar to spend at their discretion.
This is a sad national failure. It gets worse. Not only will the nation extract little lasting benefit from the boom, the miners' successful thugging of the government has imprinted a new fear on the Australian political culture. By spending $22 million on an ad campaign and conspiring with the anti-Rudd forces in the Labor government, the miners managed to help bring down a prime minister and bastardise the original mining tax. The lesson? Don't mess with the miners.
Together with the ACTU's successful campaign against the Howard government's Work Choices policy, the miners have now cemented a culture of successful third-party political intimidation of governments. This will contribute to a long-lived timidity in our political parties in confronting powerful groups.
Worse yet, the mining boom helped entrench a national entitlement mentality. John Howard can claim authorship, more than anyone else, of creating this mentality with a series of middle-class welfare programs and benefits that were not limited to the needy and the middle-income groups but paid even to the rich.
And in his final years, in the first iteration of the mining boom from 2004 to 2007, he spent the windfall gains like a drunken sailor.
The Howard-era entitlement mentality lives on in Abbott's magic pudding approach to fiscal policy.
He promises to cut personal and company taxes while scrapping both the mining carbon taxes. And he opposes government decisions to apply a means test to some government payments. Oh yes, and he promises a surplus budget and a small government sector. This does not add up.
The Gillard government should be applauded for trying to wean the best-paid Australians off government handouts. Labor has applied a means tests to the baby bonus, to the private health insurance rebate and to Howard's beloved family tax benefits system. Undiscriminating handouts to the well-off achieve no useful aim. They serve only to discredit the entire system of government support payments and damage national solvency.
Joe Hockey tried to call a halt to the Liberal Party's irresponsible entitlement mentality in his remarks in London this week. Good on him. Unfortunately, he overreached by telling Australians that we must match our government support systems to those of Asia.
Apart from the obvious fact that Asia includes a country with a high level of government support payments - Japan is in Asia too - the whole point of Asian development for the past half century is to try to achieve living standards as high as Australia's. They aspire to our level, not us to theirs. Did you note, Joe, that Hong Kong last year introduced its first minimum wage after enormous community pressure? It's $US3.60 an hour.
The entitlement mentality is of a piece with the ''lucky country'' mentality defined by Donald Horne, the idea that a mining boom will come along and all our problems will be solved. In fact, this breeds only complacency, indolence and fiscal incontinence.
From this rather pathetic episode of mining boom mismanagement, some things are worth retaining. Among all the bad policy and bad habits, Australia developed a bipartisan attachment to the idea that we should balance the national budget when times are good.
If Europe and the US, in particular, had developed this consensus in years past they would not now confront grave debt crises that are damaging their living standards and their national futures. Economists can argue, quite rightly, that Australia could well run a modest deficit this year, and take more time in returning to surplus, without any terrible consequences.
But Gillard and Wayne Swan, having sworn a solemn oath to deliver a surplus this year, are absolutely right to keep their promise. If they do not, the national consensus for a balanced budget will start to unravel. Once lost, it will be very hard to re-create.
And it is a precious national gift, won almost by chance, that will serve Australia well in a world plagued by debt. If nothing else, we should make every effort to salvage from the mining boom era this core concept of national prudence.
We've suffered damage to all of our export industries outside mining, squandered the mining revenue surge, missed the chance for a sovereign wealth fund, burdened ourselves with an entitlement mentality, and cemented a culture of political timidity in the face of powerful groups.
If we can just hold onto the idea that it's a virtue to live within our national means, with a balanced budget in the good years, the boom will not have gone entirely to waste.
Peter Hartcher is the political editor.