What's mined is yours ... sort of
Australia's economy no longer rides on the back of sheep, but a minerals conveyor belt. Photo: Arsineh Houspian
FROM a country that once believed its prosperity rode on the back of a sheep, we have transformed into one that rides on the top of a mineral conveyor belt.
And while we talk about a two-speed economy of winners and also-rans, it would seem not all the winners are grinners. Some barely manage a smirk, even when they have made a lot of money.
Mining has given us one unvarying tradition — the idea that pursuing what lies under the earth is more truly Australian than pursuing what might lie between our ears. The reality for most is that using ingenuity to make things will not be as well rewarded as digging up stuff that allows people in other countries to make things.
Factories are closing and mines are opening at a time of a relentless media campaign by large miners wanting to grasp onto the China-needs-rocks bonanza for themselves, and not share it around through an increased tax.
If that is not bad enough, our shovelling overlords are making noises about bringing in skilled workers from overseas, because they are having trouble getting Australian ones to move to the remote areas to either dig the rocks or provide services to the rock diggers.
Sarah Tancred, who now lives in Mansfield, north-east of Melbourne, spent 15 months at Karratha, on the coastal bump that is Western Australia's shoulder. She knows why it is so difficult to keep people there.
Karratha services a lot of inland mines. Tancred moved there with her fitter-and-turner bloke, Daz, who worked building Woodside's giant Pluto liquid natural gas project. She set herself up offering sports and remedial massage.
"The mines only want you from the neck down," she said. "They don't want your brain. Relationships suffer, especially among the fly-in and fly-out crowd.
"When they are at the mine they get pampered — everything is laid on, meals, accommodation, transport. All they have to think about is their jobs. Then they go home and have to face reality. There is a lot of stress in the town. We heard of four or five suicides when we were there."
Since Australia's gold rushes of the 1850s, mining, with its often illusory promises, has sucked skills from other areas. It happened when farm workers and sailors disappeared to the diggings during that first gold rush, and the story was reflected in a folk song from around the time, With My Swag Upon My Shoulder. It romanticises an English (or, if you were Catholic, Irish) immigrant lured to the diggings on the rumour that nuggets were everywhere.
But the most telling line — "I made my fortune in a day, and spent it in a week" — recounts the reality that the shopkeepers, landlords, publicans and brothel owners are often the ones who end up the winners.
Tancred saw tradies earning more than $200,000 a year blowing a lot on comforts. "The guys spent up on booze, drugs and lots of toys, like flash four-wheel-drives, jet-skis and big boats."
She said there was little to do in Karratha apart from work. While she was there both the cinema and library were closed.
But she noted that people could do well if they were careful. "We knew a tradie from Wodonga who was approaching retirement without much super, so he went over to the mines for a few years and earned himself $400,000."
Another story comes from Riley, a nephew of my wife, who did an apprenticeship in cabinetmaking, becoming Queensland apprentice of the year a few years ago. He recently moved to the Queensland coal town of Moura because he could make more processing cotton than he could from his trade. Despite the offer of even more money in the mines, he does not want to go.
The mines affect Riley in ways familiar to many Australians — by forcing up the costs in his town, for example. The price of accommodation is such a burden that he imagines he will end up sleeping in a tent.
This impact on people not involved in mining was reflected in this week's Reserve Bank decision to cut interest rates. It was argued that a big cut was needed because the gap between the mining and non-mining economy had grown so much over the past year that non-mining was suffering.
So before the big miners are allowed to import foreign labour, it might be worth considering the reasons Australian residents are sometimes reluctant to move to these areas in the first place. We might then do something about those reasons.
Geoff Strong is a senior writer.