What the Boom Won’t Leave Behind
An abandoned cafe in the asbestos-riddled ghost town of Wittenoom, WA. Wikimedia Commons
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Some of Australia’s best-known mining stories are about non-miners. Lewis Lasseter’s quest for the mighty reef of gold he saw, and lost, in Central Australia is a white man’s dreaming. Lasseter’s only rival as a subject for mining books is Lang Hancock, who seemed to embody a rough-hewn Westralian mining type yet was actually a private-schooled son of well-heeled pastoralists, a promoter and paper-dealer who only ever operated one mine, the blue asbestos seam at Wittenoom that would become the most lethal industrial disaster in Australian history. The most famed corporate story of Australian mining is Poseidon, the little nickel explorer whose share price went from a dollar to $280 in the mad summer of 1969–70. Poseidon gave its name to a boom, yet it was another non-miner, delisted in 1976 without having dug up anything of note other than its suspect and misrepresented drill samples.
The literature of mining, such as it is, faces this unique challenge: though the industry made Australia – made its roads, its railways, its ports, its towns and its cities – it lacks heroes, and in an existential sense seems inhuman. Aside from instants of discovery, mining has been the work of corporations rather than individuals. Even the discoverers are often compromised. Edward Hargraves found gold at Ophir, but then got himself a government job and spent his days fighting legal battles with his original prospecting partners who claimed he had defrauded them. Charles Rasp, discoverer of Broken Hill, packed up for Adelaide and Europe with his sweetheart Agnes, who lived a baroque life among the German aristocracy after Rasp faded away. Arthur Bayley and Paddy Hannan discovered Coolgardie and Kalgoorlie respectively, and soon left. John Campbell Miles, who found Mount Isa’s riches, disappeared for so long that he was, for decades, believed to be dead.
In their place came the faceless conglomerates of capital and expertise necessary to extract the minerals, refine and convert them if possible, or simply ship them out. If Australia’s mining history has leaders, they were magnates and managers, such as the Scotsman John Leslie Urquhart, who lost millions of pounds’ worth of mines in the Russian Revolution before saving Mount Isa; Guillaume Delprat and Essington Lewis, masters of efficiency and metallurgy in Broken Hill; James Crotty, the querulous soul who promoted Mount Lyell to greatness when he wasn’t battling for his reputation; and his rival Bowes Kelly, who led both BHP and Mount Lyell. Compared with explorers and bushrangers and soldiers, these men provide scant raw material for myth-making.
In this vacuum lies just one comprehensive history of Australian mining, published 49 years ago. Geoffrey Blainey’s The Rush That Never Ended grew out of the commissioned company histories he wrote about Mount Lyell, Mount Isa and Broken Hill. His deep research and rhetorical panache raised his work above the standard of the form; and it is instructive, looking back, to see how liberal the company executives were when it came to allowing Blainey to provide reasonably even-handed accounts. Yet, well written as his mining books are, they are marked by their origins. They lean to the mining companies’ side in labour disputes, and were written at a time, and in a mindset, that did not appreciate the larger questions of mining’s negative legacy on indigenous-owned land and on the natural environment.
The title of Blainey’s big history bespeaks an optimism that did not necessarily spread outside the industry. There were times when the rush did end. Between World War I and the 1950s, mining receded into the background of Australian life as the nation pursued a doomed dream of becoming a manufacturing power. The rush during which Blainey was writing, from the late 1950s to the early 1970s, was soon to end in tears. The writer who found a better way into Australians’ insecurities about mining was perhaps Banjo Paterson: “I saw bank booms, land booms, silver booms, Northern Territory booms, and they all had one thing in common – they always burst.”
This anxiety is still the tense thread running through our mining narrative. What does a mining boom leave behind? Primary-school children around the country are taken to see the great monuments of mining, Bathurst and Ballarat, Mount Isa and Broken Hill and Kalgoorlie, and also their shadows, Hill End and Clunes, Duchess and Silverton and White Feather. This duality, of surviving inland cities and ghost towns, is the story of mining in a nutshell, and part of the reason for our deficit of national mining myths. Which is mining’s true legacy? The cities, the railways and roads, the dams and schools and hospitals, or the ghost towns, the poisoned streams and dust diseases, the dispossession of indigenous owners? If it’s both, how do we reconcile the opposites?
Erik Eklund’s informative Mining Towns (UNSW Press; $49.99) seeks to divine the future by looking at the history of six towns built on mining: Broken Hill, Mount Morgan, Queenstown, Port Pirie, Mount Isa and Kambalda. The longevity of Broken Hill and Mount Isa has been built on both the size of their lodes and the sense of community that grew from miners and managers negotiating a balance between fairness and productivity in isolation from the capitals. Queenstown, at the foot of Mount Lyell, had probably the best record of company welfarism, and Mount Morgan had its own independence, yet both have been reduced to remnants because their resources were exhausted. Port Pirie, as an industrial town, doesn’t quite fit the mould, yet Eklund uses its connection with Broken Hill – BHP moved its smelters to Port Pirie in its earliest days, beginning that company’s desertion of its home town – to underline his main thesis, which is that these towns are connected by a strong historical story, separate from that of the capital cities. Rather than seeing mining towns as distant feeders of profit and raw material to the capitals, Eklund traces the ‘horizontal’ connections between them. Broken Hill money, for instance, was instrumental in the growth of Mount Lyell, Port Pirie and Mount Isa. Engineers trained in the schools of mining at Broken Hill and on the Victorian goldfields spread their expertise nationwide. Mining families spent their lives moving between these towns and never living in the capitals. A kind of inland folk culture, formed around progress associations, churches, temperance societies, mining schools and trade union activism, replicated itself as the organic template of each of these towns.
Kambalda, south of Kalgoorlie, stands slightly outside this narrative because it is smaller and more recent than the others. Kambalda was the company town that Western Mining Corporation built after its nickel strike at Lake Lefroy in 1966. Unlike the Poseidons of the subsequent sharemarket boom, WMC was able to turn its discoveries into paying mining fields and a well thought-out modernist town at a remarkable pace. Yet Kambalda, with its Radburn-style town planning and elegant landscaping, has become more of a cautionary tale than an example for future mining booms. The very rapidity and efficiency of the extraction of minerals in our time militates against the slow, organic, patient growth of another Mount Isa or Broken Hill.
Paul Cleary homes in on this in the second of his books on the current boom. Cleary’s work, alongside books such as Dirty Money by Matthew Benns (William Heinemann; $34.95) and What the Frack? by Paddy Manning (UNSW Press; $4.99), provides a counter-narrative to the story of surging national wealth told by company and government financial reports. In Too Much Luck (Black Inc; $24.95), Cleary traced the growth of ‘Dutch disease’ in Australia – the erosion of manufacturing and other industries that suffer from a high dollar and over-investment in mining – and criticised the Australian government for failing to ensure the preservation of the wealth from the boom through fairer taxation and the sequestering of profits in a Norwegian-style sovereign wealth fund. In Mine-Field (Black Inc; $24.99), Cleary advocates greater regulation of the dark side of the boom, in particular the effects on agriculture of coal seam gas extraction and the effects on communities of fly-in fly-out (FIFO) and drive-in drive-out (DIDO) workforces.
Reading Cleary alongside Eklund, you cannot help asking what would happen if a Broken Hill or Mount Isa were discovered today. You would conclude that the least likely outcome would be the establishment of a century of communal life. Mount Isa limped along for 30 years before it made a profit. Broken Hill’s mining output dribbled from the 1920s to the 1960s before the town boomed again and hit its historic population high of about 31,000. In both cases, the towns, their people and, crucially, the mining companies battled on through decades of low commodities prices and metallurgical problems. There is an awe-inspiring marathon persistence in these companies and their workforces.
Would such a thing happen in today’s iron ore boom towns? Businessman Russell McKnight tells Cleary:
Karratha should be the Dallas of Australia. The industry should be run from up there. If it was 50 years ago, you would be turning that into a city. There’s a huge opportunity to develop the northwest in a sustainable way – they have got gas as well as iron ore.
Instead, Karratha and the other resources towns of the Pilbara have FIFO and inbuilt obsolescence. Cleary writes:
Instead of building new towns, as they did until the mid-1980s, mining companies now fly workers in from major cities and regional towns. As many as 100,000 mining workers live this way, and most of the projects are being designed around FIFO workforces. From the company perspective, FIFO offers an efficient and highly flexible model that removes the need for huge investment in building towns that one day may become ghosts.
The other end of the FIFO chain is in places like Margaret River, where the mining workers’ families live. Due to the impermanent populations and the contingency of people’s lives, there is a hollowing-out at both ends of the FIFO chain. In the Pilbara, workers work; in Margaret River, they shut down and relax. In both towns – as in the well-documented locations of the Bowen Basin in Queensland – there is a chronic shortage of volunteer community services such as charities, sporting clubs and rural fire brigades. Meanwhile, the pre-existing communities are pushed to the margins as rising rents and prices make the towns unaffordable for anyone except company-subsidised temporary workers.
Mining companies themselves would no doubt dispute Cleary’s account and point to their investments in town infrastructure. Rio Tinto, the biggest iron ore miner in the Pilbara, built Paraburdoo in the 1970s and has contributed many millions of dollars to roads, parks, schools and medical clinics in order to attract workers. Cleary’s books, as works of impassioned advocacy, do not aim to give the most thoroughly balanced view. But his main point still holds: governments do not intend to take overarching responsibility for the future of communities and the environment. They trust in self-regulation and hope for the best.
That Karratha will not turn into a Broken Hill or Mount Isa, let alone a Dallas, is due to fundamental changes in the nature of mining. As Rio Tinto’s recently announced shift to driverless trains illustrates, mining is an increasingly mechanised, decreasingly labour-intensive industry. Efficiencies are better served through highly flexible workforces. Gina Rinehart, should she ever become a miner herself by developing her Roy Hill iron ore deposit, would do so with a modern-day equivalent of the coolies and Kanakas who were brought into north Queensland in the 19th century. Guest-visa employees are the ultimate flexible workforce. During the 2008 financial crisis, the big miners laid off workers with savage speed and intensity. The same happened during the September 2012 iron ore price panic. Flexibility and efficiency are opposed to the dogged, humane persistence that kept the great mining towns going between booms.
The other telling factor, among the labour force that does exist, is the 12-hour shift that came into mining in the 1990s. The 12-hour shift crushes community life. Eklund recounts an ex-miner returning to Kambalda asking why the town was so quiet. He was told, “Everybody is either working or asleep.” Winning the eight-hour day was one of the first priorities of the miners’ trade unions more than a hundred years ago. The flow-on from an eight-hour day was that miners’ wives moved into the towns, children were raised, schools were built, and family and communal life evolved. The 12-hour shift, designed to facilitate FIFO and DIDO timetables, has done much to kill that. Cleary writes: “In the space of 15 years, the mining industry has rolled back a century of industrial relations progress by creating a business model that would impress Henry Ford.”
Perhaps the mining town that really warrants study today is Perth. Rio Tinto runs its iron ore mines from a control centre beside Perth Airport. Technicians sit at consoles and operate machines thousands of kilometres away. A future can be imagined where the mining town is itself a virtual construct, an office in a capital city with a minimal workforce on site. This does have one clear virtue: no more Wittenooms, no more black spit. The virtues of Broken Hill and Mount Isa must be weighed against the decades of lead dust floating through children’s bedrooms. Mechanised mining is a healthier business, even taking into account the uptick in road fatalities that Cleary notes, a result of tired DIDO workers driving long distances after 12-hour shifts.
The other argument that the miners may put forward is the big-picture instability of their markets. This is well illustrated in David Uren’s excellent primer on Australia’s relationship with China, The Kingdom and the Quarry (Black Inc; $29.95). Uren places the iron ore boom in the context of the two countries’ political, cultural and strategic ties. Not a book about mining per se, it nevertheless provides valuable and well-written background on the boom, especially when Uren tells the story of the iron ore price negotiations that led to the conviction of Rio Tinto’s negotiator Stern Hu and others, and the abandonment of the benchmark iron ore pricing system. Uren is a sanguine observer, critical of American paranoia over China and of Australia when it has echoed those fears. He situates Australian attitudes to its largest trading partner between the poles of “the two Chinas in the Australian mind: the bottomless market and the menacing other”.
This is another way of sketching the general Australian insecurity about mining. How reliable is it, and how must we find a path between exploiting its potential while the profits are there and being left high, dry and over-capitalised when they are not? A case study may be found in events subsequent to Uren’s publication in June. He praises the miners and the Chinese buyers for taking the leap from stable benchmark ore contracts to a more fluid scheme based on spot prices, and over the past four years this would have certainly worked in the miners’ favour. But, as the September price plunge showed, it can also bring the higher-cost miners undone. That is the market, but sadly for the workforce of Fortescue Metals Group and some other miners, a free-floating market is another reason not to settle in for a long future.
Eklund writes gloomily:
Fly-in-fly-out workers will not build a Broken Hill or a Queenstown, or even a company town such as Kambalda. The temporary camps and dongas will probably not be the subject of nostalgic reminiscence, and are unlikely to leave any substantial material remains. Space has been truly mastered by capital, but at what human cost?
The human cost will remain hard for Australians not only to quantify, but to conceptualise. The stories of mining will be more and more abstract, while sideshows such as Andrew Forrest’s tightrope act and the soap opera of the House of Hancock might provide entertainment but little insight into the real business of mining. The human cost is not easy to evaluate when the humans involved are an indistinguishable sea of day-glo and navy blue overalls controlled by vast logistical organisations and the disembodied power of international capital. Judith Wright’s satirical 1969 poem about mining, ‘The True Religion’, ends “The buck’s the thing.” It’s the bottom line of the poem, the bottom line of an industry, and insofar as that industry continues in its queer way to define the life of the nation, the bottom line for most of us.