Mining drilled into our DNA
Boom: The Underground History of Australia, from Gold Rush to GFC
By Malcolm Knox Viking, 395pp, $34.95
EARLY in 2010 Kevin Rudd made twin decisions that must haunt him. In February he declined to call a double dissolution election he would have won and in April he postponed his signature policy to tackle climate change, the carbon pollution reduction scheme.
Progressive voters were aghast. Anxious to regain their trust, Rudd made a third fateful decision. In May 2010, on the recommendation of Treasury, he announced the introduction of a resource super-profits tax.
As Malcolm Knox observes in Boom, it must have seemed a no-brainer. Mining accounts for only 1.5 per cent of Australian jobs, and most of the big companies are foreigncontrolled. Under the RSPT, ‘‘ a slightly bigger share of the proceeds of the boom in mining profits would be redistributed from the owners of the machinery to the owners of the minerals. The proceeds would go to pensions, tax cuts and infrastructure projects.’’
To put it mildly, the plan backfired. Not content with being spared from the CPRS, the mining companies launched a brutally effective campaign against the then government. Tony Abbott’s Coalition lent its support, Rudd’s poll numbers fell, the ALP ‘‘ hardheads’’ panicked and, within two months, Julia Gillard was prime minister.
The mining tax was watered down drastically, though Abbott still pledged to abolish it, and no doubt soon will. He will also abolish the carbon tax, equally despised by the mining industry and a prime cause of Gillard’s downfall once she announced its introduction in 2011.
Apart from Abbott, the biggest winner in this saga was mining magnate Clive Palmer. A nakedly self-interested campaigner against the mining and carbon taxes, Palmer emerged this year as a genuine political force.
How did he and the mining companies do it? According to Knox, who completed Boom several months before the September 7 election, insidious cultural factors were at play: ‘‘ The industry succeeded in harnessing a deeply held belief in mining as backbone of the country.’’
‘‘ This book,’’ Knox explains, ‘‘ is an attempt to put up and test the hypothesis that mining is ... integral to Australians’ perception of themselves; that mining is, in a metaphorical sense, woven into the national DNA.’’
Views will differ as to whether Knox proves his hypothesis. But he has written a shrewd and captivating work of history, a follow-up to Geoffrey Blainey’s seminal 1963 study The Rush that Never Ended. Australia has enjoyed three mining booms since then: those of the late 1960s and late 80s as well as the most recent one, which seems to be on the wane.
Much of Knox’s book is sobering. He catalogues the many detrimental effects mining has had on Australia since the gold rush of the 1850s, not least deep-seated complacency and the ‘‘ sucking [of] money out of other sectors of the economy’’.
In almost every state and territory, Knox shows, mining has wrought environmental degradation. It has also brought death, injury or illness to countless thousands of mineworkers and their families.
The blue asbestos mine at Wittenoom in Western Australia (closed in 1966) was an especially frightful place.
Knox makes a strong case that the White Australia policy, and the xenophobic strain that lingers in our national psyche, had its