Min­ing drilled into our DNA

Boom: The Un­der­ground His­tory of Aus­tralia, from Gold Rush to GFC

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Roy Wil­liams

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

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