Mining: our love and fear

Is mining part of Australia’s DNA? AAP

To a large extent, mining has made the Australian nation, but while aware of its importance many Australians are uncertain or hesitant about its respectability as an industry. ‘Boom’ illustrates and helps explain this ambivalence. The book, written by Malcolm Knox, sets out to test the hypotheses that mining is integral to Australians’ perception of themselves and that mining is part of the Australian cultural DNA.

The author argues that this may explain the almost inexplicable support that the mining industry received from the Australian public in its successful bid in 2010 to avoid the implementation of a ‘Resource Super Profits Tax, a tax designed to spread the benefits of the recent mining boom to this same public.

Knox argues that this may explain the almost inexplicable support that the mining industry received from the Australian public in its successful bid in 2010 to avoid the implementation of a Resource Super Profits Tax, a tax designed to spread the benefits of the recent mining boom to this same public.

Knox gives a good overview of the key historical events in mineral discovery and development of the mining industry in Australia from “gold rush to GFC”. It is a highly readable and insightful account that explores some of the fascinating dramas and characters that litter our prospecting and mining heritage.

The author presents his history under chapter topics covering ‘Finding’ (mineral discovery), ‘Peopling’ (immigration and settlement), ‘Nation Building’ (economic development), ‘Buying and Selling’ (the financial aspects), ‘Surviving’ (impacts on the miners), ‘Working’ and ‘Trading Off’.

In the last chapter entitled ‘Booming’ he revisits these key topics through the most recent mining booms from the 1960s to the current China led commodity bonanza and notes some interesting comparisons and contrasts with the earlier cycles of mining activity.

An interesting proposition in the chapter called ‘Finding’ is that Australian mining history lacks real heroes and instead is populated by lucky prospectors, nearly men, wheeler dealers and frauds. This seems an exaggeration, but may highlight a lack of knowledge by recent generations, not assisted by the anti-mining lobby and abysmal promotion by the mining industry of its own history.

The chapter on ‘Peopling’ importantly reminds us that mining dramatically populated Australia. Knox shows how the pattern and timing of mineral discoveries had important social, political as well as economic implications. He also highlights the contribution of Chinese gold miners and the beginnings of racial discrimination that led to the ‘white Australia policy’.

In ‘Nation Building’ there is some preoccupation with the inherent temporary nature of mines and resulting ghost towns. The author seems to suggest that mining is the cause of all population decline in regional Australia, but the crumbling ruins north of Goyder’s Line, the disappearing rural towns of agricultural Australia and even some of the stagnating industrial suburbs of our major cities, such as Elizabeth, north of Adelaide, suggest otherwise. However, Knox points out that despite this temporariness, much of the basic infrastructure of regional Australia and some major inland towns are continuing legacies of mining, although he questions whether modern mining will provide a similar legacy. ‘Buying and Selling’ outlines the financial history of mining, including the share market booms and busts that have captivated Australians, fleeced the greedy and gullible and stimulated discovery and ultimately production.

The author also explores the periodic Australian fear of an over-dependence on primary exports and the nation’s sputtering efforts to develop value adding. The chapter on ‘Surviving’ examines the human cost of mining as counted in deaths, injuries, and disablement and then poses the imponderable question of whether the benefits of mining outweigh the costs to miners, particularly for an example like the Wittenoom asbestos mine. In ‘Working’, Knox looks at the heritage of trade unionism in mining, suggesting that working miners are more philosophically aligned with the bosses possibly due to a capitalistic streak inherited from the early gold and copper miners. I have to say that this is not particularly convincing.

The negative environmental impacts of mining, some of the safety disasters and the relationship between mining and indigenous Australians are covered in ‘Trading Off’. Although metal mining is the focus of the book there is some coverage of coal, oil, natural gas and coal seam gas. Current controversies related to the extraction of these commodities feature in the final chapter, together with some of the social concerns related to mining development and employment practices, such as fly-in-fly-out.

Throughout the book the author has included some exuberant overstatements and mythological anecdotes, almost on par with the exaggerated claims of some of the mining shysters he describes. These add colour for the general reader, who hopefully won’t believe them all. I particularly enjoyed the highly improbable story of Paddy Hannan, while discovering gold, being mistaken for an emu and nearly shot for dinner by another mysterious prospector.

The book would have benefited from more careful editing as there are some clanging errors related to units of measurement and geographical locations. For example, readers will be astounded to see that in 1902, Western Australia produced 62 million tonnes of gold, more than 354 times the total gold production in human history, and that during 1969 the price of nickel rose from £1500 to £7000 per ounce! Paddy Hannan’s gold discovery at Kalgoorlie was near Mount Charlotte, north of the famous Golden Mile, not to the south. Lake Cowal is in central NSW, not Western Australia. The author also has John Forest, Premier of Western Australia, travelling from Perth to Canberra at the time of construction of the famous Mundaring to Kalgoorlie water pipeline, more than a decade before Canberra existed. Some common misconceptions are also reinforced, such as the belief that arsenic is used as a chemical agent to refine ores, particularly of gold. There is significant rambling repetition that would also have been picked up by careful editing.

Despite some imperfections ‘Boom’ makes an interesting and valuable assessment of the role of mining in the development of Australia and explains how the average Australian views the mining industry - most likely, as the author suggests, as a distant, shady and sometimes colourful relation who remits funds back to the extended family to keep it alive and happy.