There is something happening in Australia that I haven’t seen talked about much in the mainstream papers. Perhaps it is because they are so reliant on mining advertising, or maybe because they just haven’t thought about it.
But today on the steps of Parliament watching winegrowers, farmers and greenies together protesting about coal and oil development in Margaret River, I was thinking of the same protests over coal mining in the plains of NSW, mining in the ‘wild rivers’ of Queensland, oil and gas in the Kimberley and of the divisive debates over a carbon price and the mining tax.
Australia was once carried ‘on the sheep’s back’ but modern Australia is increasingly relying on mining. In the last boom, set to start up again, massive windfall profits were shared by mining companies, their employees and shareholders, whilst other industries and communities struggled with the effects of the boom, and in agriculture more systemic problems such as drought and land degradation. Ironically some of these problems through climate change are directly linked to the ongoing export of coal and burning of fossil fuels that underpins Australian’s mining industry. The mining industry continues to get access to large amounts of water and subsidies originally meant to support agriculture, like the diesel fuel rebate.
In the boom, whilst some towns were fading out of existence, others were bursting at the seams – in both scenarios the Government and private sectors struggled to provide basic services for opposite reasons. Whilst many agricultural areas were continuing their decline from being the economic powerhouse of Australia under the effects of salt and drought, other pristine areas were being opened up and industrialized with little thought to the future.
It seems that a flash point is fast approaching where the environmental and economic impact of the mining industry is increasingly being noticed in the broader community, at the same time as the industry is seeking to consolidate its power in Australian politics and the community.
Many commentators see all these issues as separate. But if you look at what makes them similar there is a trend. In each it is about the mining industry overstepping the mark, and things needing to be bought back into balance, and the Government floundering on how to deal with the problem. Whether it is getting an increasing share of the pie for redistribution to other sections of the economy though royalties or new taxes, or drawing a line on mining in our most productive agricultural and tourism regions, or protecting our remaining pristine environments – it is about pegging back an industry whose footprint is going too far for the comfort zone of Australia’s social and environmental conscience, and economic stability.
Australia needs a Government who understands this. A Government capable of listening to the mining industry but also forging an economic and environmental future for Australia. We should be able to look to the lessons of our agricultural boom; whilst it built a nation, the excesses of that boom have also left a legacy of failed towns, mass extinction of native animals, waterless rivers and expanding salt and dust deserts where there were once great woodlands.
In short, we need to have restrictions on mining with or without the consent of the industry, but preferably with some level of consultation. There needs to be restrictions on where they can and can’t go, and on how much the economy can afford to rely on that high risk, high reward, industry. However, these need to be restrictions that are sensitive to the needs of the industry, which doesn’t always mean the middle road. For example, many complaints made by industry are about overregulation and onerous assessment processes when many of these could be avoided by clearer restrictions on any mining in sensitive environments. The Government rhetoric of ‘strong environmental conditions’ too often means ‘we didn’t have the guts to say no to industry, so we are going to over regulate a project in the wrong place instead.’
Not all decisions required are this black and white, but they do require a sensitive yet decisive set of decisions to be made that are well explained to the electorate and allow the mining industry to continue to provide wealth, but without impoverishing the future.
Australian democracy has a 200 year history of mostly getting it right eventually. Maybe that is why we have not so accidently voted away both a dithering centrist Government and a backwards looking Opposition for a new scenario where a motley crew of progressives from both sides of the political spectrum are holding the Labor party to account on delivering the progressive reforms they have been promising since 2007. Such a diverse grouping probably has the best chance of any of getting the mix right for the future of Australia.