Henry had the great pleasure of lunching with Leigh Clifford and 520 of his closest friends and admirers in Melbourne yesterday. The occasion was a meeting on the Mining Club, and the location was Zinc, filled beyond its normal capacity for such an affair. The question was asked whether the Mining Club’s safety committee would make a fuss. Not so we noticed was the answer.

Leigh Clifford had retired at midnight the previous night and his address concerned “Changes I have seen.”

He traced the explosive growth of China (like that of Japan some time earlier), the globalisation and consolidation of mining, as in many other industries where size matters. He speculated that demand for minerals might be “stronger for longer” although “supply side incontinence” would eventually produce a check.

His overall, reiterated, message was “Flexibility is the key to success”. This applies he said especially to matters of industrial relations. The bad old days of the great strikes, of them verses us, unconcern for shareholders, were behind us but could return.

At Hamersley in 1993 the “all staff workforce” provided a renaissance for the industry. There were dramatic changes in the coal industry. Disputes are way down, safety way up, productivity greatly improved.

The impact of AWAs has been dramatic and positive.

RIO in Australia has 14,000 workers, of whom only 8% are union members. It has approximately 1,000 new jobs each year, and receives 20,000 applications. Clearly this is not a sweated workforce in need of collective bargaining.

“Whatever is imposed [if Labor wins the Federal election] it should not be past industrial practices”. It offers “solutions to problems that no longer exist.” The great need is for flexibility.

RIO needs more women, more indigenous workers. It already has a more mobile workforce – fly in, fly out. IR reform has allowed mining companies to benefit from technology. RIO is using remote controlled loaders and is working on coal gasification, CO2 sequestration and new methods of smelting iron ore.

“We need to explain ourselves better.”

Leigh Clifford answered questions patiently and well, the old CEO discipline still weighing on his broad shoulders. We wish him a long and happy retirement, or another highly effective career, perhaps in the hi-tech SME sector. He added greatly to a great company, and deserves every honour this country can bestow.

The ALP will take on the mining sector at its peril, but what rational reason is there to do this? Do its leaders not know the story about the goose that laid the valuable eggs?

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