From the recent subtle shift in the mining sector’s anti-resource rent tax, it looks like someone, somewhere deep in the mining lobby, has suddenly remembered the first anti-land-rights campaigns.

Back then, the campaign started off in the same way as the campaign against the resource rent tax — with elements of today’s threats to leave the country (taking the resources with them, no doubt), hyperbole accusing the Treasurer of being a communist, hysteria about alleged nationalisation, the end of the world as we know it and a permanent blow to the Australian economy. In other words, all the same claims that got made about stopping children working in mines, the gold tax, the petroleum resource rent tax, Wik, land rights, the emissions trading scheme and too many other things to list.

The problem with over-the-top hysteria is that it leaves you with little to do for an encore — particularly when your campaign is part of a long-running serial. In the case of land rights, the industry backtracked from its initial hyperbole, started to negotiate and ended up the super-profitable sector it is today. They remembered, in time, the wise words of Sir Arvi Parbo — it’s easy enough to know what you are against, but much harder to know what you are for. They may be remembering again, perhaps saving us from claims that the resource rent tax will be imposed on all the suburban backyards that haven’t yet been taken over by indigenous land rights claims.

Over-the-top hysteria also provides your opponents with the opportunity to engage in some fairly effective background briefing, point out obvious errors, round up some third-party endorsement and undermine your credibility. For all the criticism of Rudd government communications, it is fairly obvious that they have got their act together on the briefings on this, as the media tide has already started to turn. Meanwhile, Clive Palmer’s outrageous claims have been shown to be outrageous, the ASX has been gung-ho on disclosure rules and several of the more heavyweight commentators have started to write opinion pieces that balance the hysterical claims.

The government is also helped by third parties — particularly the superannuation lobby — which has shown a rare and effective unity on the issue. The unions are also working hard to neutralise impact of the company campaigns on workers.

So what will the mining industry do next? A few months ago they would have continued to campaign at hysterical level, on the basis that when things got tough, Rudd would fold. He can’t afford to do so now, and they can no longer rely on that as a solution.

The print advertising will continue. But as Richard Farmer said — part of the campaign is less about influencing people, and more about providing a peg for news stories. Lobbying also continues, but the lobby has no hope with the Greens, and post-election the government will probably be able to scrape up the numbers to get the legislation passed.

TV advertising will probably be next, although there is little evidence that many mining industry campaigns — other than the Bill Hunter Big Australian campaign — have had terrific cut-through. The campaign will feature workers, suppliers and “working Australians”, rather than company CEOs, and try to trigger the same emotions the BHP campaign did.

The grassroots campaign may be more interesting. Already newspapers are full of letters from people bemoaning the impact. Investment analysts are distributing papers and garnering publicity, but whether these influence anyone but the already converted is a moot point. Piles of economic analyses and legal and accounting opinions on unintended consequences and impracticalities will also flow forth. Some of these will be commissioned, although some will be marketing tactics by the professional service firms themselves.

The most probable campaign — and potentially the most effective — could be a co-ordinated campaign among all the people and companies who receive cheques from the industry. Some decades ago —  before sophisticated databases — I worked on a database that linked mining suppliers and contractors with metropolitan seats, with the aim of showing politicians that mining had significant impacts outside mining areas. I would be staggered, even given the constraints of privacy legislation, if the mining industry didn’t have a much better organised and extensive database today. It would then simply be a matter of mobilising owners, shareholders, staff and others in these areas to lobby MPs about direct impacts on their specific seats.

My bet is that we will have a resource rent tax — probably with some amendments — because the reality is that most of the companies really have nowhere else to go in the long term. The public will be fairly easy to convince that this is our national resource, and we ought to get a slice of it. And do we really think Twiggy Forrest is going to up sticks and head off to Venezuela, Africa, Columbia, Peru or somewhere else? Drinking African water for a while might force a nickname change — no longer Twiggy, but something consistent with Australian nicknaming protocols and conveying a sense of the substantial. Readers are invited to suggest possibilities.

Somewhat ironically, the mining campaign comes at the same time as the Liberals have launched a retro campaign that, except for a refugee boat, is a complete re-run (arrows thrusting towards Australia and all) of the yellow/red peril ads the DLP used to run in the 1950s and 1960s.

Even more ironically, the DLP was ultimately right — the Chinese did come. Not with weapons, but with lovely big cheques, which have kept Australia the lucky country. A resource rent tax, with the proceeds wisely invested, might just help take the irony out of Donald Horne’s phrase.

Ritual declaration of interest: The author and his former company have worked for BHP (pre-Billiton merger), CRA, several other mining companies, peak and state mining bodies and several suppliers to the industry.

Peter Fray

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