Mining companies have a habit of causing rifts. There are the earth-based ones of course, made as part of their daily work, usually out in the bush. But miners big and small are also adept at sending channels down main street too. These are of a political and social nature. Never has this been more apparent than lately. In a macro perspective we can look to the sacking of Kevin Rudd in 2010 and the first announcement made by the new PM Julia Gillard, that the much fought-over Resource Super Profit Tax would effectively be quashed. A micro perspective is offered by the recent decision by Woodside Petroleum to pull out of the controversial James Price Point LNG project on the WA coast. Right now, some perspective might be useful.

When Woodside walked away from James Price Point – for now anyway – some celebrated in front of the company’s Perth skyscraper. Others felt it was a disaster. Among the former group were assorted greenies and indigenous activist groups, and a few incongruous scientists decrying the likely destruction of unique archeological and anthropological sites in the area. Among the latter were the government of Colin Barnett and a newish force in the indigenous political arena: the educated middle class.

Professor Marcia Langton is at the forefront of this burgeoning group and the fact she features heavily in the three-part doco Dirty Business gives a clue to where this film concludes.

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But, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Dirty Business was seemingly developed with the intention of giving a firm grounding in the industry that has, in narrator Colin Friels’ words, “made Australia”. This it does admirably. With excellent graphics, archival footage and interviews, and a flowing script-line, each of the one-hour chapters flies by. The first two parts, titled “Money” and “Power” reflect just how far the mining industry has dug into our history and into our collective selves. So much of how we define ourselves has images of road-trains, trucks with huge wheels, piles of minerals against an azure sky and men with boots and gnarly hands peppered through it. Mining certainly “made us”. But is that a good thing?

The documentary’s makers seem to skirt around the bigger issues in the first two hours. Various outbreaks, as in Eureka or Kalgoorlie, massive strikes such as the coal-miners walk-out after World War II, and the borderline creepy lobbying role of the Collins House group in Melbourne (The beginning of the Big End of Town we still hear about) in the early part of the twentieth century and of Essington Lewis and BHP during WWII are all explored and given due balance, given the restrictions of the format.

By the third part, things get a little more interesting. Entitled “Land” this section looks into the relationship between the mining industry and indigenous Australians.

Melbourne University’s Professor Langton, all flowing grey mane and no-bullshit air, is the star of this hour. She talks up the benefits of Native Title legislation and seems comfortable snuggling up to big miners who have become, she says, more responsible and conciliatory towards indigenous interests.

Red Dirt Dreaming, a joint ABC/BBC effort, reaches a different conclusion. This two-part audio piece which aired on BBC last year and on ABC Radio national in February (now available online. See below) kicks up the ochre sands around the Pilbara and the Kimberley and finds the miners have at best an ambivalent impact on the indigenous inhabitants.

 

The ABC’s Kirsti Melville tells us that Native Title has become a wedge between tribal groups and clans and has jammed these already complex traditional ties into shapes they weren’t necessarily made for. She raises the issue of competing indigenous groups in the Pilbara and in particular the knotty issues surrounding the role of Fortesque Mining Group. One group, the Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation is the legally recognised custodians of the region, where FMG is keen to exploit for a iron ore gain expected to be worth around $100 billion. This group has rejected the company’s offers for compensation. A splinter group, the Wirla-murra group is claimed to have been set up by FMG as an astro-turf (artificially green, fake NGO) body more amenable to FMG’s claims. The damage the right to negotiate has caused in this context is palpable.

Red Dirt Dreaming reveals sharp divisions in WA aboriginal communities over mining. Some see the lifestyle gains of living hand-in-hand with miners and the upside of increased access to the main economic stream. Others lament over the loss of traditional ways and the desecration of country. Thus the growing class divide in indigenous communities oscillates in ever wider arcs, circling not just economic issues, but culture as well.

Ms. Melville found “Not one place we’ve been to on this trip to the North-West of Australia where either mining of Native Title has left a community united.”

Professor Langton’s Boyer Lectures in late 2012 were on the issue of Aboriginal economic empowerment and the central role of mining. She prods an accusing finger into the kidneys of the “romantics, leftists and worshippers of nature” she argues have knobbled indigenous development. Mining, she informs, has the will and the ability to empower indigenous communities, via jobs, training, contracting agreements and infrastructure building.

Her view, and that which emerges from Dirty Business, is that the mining industry has traversed a logical and linear path from the rapaciousness and utter disrespect for indigenous issues displayed until recently to the sensitive upstanding positions she says it now adopts. Critics, like the ACF’s erstwhile advocate Dave Sweeney, who also appears in Dirty Business, might suggest that to see big miners as the guy in the suit at the end of a neat line started by a chimp dragging its knuckles is just wrong. Miners are nothing if not adaptive. As one mining executive quoted in Dirty Business notes, miners are only ever going to be concerned about profits.

If the Jabiluka uranium mine, an example used in Dirty Business, was closed and sealed up on the basis of a non-agreement with the Mirrar people to mine there, that’s only because its not profitable to do otherwise. The company that operates Jabiluka, ERA (majority-owned by Rio Tinto), still counts it as an asset and knows that the uranium underground isn’t going anywhere. Politics on the other hand shifts all the time. Time is an asset available to corporate giants.

In his gung-ho, occasionally risible tilt on the Eureka Stockade, Peter FtizSimons makes the case, with typical hyperbole, that the stockaders were Australia’s first democracy martyrs. It’s not a controversial view of course. But, the gold diggers on the fields in the 1850’s expected to dig up gold on government-owned land – and possibly become very wealthy as result – for free. Not only did they assume any taxation or licence fee was unfair, they utterly ignored the indigenous custodians of the land (and fought tooth and nail in racist battles with the Chinese among others who wanted to share the spoils). While the gold licence fees were poorly applied in that they expected all diggers to pay, not just those who struck gold (which would surely have been more sensible), that doesn’t mean it should be assumed that the diggers should have been allowed to score large without some kind of compensation.

But, these miners expected precisely that; free access with no regard for the implications. As much about tax without representation, it was about wealth without compensation. As such they are closer to Gina Rinehart than many might assume; more aligned to Lang as in Hancock rather than Jack.
As precursors to the modern mining industry, the Eureka stockaders are appropriately bloody-minded and disabused of any wider social concerns.

Mining has indeed made Australia, but the above studies leave a sense that it may not have made everything better. Perhaps its made a bigger mess than even the deep holes and the slag heaps that dot the outback landscape.

THE SKINNY

Title – Dirty Business: How Mining Made Australia
Makers – Renegade Films
How to catch it – DVD
Couch Time – 3 x 52 Mins.
High Point – Comprehensive
Low Point – Seems to head towards a political conclusion
Extras – Yes

Title – Red Dirt Dreaming
Makers – BBC/ABC
How to catch it – Online
Couch Time – 2 x 55 Mins.
High Point – Drills down deep in WA
Low Point – BBC/ABC voice-over tag-team is disconcerting
Extras – No

Title – Eureka – An Unfinished Revolution
Author – Peter FitzSimons
Publisher – William Heinemann
Page Count – 618
High Point – Great detail of an important aspect of Australia history
Low Point – Peter FitzSimons’ heavy hand

I subscribe to Crikey because I believe in a free, open and independent media where news and opinions can be published that I can both agree with and be challenged by.

As a Crikey subscriber I always feel more informed and able to think more critically about issues and current affairs – even when they don’t always reflect my own political viewpoint or lived experience.

Jess
Singapore

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