The jobless rate in Western Australia sits at 6.8%. The national average is 5%. Nearly 100,000 West Australians are currently looking for work — the highest figure on record since they began tracking the statistic in 1978. The mining boom turned to a whimper and the halcyon days of unskilled jobs, fat paychecks, and endless projects seem like tricks of an unsure memory.
The promise the mining companies and the Barnett government made when the boom took off way back in 2008 was that it would lift the state while dragging it into the future. The wealth of the mines would trickle down into the greater community; reviving Perth’s flailing retail sector; renewing its outdated architecture; and reinvigorating its sprawling, seemingly infinite, outer suburbs.
We got two new hospitals, replete with fabulous amounts of lead, and hilariously over budget. A new quay named after the queen (“Betty’s Jetty”, as it’s known here) comfortably tucked away from all the city’s nightlife, shops and citizens. Oh, and two new stadiums — one next to the refurbished casino, of course.
Those were the days.
Now I can drive half an hour up and down the coast in either direction and see the skeletal totems that warn of the mining boom’s false promise. Empty housing estates, ghost micro-suburbs, and ghastly boutique apartments — half empty or reverse mortgaged, rotting along the coastlines like washed up whale carcasses.
My hometown, Fremantle, is stuck between its pre-boom bucolic miasma and a post-boom yuppie avalanche. To a lifelong observer, the town’s homeless population seems to be slowly surpassing its (already high) pre-boom numbers, returning to the east side’s empty outdoor malls as its retail sector disappears into dust along with the boom’s disposable income.
WA is again the meth capital of Australia — down from the peaks of 2016, but still high. Meth spread through Perth with a casualness worthy of our laconic coastal drawls. I had never seen meth outside my neighbourhood’s eternal smattering of addicts until the boom got into full swing, around 2011.
Then, friends, acquaintances, and men on the street seemed to be huffing at crack pipes as if they were in a “best of Super Hans” YouTube countdown. Mates who worked in the mines found their way to meth after their first or second FIFO tours. The nature of the job meant there was already a pretty strong culture of amphetamine abuse amongst mining industry workers, meth of course being a cheap (in the immediate sense) way to supplement the cravings and swings that come with dependence on speed.
The FIFO piss-ups that had so many bars in Northbridge displaying signs that read “we don’t serve hi-viz” soon turned to maudlin spiraling stoushes. Meth entered a diet and lifestyle that was largely driven by alcohol, pills and testosterone. As the comedown kicked in, most FIFOs I knew were left with little more than inflated mortgages, and unrelenting addictions.
A shouting of a pint or passing of a pipe from these mates is the closest those who remained outside the boom industries received in terms of a “trickle down”.
Housing prices were laughable, and rental rates earned a decent chuckle themselves. Those advised to invest their retirement funds in properties hovering around mining towns are now desperately calling financial advisers wondering why the bank has come knocking at their reverse mortgaged homes.
The West Australian Senator Michaelia Cash, then federal minister for employment (now Jobs and Innovation), recently said that “the Western Australian economy is a transitioning economy. We have gone from that intensive investment in the mining construction phase and we are easing into a diversifying economy and you see more jobs created in the retail and service sectors”.
Overall though, the jobs aren’t there. In 2016 Andrew Charlton, former economics adviser to prime minister Kevin Rudd, told the ABC “Western Australia is going backwards very significantly and has conditions that you would describe as a state at a level as being consistent with a deep recession”.
All this, in the place that was the epicentre of the biggest resource boom in Australian history. Mismanagement, sloth, and greed, of both the mining industry and the Barnett government, left us freefalling to the back of the bread line.
Was there a plan, ever? If so, then God is definitely laughing at how it all played out.
This is the little fable I repeat to myself and would pass on to my comrades in North Queensland while Adani is promising 10,000 jobs and a grand future of infinite wealth and opportunity.
The 10,000 jobs figure has been in serious dispute for years now. In court, Adani’s expert witness stated the Carmichael mine would instead create 1464 jobs a year. Direct and indirect, that is. As Adani supporter Senator Bridget McKenzie explained last year: “[Adani will] be employing 1500 through the construction phase and around about 100 ongoing”.
100 jobs gained in a relatively small industry with a narrowing future. 100 jobs that will open up the gateway to the Galilee Basin, doing immense damage to the environment and, according to The Australia Institute, put 13,000 nearby jobs at risk.
As a West Australian I’d like to remind Queensland, and the nation at large, that the mining industry is better at digging holes than it is at fulfilling promises.