This morning the head of the Minerals Council of NSW, Nikki Williams, gave a feisty speech about the increasingly troubled relationship between mining firms and the community. The speech left me a bit short of oxygen to be honest and, in my view, will simply inflame tensions. Let’s take a look:
We’re the darlings of the business pages, yet we’re painted as demons in the early general news. We help Treasurers keep budgets healthy and give Australia the strength to stave off the threat of recession, yet our industry is a lightning rod for the most adversarial of political debates.
We’re in the midst of one of the longest and strongest mining booms in our nation’s history. Yet we face multiple policy, regulatory and legislative challenges that might collectively render our sector a less attractive destination for international investment than countries such as Indonesia, Colombia or even Mongolia.
We find ourselves central to the most divisive political debates in our nation’s history. Whether it’s the carbon tax, the mining tax, the so called ‘two-speed’ economy, future budget surpluses, land access, competing land use, cumulative impacts, or crumbling infrastructure in some of our key regional centres, the mining industry has skin in the game in most of the debates that are contributing right now to the future direction of this country and our state.
Well, that’s not a constructive tone of negotiation to open with. It is defensive and hyperbolic. Mining debates are contentious, sure, but they hardly “the most divisive political debates in our nation’s history”. Except perhaps the one case of the mining tax and what role that was played by the mining lobby in the fall of a Prime Minister, but that doesn’t get a mention.
In fact, I’ve spent a couple of years marvelling that mining hasn’t copped more blow back from a far larger proportion of the community, especially business. The vast majority of businesses that are being squeezed out by mining, mostly in the tradable goods sector, pretty much never blame the miners. Rather, they stick to the private versus public script and tend to blame the government for such things as the carbon tax.
Ms Williams tone of defensiveness then deepens further into the speech:
Australia is a paradox of those who don’t care and are disengaged, and those who are so engaged and so hardened in their views that they’re prepared to take matters into their own hands. They’ve written government off as incompetent or unable to deliver the changes they believe are needed. This is a new era. The industrialisation of activism.
The adversarial, partisan construct of modern Australian politics, whether at state or federal level, has contributed to an obligatory face-off over almost every issue you could think of.
The 24-hour news cycle has turned up the heat on our politicians. It leads to a new paralysis, because it’s created an environment where the voices of 10% of people opposed to an idea can be amplified to a deafening roar. This ‘roar’ apparently feels so overwhelming that it often means governments don’t act on their convictions, or refuse to engage on the detail of policy and its implications, leading to political stalemate and a virtual policy vacuum.
I am not seeking to de-legitimise activism. It’s an important part of our freedom of speech. Indeed, we must reserve the right for activism to effect change. But government processes don’t seem able to deal with it. Individual industries can’t deal with it; and the reality is, that everything is grinding to a halt.
Our media industry has an active role. Commentators bemoan partisan politics and the voices of vested interests in public policy debate, yet it is these very characteristics that fit the construct of conflict that the news cycle thrives on.
The recent edition of Four Corners, which examined the carbon tax debate, is a perfect illustration of the point that I make. Over 45 minutes, the program presented a picture of ‘The Carbon War’, as it was called, between the hard right conservatives and the visionary left.
Thud. Yes, that’s my jaw hitting the soon to be mined ground under my feet. I don’t at all disagree with the analysis of the media, nor of the assessment of today’s political economy. I only object that the Minerals Council represent itself as somehow transcending it. In fact, the Minerals Council exists for the sole purpose of pursuing the interests of its members. Was it not the Council that played a lead role in the fight against the RSPT? Whether you agree with that stand is irrelevant. The point is the Council was entirely happy to exploit and reinforce the “adversarial, partisan construct of modern Australian politics” when it suited the members needs. And has done so again since on the carbon tax. In fact, it is doing again in this very speech. But apparently:
Where the carbon debate is playing out on the extremes, in truth there’s a vast middle ground that doesn’t quite know what to think: torn between a desire to do something on climate change, and little to no understanding as to why Australia should consider self-imposed economic disadvantage for no discernible environmental gain.
Here the hypocrisy is naked. This is not the middle ground of the carbon debate. It is the extremes misrepresented as the middle. The middle ground of the debate might be Australians wondering about the efficacy of the carbon tax versus its costs. But that is not “no discernible environmental gain” is it? And there’s more:
This “limbo land” is where the minerals industry resides. In terms of the carbon tax, it has been unilaterally excluded from assistance available to emissions intensive, trade exposed industries, despite meeting the government’s own criteria. It does have access to an assistance package, but it is one that will merely delay the premature closure of a four mines by a single year.
Good Lord. The minng lobby does not occupy some innocent “limbo land”. It is actively aiming to derail the carbon tax with, among other things, this very speech. And more:
The government hopes that the residual growth, to be reduced by the tax, will compensate for the loss of jobs in mines that close. But this is flawed thinking, for there is a human face to job losses. The 55-year old NSW coalminer might not want to move his family to another region or interstate in order to stay employed for the last 10 years of his career. And why should he have to?
Nor can he just walk into a job in the clean energy sector, as politicians such as Christine Milne like to suggest: to begin with, there aren’t many of them; secondly, where they exist they are more akin to semi-skilled manufacturing work; and thirdly, they are not highly paid. There are very practical questions about relocation of families and dislocation of regional communities that need to be addressed. Why is it a good idea to send more than 4,000 miners into early retirement when we’re already struggling to get our heads around the economic implications of an ageing population?
At MB we regularly discuss the economic adjustment that is displacing the tradable goods sector in favour of mining and the RBA, as well as Treasury plan that aims to let it happen. The adjustment is real and very large. It involves lots of workers being “freed up” to resource the mining boom. That Ms Williams is either unaware or insensitive to this makes me wonder what the objective of this speech is at all.
I could go on but won’t. If the speech is evidence of future efforts at mining rapprochement, can I suggest boosting the ad budget is a better idea for the Council. Painting mining as the victim is only going to put folks off side. Find the full speech below.
He is also a former gold trader and economic commentator at The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, the ABC and Business Spectator. He is the co-author of The Great Crash of 2008 with Ross Garnaut and was the editor of the second Garnaut Climate Change Review.
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