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Can Australia survive without mining?

By Everald Compton - posted Wednesday, 19 September 2012


Any nation that aspires to have sustainable prosperity should have an economy that is equally reliant on agriculture, manufacturing, professional services, tourism, education, retailing and mining. It must be led by a lean, enlightened and compassionate government that creates a level playing field on which all of its citizens can be creative and competitive. To be heavily reliant on one industry is not smart, yet Australia currently places too much reliance on mining.

So, what should we do about creating a balanced economy in which mining is a stable cornerstone?

Firstly, despite all the efforts of politicians and journalists to frighten us, we can be secure in the knowledge that the mining boom is definitely not over. It is simply pausing and stabilising while it removes from the market the under-capitalised amateurs who are there solely to make a quick dollar. The sooner that they go broke and move on, the better it will be for Australia as we will stop creating an oversupply on world markets and be able to reduce the high wage costs that over-competition for labour is causing in our mining sector. We can then settle down and plan to have a strong, stable and responsible resources industry.

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Secondly, we can take time to forge a well-planned partnership between farmers and miners and the rural communities whose future is linked with them. At present, there is unnecessary confrontation, anger and chaos because of our failure to develop a national policy of industry cooperation which is fair to all concerned and good for Australia. We have been very negligent in allowing this state of affairs to become a blot on our national life. Our policy has been to earn as much export revenue as we can, plus the royalties and taxes that this generates, while destroying the fabric of our society and failing to give miners clear guidelines as to how they can operate profitably while being good corporate citizens at the same time.

A third issue is our haphazard and inadequate environmental policies caused by disparities between three levels of government and continual fiddling by politicians to keep pressure groups happy. We try to manage the environment on a mine by mine basis, cutting corners, creating uncertainty all round and degrading the environment in the process. Most miners whom I know personally do not want to contaminate the world, nor do their work force. Nevertheless, we do not have policies in place to return the earth and its flora and fauna to a quality environment and, as I see it, Australia needs one statutory environmental authority which can set a standard for the nation and have the power to override all levels of government in order to achieve top quality levels of environmental excellence.

In my view, the most powerful issue of all is to commence by setting in place a national plan for mining and energy. This can set out how we want to responsibly use our resources for the remainder of the century so as to ensure that we don't destroy arable land or debase the environment and leave some resources for those who will live in Australia in the twenty first century. This plan would have to be approved and adopted by all levels of government and accepted by the mining and agriculture and fishing industries as well as by responsible environmental entities. This would then give a reliable degree of certainty to all concerned and allow us all to make a good living by operating within sensible guidelines, a privilege that we don't enjoy now. At least, this initiative would provide us with as much certainty as it is possible to have in a rapidly changing world where good risk managers can prosper as we venture into the unknown.

There are social dimensions to all of this that cannot be ignored. This means that 'fly in fly out' strategies for employment must be given as limited a life as is possible as it is socially destructive to mining families and disruptive to any sense of community in rural areas where mines are established. The rule must be that, if you want to operate a mine, you must create a good society around it, preferably in cooperation with other mines and industries. The social infrastructure that is required as a minimum must provide first class schools, culture, recreation, transport, communications and quality housing, provided in association with a long term plan to eventually replace mining with new industries which will create and perpetuate long term communities.

Finally, we must take into account the future of mining. How long will it take for the world to find alternatives to coal, iron ore, copper, gas and other resources? The short answer is that it will take a long time, but it will happen. Alternatives are already on the drawing boards of scientists and technologists worldwide, but they will take a while to become commercially viable. Nevertheless, we must plan the means by which we handle and prosper from the changes. Indeed, we must lead the world in making this innovation possible and profitable. One day, in the distant future, the world will have no more need for mining or extraction industries of any kind. We must lead the world in adapting to this change.

In the meantime, we should seek to prosper in a sane, sensible and sustainable manner, without any sense of greed or pursuit of short term windfalls. The world needs good miners. We should value their presence and work in partnership with them so we all can enjoy a good life. Many miners that I know will welcome this cooperative path. Most of them aspire to be good corporate citizens.

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This means that industries other than mining must develop new strategies also. For example, it is a myth that our manufacturing industries must suffer because mining has driven up the value of our dollar and, currently, is the compelling force behind our high and uncompetitive wage structure. Too many investors are using these factors as an excuse to get out of manufacturing into other investments that are more profitable right now. Not too many people appear to be looking at manufacturing and deciding that its steady decline means that there are countless opportunities out there to create new industries that others are not even thinking about right now. Innovation, enlightened productivity and more imaginative use of technology, together with our legendary marketing skills, mean that there are new fortunes waiting to be made. Too many of us want to decide that it's all too hard, blame it all on governments and put our money in safe keeping under the bed. This is no way to build a balanced economy.

Enormous opportunities abound in providing food security for the whole world, commencing with our neighbours in Asia, but we have not looked seriously at the enormous possibilities of this. Nor has our tourist industry looked imaginatively at selling to the world the unique history, culture and geography of Australia. And there is a fortune waiting to be made by exporting our professional services, especially our expertise in providing for the needs of rapidly ageing populations. We can use mining as the economic power base from which we launch our stable prosperity to new heights.

I celebrate my eighty first birthday this year and I wish that I was fifty years younger. I can see opportunities now that I failed to see in my younger years. Still, I intend to stay active until at least my ninetieth birthday, so I will look around for new challenges that will enable me to fully participate in the vibrant future of my nation.

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About the Author

Everald Compton is Chairman of The Longevity Forum, a not for profit entity which is implementing The Blueprint for an Ageing Australia. He was a Founding Director of National Seniors Australia and served as its Chairman for 25 years. Subsequently , he was Chairman for three years of the Federal Government's Advisory Panel on Positive Ageing.

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