Time to stop digging our way out of trouble. A lesson from the past?

One day a rooster, the next day a feather duster!

By LAURIE PATTON | 6 October 2019

For the foreseeable future Australia will rely to some extent on mining for economic growth and to maintain our standard of living. Yet unresolved debates over a number of proposed coal mines have exposed a politcial rift that may well determine the outcome of the next federal election, just as the issue had a major impact on this year’s poll.

While the risk is arguably greater on Labor’s side the turning tide of public opinion spurred by concerns about Global Warming suggests both the major parties would be well-advised to start thinking about their future responses to the demands of the mining lobby.

One solution is to create jobs in other sectors for the people displaced when mines close or new mining licences are rejected.

Forty years ago the forestry industry faced up to the reality that a majority of voters were opposed to the clear felling of old-growth rainforests. This led the NSW Government of Neville Wran to develop an innovative strategy to avoid a damaging row over a little-known place called Terania Creek in the state’s far north coast.

Terania Creek had become home to a group of early ‘tree-changers’ – former urban professionals seeking a quieter, more sustainable existence but with the nous and the finances to mount a high profile public relations campaign. It was also the location of one of the most pristine rainforests in the country.

Labor has always had a primary responsibility to look after workers. So within Wran’s caucus there was strong support for the Timber Workers Union (now part of the Construction Forestry Mining & Energy Union) which was understandably seeking to protect their members’ jobs. There was also intense lobbying in support of an increasingly active environmentalist movement, especially on the party’s Left.

Heading up the campaign to save Terania Creek within the Government was Attorney-General Frank Walker, for whom I was working at the time. Walker convinced Wran that the fallout from logging Terania Creek would be politically devastating. As a local newspaper reported there was a protest onsite which it described as the first time demonstrators had chained themselves to bulldozers.

While Walker had no formal responsibility for environmental matters he was a member of a small Cabinet sub-committee called ‘Policies and Priorities’ – one of the hallmarks of Wran’s successful management of his government formed merely eighteen months after the dismissal of the Whitlam Government. All significant policy decisions had to run the gauntlet of P&P prior to a formal Cabinet decision. This gave Walker, who was also in charge of the Parliamentary Draftsman’s Office, considerable clout.

In its handling of a political problem over rainforest logging the Wran Government provided a model apposite when it comes to the ongoing showdown between pro and anti-mining advocates. This involved a package of initiatives including re-training for timber workers or early-retirement benefits for those wishing to leave the industry, combined with the expansion of new-growth (mainly pine) forests tailored to the needs of the construction and related industries.  

When he retired from politics Wran was asked what he regarded as his government’s greatest achievement. He responded that it was saving the rainforests. Years later he added: “Terania Creek and the men and women who fought for it played a critical role in shaping my views and the views of the government of the day in relation to conservation. Indeed, there is no doubt that Terania Creek was a milestone in the history of conservation in Australia”.

Right now our political leaders need to work together on similar long term strategies which reflect the reality that global demand for coal will inevitably fall significantly as more and more countries adopt policies designed to counter Global Warming. Whether we like it or not the market for coal is contracting.

What we urgently need now is a bipartisan accord designed to encourage and assist in the transition so that new job opportunities are created and investors have somewhere else to put their money.

Mining interests certainly know how to fight. According to media reports Yancoal chief executive Reinhold Schmidt recently attacked the NSW Independent Planning Commission which he described as an “unelected body driving outcomes of massive detriment to the state”. 

Ultimately, however, the IPC implements policies that are determined by elected members of parliament who in turn reflect the views of the wider community. Sooner or later regulations governing the decisions of the IPC and its interstate equivalents will be further tightened in the case of coal mining I suggest.

Investment decisions are always sensibly made with the long term in mind. So the ‘masters of the universe’ running the big finance houses need to start moving away from legacy industries where time is running out. Some already have. Australia is ripe to become a world leader in alternative energy sources – wind and solar of course – and we are already front-runners in the development of new battery storage systems.

The Australian economy has shown its resilience time and time again as we’ve moved through growth phases that saw us become less reliant on agriculture in favour of industry and rich from the sale of our mineral wealth. Change is incremental and the mining industry is a long way from extinction. But it’s time to look at other opportunities and we need to do that, as Wran did with the rainforest issue, in ways that make us all winners and eliminate the risk of losers.

For my money, we could start by fixing our dud NBN and providing #BetterBroadband. A recent survey found that “Australia’s home-grown technology sector is half the size of our global peers as a percentage of gross domestic product, four times smaller than the US (as a percentage of GDP), and is in the bottom half of OECD countries for innovation and R&D”. Whatever happened to the ‘clever country’ and the ‘Innovation Nation’?

POSTSCRIPT.

Economist Ross Garnaut has noted that Australia has barely begun to explore the extent to which it could build an industry and create jobs by embracing “low-carbon opportunities”.

(Laurie Patton was an advisor in the Wran Government. He visited Terania Creek on the Government’s behalf and subsequently recommended a ban on logging in the area.)