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Dirty Business

By Sarah Burnside - posted Thursday, 24 January 2013


Australia is not a nation characterised by an interest, obsessive or otherwise, in its own political history. In 2001, a series of advertisements commemorating the centenary of federation asked rhetorically what kind of country didn’t even know the name of its first Prime Minister. Many of us didn’t – a gap in public knowledge which would be almost unthinkable in the United States. As the radical historian Brian Fitzpatrick suggested in 1956, Australian history does not contain ‘Jeffersons and Lincolns’, nation-builders being regarded ‘more typically as a byword than as a watchword’. The problem with the advertisements was that even if the name Edmund Barton did circulate a little more widely than it had previously, it was unaccompanied by any more detailed knowledge about the man and his times.

Barton is not alone in remaining quasi-anonymous. When opponents of the Gillard government proclaim its leader ’Australia’s worst Prime Minister’, it is rarely clear with whom the comparison is being drawn (although Norman Abjorensen’s discussion of the merits and failures of recent Prime Ministers is worth reading). The Commonwealth has only existed for a little over 100 years, but it certainly goes further than Whitlam-begat-Fraser-begat-Hawke-begat-Keating-begat-Howard-and-here-we-are-now – a fact that might be forgotten when the loudest and most enthusiastic discussions about our political history in recent memory concerned the relative ‘profligacy’ of the Whitlam and Howard governments.

Writing in The Monthly last year, Amanda Lohrey examined the gaps in our society’s political literacy, noting the extent to which the past vanishes into a sort of eternal present in our consciousness. Thus a group of high schoolers to whom she spoke ‘were amazed to discover that [marriage] celebrants had first been appointed in 1973; they thought we had always had them…they thought we had always had no-fault divorce, equal opportunity and anti-discrimination legislation, Medicare and a raft of other relatively recent reforms’. Lohrey conceded that it was ‘not surprising that a group of 17 year olds would feel that anything legislated before their birth was ancient’, but argued that it was of concern that ’their sense of the way in which politicians can shape and advance a culture was almost entirely absent’.

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The SBS mini-series Dirty Business, which focuses on Australian history within one specific and politically charged arena, is therefore to be welcomed. A great deal, though, is inevitably lost in cramming a substantial and complex history into three discrete, hour-long episodes.

Anyone seeking to explore the history of mining in Australia encounters familiar mythic narratives about the role of mining activity in ‘building the nation’. I am not using ‘myth’ here as a synonym for ‘lies’, for indeed mining activity has had an enormous impact on Australia. Rather, as political theorist Christopher Flood has noted, a myth is ‘ideology cast in the form of a story’. The resources sector and successive governments have told stories about mining’s role in nation-building for over a century, and these stories have become a powerful part of our political culture. In Guy Pearse’s excellent Quarterly Essay Quarry Vision, he noted for instance that these stories (backed by the mining sector’s strong relationships with both sides of politics) had contributed to the widespread view that Australia’s greatest assets were its mineral and energy resources, such that ‘when climate change emerged as an issue, there was already a consensus among Australia’s business, political and media establishment that the quarry was sacrosanct, coal non-negotiable. It had to be protected at all costs’.

Dirty Business never seemed clearly to have addressed the need to disentangle fact from myth. While the program documented some of the negative impacts of mining – dispossession of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, anti-Chinese racism, violent riots against Yugoslav and Italian migrants in Kalgoorlie, appallingly unsafe working conditions, the crushing of union attempts to secure a better deal – it never queried the underlying assumption that Australia was and is utterly reliant on the mining industry, for good or ill. There surely could have been some space made for counter-arguments such as those set out in the Australia Institute’s 2011 paper ‘Mining the truth: the rhetoric and reality of the commodities boom’, in which authors David Richardson and Dr Richard Denniss note that in 1951, agriculture ‘accounted for just over 30 per cent of Australia’s GDP – much bigger than mining has ever been’ and argued that the ‘rise of the mining industry is neither inexorable nor universally beneficial’.

The narrative of events in Dirty Business also felt somewhat over-simplified in places: monocausal explanations make for exciting TV but bad history. Consider the discussion of the ALP’s first split, over conscription during the First World War, initiated by then-Prime Minister Billy Hughes - despised within the party as one of its most notorious rats and praised by historian John Hirst as the giver of the ‘most powerful solo performance in our political history’. The role the mining sector played was addressed in Dirty Business, but the ideological divisions behind the split as to the direction that a party of the workers should take in government, particularly in wartime, were largely absent. Coverage of the downfall of the Chifley government was also rather peculiar, appearing to attribute its defeat in 1949 entirely to the coal miners’ strike. One would have thought that the government’s failed attempt to nationalise the banking sector might also have had something to do with it: the struggles between government and business were not limited to a single arena.

Dirty Business also covered the Whitlam government’s interactions with the mining industry in a somewhat cursory fashion, focusing largely on the Loans Affair. This is understandable – there was a great deal going on, and the rise, fall and various brainchildren of Rex Connor (Minister for Minerals and Energy) could well take up their own mini-series. It seems odd, though, that despite linking the dismissal of the Whitlam government to Kevin Rudd’s downfall, Dirty Business failed to mention that questions surrounding the tax paid by mining companies festered during the 1960s and 1970s before being explored in the 1974 Fitzgerald Report on the contribution of the mineral industry to Australian welfare. In his Report, the economist and journalist Tom Fitzgerald concluded that that despite the ‘general unfocussed reactions of euphoria’ at the mineral developments of the 1960s, owing to the existence of several generous tax concessions, the nation’s gains from the boom had been minimal.  In particular, Fitzgerald calculated that due to the concessions, during the period 1967-1972 federal government assistance to the mineral sector exceeded tax receipts from mining companies by $40 million.

The report had a polarising impact. Fitzgerald later pronounced himself ‘about equally annoyed by the bitter opponents of the paper and its doughty champions’. Two of its greatest advocates were of course Whitlam and Connor, with the latter invoking it to argue that the previous Coalition government ‘obviously never even got to first base with the multi-national mining companies’, that it ‘was outsmarted’ and ‘had a cargo cult complex’. Although, unlike Rudd, Whitlam did not propose a new tax on the resources sector, his removal of existing tax concessions was opposed by the Liberal and (then) Country parties and bitterly resisted by the mining industry, and featured in both the 1974 and 1975 election campaigns. As noted previously, these events do not loom large in our political history, but their absence from an episode dedicated to power struggles between governments and the mining industry seems rather strange.

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The final episode of Dirty Business focused on interactions between the mining industry and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and its honest - though rather rushed and jumbled – depiction of injustice and dispossession should be applauded. This is a history about which more should be known: how many West Australian schoolkids, for instance, are familiar with the Noonkanbah dispute? The program appeared, however, to locate all such struggles safely in the past, and to cleave to the problematic yet popular assumption that, in these more enlightened times, mining activity represents unequivocal good news for Indigenous groups in regional and remote areas. It is true that mining has in some cases conferred real advantages on Aboriginal communities. This is not the whole story, though, and a more accurate depiction of the complex and often disappointing reality of the native title system was sorely needed. Some nuance could have been provided, for example, by acknowledging the existence of ongoing disputes between the Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation and the Fortescue Metals Group alongside the ‘happy endings’.

The stories we tell about our political history are important, both in making sense of past events and in revealing contemporary attitudes and beliefs. As debates around the native title system quietly continue, climate change becomes ever more pressing an issue and disputes about the carbon tax and minerals resource rent tax rage on, when stories about mining are told, it pays to listen.

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Article edited by Jo Coghlan.
If you'd like to be a volunteer editor too, click here.

This article first appeared at Maintain the beige on 19 January 2013



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About the Author

Sarah Burnside is a freelance writer with experience in law and policy. She tweets cautiously at @SarahEBurnside.

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