Recently I had the opportunity of doing some research in some of Queensland's outback regional communities in the Galilee Basin which are preparing, or at least are thinking about commencing to prepare, for the coming mining "boom".
I place inverted commas around the word boom because there has been considerable public debate recently over how much of a boom we are going to have, in view of pressures on our leading mining companies, falling commodity prices, a Chinese economic slowdown and long project approval lead times. More locally (at least in the Galilee Basin), there is great uncertainty among communities about whether there will be a resources boom, its shape and duration, and its impact on these remote places.
The purpose of the research (which I am undertaking with a colleague from the University of Queensland) is to explore community attitudes to the coming resources industry, to see how well prepared they are now, and to investigate how well informed they are about the possible impacts of mining on their communities. I think this research will also be of interest to other regions, given the efforts of many so-called lifestyle regions to attract Fly In Fly Out (FIFO) workers and their families to "live here, work there".
It is difficult to predict the precise trajectory of the resources boom. It won't be the same for coal as for coal seam gas or LNG. The fact is, however, that boom or no boom, the resources sector will continue to dominate economic development and provide economic opportunities to many regions in Australia, especially remote regions.
As well, mining will continue to have social consequences for the communities of the regions concerned. Communities change in all sorts of ways when mining comes to town. These changes can be complex, and communities can only control or even influence some of the changes that inevitably occur. New people come. Old residents leave. Businesses start and businesses die. Prices rise, constraining choices. New houses are built. Infrastructure is impacted. New services are needed. There are extra pressures on local councils. There are debates over land use. And all these things play into the already existing community dynamic of regional places.
This is why attitudes to mining in the affected communities, and community preparedness, are very important of themselves and very important for companies and governments to understand.
Of course, there is a whole lot of attention now focused on FIFO. There has been a parliamentary inquiry into the phenomenon. Four Corners on the ABC recently looked at the Moranbah situation. There is endless debate over housing prices, the cost of renting houses for existing residents, pressures on infrastructure, the contributions that mining companies make to regional communities affected by mining developments, possible social issues in both host and source communities, and so on.
There is also a concerted effort by Gina Rinehart and others to focus government attention on Northern Australia, with the inaugural Developing Northern Australia Summit to take place in Cairns in November. In particular, there are calls for special economic zones in the north to facilitate economic development and population growth. Local councils and the State Government are now joining this conversation, eagerly contemplating what the resources boom and other possible growth drivers might mean for the north. Of course, these debates have a long history in the decentralisation, regional development and regional governance literature, and a long history of advocacy. (What is needed here is a sober, clear eyed understanding of what drives regional growth, and, most importantly, which of the drivers of growth the different levels of government can influence).
FIFO, of course, is but one recent example of an emerging phenomenon in regional Australia – what might be termed the "new mobility". Quietly, over the past decade or so, regional Australia has become a place where a lot of people are suddenly on the move – there is a lot of FIFO and long commutes generally in sectors that have nothing to do with mining (I am also doing some research currently on this trend and what it means for different regions).
But FIFO remains the hot topic of the moment.
The communities that I visited are all part of Barcaldine Regional Council – Alpha, Jericho, Aramac, Muttaburra and Barcaldine itself. The mine that is most likely to proceed soon is the Alpha coal mine. There is also some exploratory drilling for coal seam gas happening in the western part of the region.
This is a very interesting region, steeped in history as the birthplace of the Australian Labor Party and deeply significant for the union movement with the 1891 shearers' strike. Once upon a time it was home to the wool industry. Now three of the key sectors are beef cattle, grey nomad tourism and government services.
Elements of this piece have been previously published in the Fraser Coast Chronicle.