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The benefits of mining or not, in Boomtown, WA

By Sarah Burnside - posted Thursday, 21 January 2010

In their excellent work It’s Still in My Heart, This is My Country: The Single Noongar Claim History, the historians John Host and Chris Owen noted that the colony of Western Australia was initially:

... a capitalist venture that sent the weakest to the wall and allowed the strongest - those with stamina and adaptability but more importantly, assets, connections and a certain ruthlessness - to flourish.

Western Australia remains a state firmly wedded to market principles and in thrall to the romance of a certain rugged individualism; the mining industry occupies particular pride of place. To say that WA is pro-mining is to comprehensively understate the situation. In recent years, the mining boom - fuelled by Chinese demand for iron ore - has made the state an economic success story, if not a full-fledged capitalist fairytale.


The overriding narrative is triumphal: “WA has the best performing State economy in the nation as it shrugs off the global financial slump and enters the new year ready to reassert itself as Australia's economic powerhouse”. Late last year, a conference entitled In the Zone was held in Perth. The name referred to the time zone shared “by Perth, 60 per cent of the world’s population, and the nations that promise the greatest economic growth of the twenty-first century”. Having long been so far from the action, the isolated capital city is now asserting itself: rest of the world, meet Boomtown.

Perth has eclipsed Melbourne as the second-most affluent city in Australia, retail outlets from the likes of Gucci, Tiffany & Co and Louis Vuitton have popped up in the CBD, and the local media spent much of the last fortnight preoccupied with the fate of a yellow Lamborghini under the State’s “hoon laws”.

So far, so banal: money is being made, people are spending it and the cogs and wheels in the economic system are turning. Although there are legitimate concerns (expressed most prominently by public intellectual Clive Hamilton) about the conceptual confusion of consumerism with citizenship, economic growth is regarded as a boon for obvious reasons.

There have been several reports in recent years, however, of the uneven spread of benefits arising out of the mining boom, in Western Australia and elsewhere. Peter Kenyon, a Professor of Economic Policy at Curtin University, has cast doubt on the assumption that what is good for the mining industry is good for everyone, saying: “What tends to happen in these circumstances is those that are directly benefited through the mining industry and indirectly benefited through the mining industry tend to do very well but the significant proportion of the population do not do well.”

Professor Kenyon’s argument is supported by research (PDF 258KB) conducted by the Australia Institute in 2009 which concluded that overall, “the mining boom seems to have had very little positive impact on the wellbeing of the majority of Australians other than those directly affected by the expansion in the mining industry”.

Similarly, Committee for Perth spokeswoman Marion Fulker noted in late 2009 that “there are some disparities between those earning very good incomes and those not … I would say the divide between the have and the have nots is increasing”.


The divide to which Ms Fulkner refers is becoming increasingly apparent: the 2009 Counting the Homeless Report found that the rate of homelessness in WA increased by 14 per cent between 2001 and 2006. The division between Perth and the regions was starkly illustrated by the spike in homelessness rates in the Pilbara and Kimberley regions, which increased by 58 per cent during this period. The report’s author, Dr Chris Chamberlain, attributed these rates in part to the mining boom, which saw many workers moving to the northwest and finding a lack of accommodation that led to them “sleeping in their cars … sleeping in shipping containers”. Homelessness is also particularly prevalent among Aboriginal people in WA - in 2008, a survey of Broome residents undertaken by the local council revealed that 27 per cent of the Aboriginal people surveyed were homeless.

It is also commonly noted that Aboriginal people in remote and regional areas have not substantively benefited from successive mining booms within their traditional country, a fact often erroneously invoked to criticise the Native Title Act, which was predicated not on social justice grounds but on the recognition of rights held under traditional systems of law and custom.

The poverty in the midst of plenty (PDF 3.93MB) shocks us out of the complacency engendered by the comfortable Australian rhetoric of the “fair go”. Responses, from indigenous and non-indigenous Australians alike, include sincere hopes that Aboriginal people will “share in the mining spoils”, “get out of poverty, get off welfare … have a better life”.

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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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