Dirty Business: How Mining made Australia (Episode 1): a timely historical survey of mining in Australia

Jacob Hickey, “Dirty Business: How Mining made Australia (Episode 1)” (2012)

If this first episode is typical of the three-part series, this documentary should be quite an eye-opener on an industry that, even more than the sheep and cattle industry, made Australia and Australians the country and the people they are. The episode performs a fair few introductory functions: it traces the history of mining in Australia back to early gold rush years in the early nineteenth century, it links mining with the early growth of Australia’s second city Melbourne and it looks at certain aspects of Australia’s cultural history and social development such as racism, the White Australia Policy and nationalism and how these were influenced by mining.

Beginning with the impact of gold rushes in the state of Victoria during the nineteenth century, the documentary stretches out to include the early history of Chinese immigration into Victoria to the extent that Chinese made up 10% of the people living in that state and were the third largest ethnic group in the country after the English and Irish. The reactions that Chinese immigration stimulated among local whites form one of the darkest episodes in the nation’s history and the growing racism against Asians, later extended to Pacific Islanders, in the second half of the nineteenth century has an eerie parallel with deepening racial hostility towards black people and American Indians in the United States in the same period. The documentary also traces the cycle of resource boom and bust in Australia’s economic history: the boom period of the 1870s – 1880s gave way to a major depression in 1893, from which arose the drive to unite the various Australian colonies into one federated self-governing dominion in the British empire. Sharemarkets begin their rise in the colonies at the same time and to some extent the frenzied activity that often take place in the country’s bourses lead to a rollercoaster economy. The documentary embraces other mining booms in nickel and iron ore (associated with Lang Hancock who with his wife is said to have discovered the immense iron ore deposits in the Pilbara region of Western Australia in 1952) and brings viewers up to the present day with the issue of the fair distribution of income earned from mining and the conflicts this has caused in the mining industry for the past 160+ years and continues to provoke today.

Using archived photographs and film, interviewing historians and interspersing time-speed camera work into the program, overlaid by voice-over narration, this film is easy on the eye and ear and travels at a steady pace. There’s quite dramatic footage that director Jacob Hickey obtained with a camera bound to the fixed wing of a plane. Some people may object that the documentary’s range is rather too all-encompassing and that mining can’t be blamed for the race riots that took place in the Victorian goldfields in the 1850s – 1860s or that Melbourne’s Golden Age wasn’t entirely based on mining wealth. But to consider Australia’s social, political and economic development as having been stimulated by mining is an original and thought-provoking idea: the film dares to suggest blandly if mutely that the mining industry, not stock-raising forms of agriculture or wheat-growing, has really been the mainstay of Australia’s wealth and development.

It is too early to say yet if the series will touch on mining’s impact on the Australian character and attitude to a land beneath which lies an enormous treasure chest of minerals that can be dug out easily. Certainly the easy availability of gold and other minerals and the riches these have brought can be thought to have contributed to the Australian reputation of self-satisfied “she’ll be right , mate” complacency and acceptance of mediocrity in most situations. Is it possible that Australian expectations that resources booms will last forever more or less with the odd rare hiccup or two make Australians quite vulnerable to the coaxing and sometimes outright bullying of other more powerful countries? How will Australians cope when the news finally dawns that we cannot live off mining indefinitely, that it might be destroying other more useful activities such as agriculture, tourism and scientific research into plants with medicinal qualities, and that it might have stymied cultural, social and political development and maturity in Australia? The experience of refugees fleeing war-ravaged countries like Afghanistan says that Australia’s fair treatment of others, especially underprivileged others and allowing them to share in the nation’s wealth seem to be values not many Australians, migrant as well as locally born, believe in or share.

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