Dirty Business: How Mining made Australia (Episode 2): playing safe on mining and government in an eternal embrace

Jacob Hickey, “Dirty Business: How Mining made Australia (Episode 2)” (2012)

In this second episode of the three-part series, the focus is on the mining industry’s relationship with power and government in Australia, and how mining companies have used their power to try to influence and shape politics, culture and society. Conveniently perhaps, the episode slots between two significant historical episodes separated by roughly 155 years: the Eureka Stockade revolt of ordinary miners in Victoria in 1854 and the downfall of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in 2010, both events directly or indirectly involving the mining industry in some way. Then, in the 1850s, the majority of miners were working-class men disgruntled at having to pay more tax to the colonial government and to apply for government licences to mine for gold, and their catch cry was liberty and “no taxation without representation”; in 2010, the Australian mining industry was dominated by large corporations owned and/or controlled by wealthy individuals like Gina Rinehart and Andrew Forrest who objected to the Rudd government imposing a special tax on their industry with the intention of sharing the wealth from mining among all Australians.

Between these two events, the mining industry’s influence on Australia’s political and social development is shown to be immense indeed. In the 1890s, miners from the eastern colonies working in Western Australia expressed their wish to join the eastern states in a federation; local people in Western Australia were not so enthusiastic. The then Premier of the Western Australian colony acceded to the miners’ demand by giving women in his colony the vote before holding a referendum on federation: the desire on his part was obviously to increase support for Western Australia’s isolation. The ploy backfired however, the result of the referendum was in favour of federation and on 1 January 1901, the Western Australian colony became a state in the Commonwealth of Australia.

Various other historical shenanigans include Billy Hughes’s switching of political sides during the First World War, Australia’s war against Japan, the downfall of Ben Chifley’s Labor government in 1949 as a result of sending in the army against perceived Communist influence among striking coal miners (paving the way for Robert Menzies’s rise to leadership which he was to hold for a remarkable length of time: 17 years) and the dismissal of the Whitlam government in 1975, in part due to that government’s desire to nationalise Australian industry which was to lead it to raising money from shadowy figures and agencies, including quite possibly the infamous Nugan Hand Bank. The episode perhaps makes much more of the mining association with these events than they actually deserve, implying that Australia was and perhaps still is this little country full of incestuous business and government networks in which one person can be linked to just about everyone else. A mixture of archived materials, interviews with historians and political and economics experts and re-enactments using animation illustrates the events in general chronological order. Funnily the episode doesn’t say a great deal about how the growth in Australian manufacturing and in particular BHP’s growth as an iron and ore mining company diversifying into iron and steel production from the late 1940s was stimulated in part by mining and the mining industry working together with the Menzies government.

The episode is very informative but says very little about how ordinary working people employed by the mining industry, those true descendants of Peter Lalor and the gold miners who held out against the police at the Eureka Stockade in 1854 and whose actions may have indirectly influenced the Victorian government’s Electoral Act of 1856 which mandated full white male voting enfranchisement, have benefited or not benefited from the mining industry’s love-hate affair with Australian governments. There is also nothing about how the mining industry as a whole insinuated itself into the passage-ways and meeting-rooms of political power and confronted non-mining companies and industries that also jockeyed for favour in Canberra and the state capitals. In particular, there is no mention of the agricultural sector and its allies among politicians who might have clashed with the mining industry in influencing domestic policies.

Ending with Kevin Rudd’s dismissal as Prime Minister in 2010, the episode makes the obvious and banal prediction that mining will continue to influence Australian politics, and with that determine to a large extent the fate of Australian people and their culture. The voice-over narration notes that the people in mining agitating for influence over government are wealthy plutocrats who appear to lack a philanthropic bone in their bodies but offers no opinion for or against this trend. Obviously, SBS TV is going out of its way to present an apparently objective and politically neutral point of view, and in the process risk making a rather bland piece of TV documentary.

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