End of a golden era

A GOLDEN age has bitten the dust, right in front of our noses. Yet the federal government still thinks mining is a bulletproof cash cow that will grow fatter ad infinitum. The Metal Detective, By Stephen Bell
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Stephen Bell

The problem with golden eras is you never quite know you’ve had one till they end.

Maybe we’re getting to that stage in digging up mineral wealth.

Hollywood had its golden era, as did rock music (surely the 60s!), capitalism, science fiction, aviation, even needlework.

Virtually every field of human activity has experienced one, if you look hard enough.

Mining, too, has had its share of golden times.

Perhaps the first was two thousand years ago when the Romans developed large scale mining methods and introduced new technologies.

Of course the Romans had a big head start in terms of the skills shortage: they mostly used slaves to do the grunt work.

Thankfully mining’s current golden era pays its workers well and doesn’t chain them up at night.

Our golden age started in the late 1990s, coinciding with China’s rapid growth spurt that underpinned a massive jump in Australian iron ore and coal exports.

Copper, gold and nickel were all caught in this wave to various extents, pumping up the tyres of numerous rock kickers.

Pinpointing the end of the golden era is a little trickier.

Probably the beginning of the end was the global financial crisis, which started in 2007.

The good times have stuttered on since then but Labor’s MRRT, last year’s plunge in iron ore prices, and confirmation of slowing Chinese growth rates, showed the end was nigh.

If we had any doubts, they were stamped out by comments from some of our biggest miners last month.

BHP Billiton is reining back its $80 billion capital spend in order to conserve cash and pay more dividends.

Rio Tinto chief executive Tom Albanese warned that foreign investors are anxious that multinational miners like Rio are "over-exposed" to Australia because of its high costs, low productivity and erratic tax policies.

Major projects cost almost 10 times more, and take longer to complete, than they did a decade ago, Albanese said,

Fortescue, up to now the most bullish of any Australian miner, confirmed last week that it will pause expansion plans once it has reached 155Mtpa in mid-2013 to pay down debt.

Newcrest, meanwhile, said it is focusing on expanding offshore because steep local price increases and new taxes have made it too difficult to get big projects off the ground in Australia.

Growth is out; returning cash to shareholders is in.

Soon the golden times will be just a nostalgic glow; wine-fuelled memories of the good old days when China-driven price increases glossed over any amount of government incompetence.

The big problem though, is Australia’s federal government, several maverick politicians and some unions still believe the golden goose is still flapping its wings.

The Gillard government’s carbon tax and MRRT are poised to squeeze the life out of our diggers just as China slows, Europe implodes and investors retreat to lick their wounds.

Yet there are plenty on the east coast who believe mining is still “booming” and the good times will go one forever.

You only have to look at the bizarre debate about Gina Rinehart’s enterprise migration agreement for Roy Hill to realize how far our politicians have taken their eyes off the ball.

Yes, the Pilbara project is owned by Australian’s richest person, a cardinal sin in the eyes of a federal Labor government looking to “spread the wealth” of mining.

But critics forget Roy Hill will employ 8500 construction workers in the next three years.

Of these, the project can import up to 1715 foreign workers if needed – a drop in the ocean when you consider there are more than 90,000 “guest” workers in the country at the moment under the 457 visa program.

And plenty more are on the way judged by the 35% jump in primary applications in the 10 months to April 30.

The brouhaha over Roy Hill’s EMA is just the latest example of the ignorance of some politicians and unionists of how the mining industry works.

Roy Hill could be the last gasp for big greenfield iron ore projects in this era.

If we are going to eke out a few more golden years, politicians need to encourage investment via sensible initiatives such as EMAs, not lump on more taxes and restrictive labour practices.

At last week’s business leaders forum in Perth, Wesfarmers CEO Richard Goyder probably summed up the situation aptly for both miners and non-miners: "I don't mind (federal politicians) carrying on like schoolchildren as long as they don't do things that get in our way.”

"Australian businesses and Australian entrepreneurs have got a record of just getting on with things."

This article first appeared in ILN's sister publication MiningNews.net.