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I’ve referred to Charles Copeman in several speeches and articles over the years. This was written in 2013 after his passing. He was an amazing man and one I was honoured to know.

Charles Copeman and Australia’s mining industry

Most other industries, particularly Australian sport and media, have developed a fine art of promoting their heroes and recognising them appropriately. Not so with the mining industry which, of recent times, has become mostly a succession of short-termers. They run the industry and remaining in place just long enough to exercise their share options or collect their golden parachutes. Then they vanish into the distance.

Charles Copeman was of an earlier era when ‘miners were heroes’. They were industry builders, nation builders and creators of wealth for their shareholders.

I first met Charles in 1968 through our mutual involvement in the Duke of Edinburgh Commonwealth Study Conference and have valued his friendship ever since. Charles was no ‘follow the leader’ sort of guy. He was the leader and it was this characteristic that caused him to draw a line in the sand when many of his contemporary corporate leaders stood by in a ‘deknackered’ fashion whilst labour-union thuggery brought Australian mining to its knees in the 1980s.

Robe River story

The story has it that Charles’ company, Robe River, was only offering a range of 15 flavours of ice cream at their mining camps and the unions went on strike because they insisted on 16 flavours. Charles said, “enough” and promptly sacked 1100 union workers and restructured the company to once again become competitive. It took courage to do this, but the alternative was for his company to vanish into economic extinction.

Subsequent mining historians have commented on the absolute lack of support that Charles Copeman received from the mining industry. They appeared more comfortable, standing by in the hope that he would fail and that they may benefit from picking up Robe River’s iron ore customers. This same industry, perhaps with a sense of guilt, has always been somewhat hesitant in acknowledging Charles Copeman’s leadership role in returning competitiveness to our industry.

Some years later, it was widely published that as a result of his courageous actions, the mine’s productivity was quadrupled and export volume doubled. Charles later became the President of AusIMM in 1988, made a Member of the Order of Australia in 1999 and inducted into the Australian Mining Hall of Fame in 2009.

For more on Charles Copeman see Heroic Misadventures, pages 360-361.


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