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We can be heroes

Can anyone remember a time when miners were heroes? When they were proud of what they did, without apologizing? That was before we submitted the terms of debate to the values of those who are openly hostile to mining, and in fact hostile to the whole free enterprise system.

So I Headed West, a book about my grandfather WG Manners, belongs to this era. It was before the anti-industry lobby accessed taxpayers’ money to use against us. If they had Australian of the Year awards in those days, they would have given them to people who created enterprises, cities, wealth and employment. They were the creative dynamos.

Like Essington Lewis, WS Robinson, George Fisher and Maurice Mawby. They engineered projects in Australia’s arid wilderness, conserving water and building prosperous communities.

People like that don’t get awards now, because the enemies of enterprise have hijacked the debate. Just imagine the reaction of these mining heroes if they had to fill in a 200-page Environmental Impact Statement or a Notice of Intent to mine. Imagine their disbelief if we tried to explain to them how our generation has stood by while bureaucracy dilutes the almost sacred “miners right” down to a tenuous license or permit. The “miners right” was what the early pioneers fought for.

I wouldn’t like the job of explaining how the captains of our industry allowed a clause to become compulsory in today’s tenement transactions, which states “this transaction is subject to the prior consent of the Minister”. This clause is in direct contradiction to the inalienable property rights that WG Manners’ father and our other mining pioneers fought for at the Eureka Stockade.

What would be different?

If these hurdles were in place 100 years ago, Australia would never have had the honor of having the highest per capita productivity in the world (in 1901). There wouldn’t have been enough flesh on our bones to support our debilitating welfare load, or our economically isolated Canberra environment, or even our new $100 million embassy in Beijing.

At least we have the distinction of being taught in schools around the world as an example of how inappropriate policies can reduce a resource rich country from top spot, down to 24th spot, in one easy lesson.

It may not sound as though I’m an eternal optimist. But I am, as only eternal optimists remain involved in the mining industry. Eternal optimists turn adversity into opportunity. One surprise example is our former Federal Welfare Minister Blewett. He discovered that Australia excels in providing welfare to its population, whether they want it or not. He set out to export our welfare providing expertise to the newly emerging nations of Eastern Europe.

That’s the last thing they want from us. Wouldn’t we rather be exporting something that we could be proud of?

The importance of So I Headed West

I never met my grandfather. He died 13 years before I was born. However, in assembling his handwritten notes and researching, I feel I know him well. I can appreciate his sense of values, which simply reflected the values of that time, when miners were heroes. His emotions would have been roused if he were to reappear today and ask for some explanations of how we put ourselves on the defensive like this. He would put me on the spot along with many others here today, for not participating fully in the intellectual war taking place between pro-market and anti-market forces.

The consequence of not waging this war is serious, because if the debate is dominated by those who dislike and distrust mining and free-enterprise then our industry faces a slow but certain decline.

Fortunately, there are some encouraging signs (but not many).

A select few of our industry’s leaders are learning to put our industry’s real significance in clear terms, with pride and dignity. These leaders, some here today, have started the gigantic task of raising our industry’s profile and there are signs that the tide of public opinion is turning. If we get behind these leaders we might manage to turn the ship around, and our country desperately needs that.


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