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Media just a pebble in the shoe of Big Mining

24 Feb 2012

First published on the Drum on 16th Feb

Tony Maher, National President CFMEU

There’s been much hand-wringing about the impact Gina Rinehart’s buy-up of Fairfax shares will have on editorial standards at its popular mastheads.

Fair enough. Any more exposure to the views of her preferred mouthpieces Ian Plimer, Andrew Bolt and Christopher Monckton would push the average Australian well over the safe daily limit of exposure to unsubstantiated bluster and fallacy.

Though as last year’s carbon and minerals tax debates showed, newspapers don’t need to be owned by mining magnates to prosecute the interests of Big Mining. It’s just an added bonus.

The wealth and influence of the likes of Gina Rinehart are beyond the imaginations of most of us. Her fortune – twenty billion dollars and growing – is generated by vast tracts of resource-rich land, fuelled by the record prices being paid for Australian resources by developing Asian economies.

When you’re about to overtake Bill Gates as the richest person in the world, a non-compliant media is an annoyance, a pebble in the shoe. You don’t need to own the media to have a good shot at getting your own way. The sheer scale of the investment decisions at your discretion attracts the attention of governments.

You don’t need to own the media. But if you can afford it, you might as well.

Australia breeds a variety of mining magnate that attracts easy ridicule. Along with Gina Rinehart there’s youngster Nathan Tinkler, who at 30 took a gamble on a coal mining lease he turned over for $275 million – he still looks surprised; Twiggy Forrest who led the charge against the mining tax and is being prosecuted by ASIC over allegedly misleading the market; and Clive Palmer, who you would draw if you picked ‘capitalist’ in Pictionary.

Unsophisticated to a fault, with their conspicuous excess, private jets and family trust brawls – it’s easy to be distracted by the spectacle and lose sight of the extreme and dangerous agenda these people are promoting.

The diminishing independence of Australian media is to be deplored. But if we really want to worry about Gina Rinehart’s influence, let’s look bigger. Let’s look at the shape and direction of the Australian economy into the next century.

Mining is growing at a phenomenal rate, transforming the Australian economy as it goes. We all know about the Australian dollar – driven up by the resources boom and sucking the life out of manufacturing and other currency-sensitive sectors like education, tourism and retail.

Fewer of us know about the social havoc being wrought in mining regions: exorbitant housing costs driving out families, upheaval caused by Fly in Fly Out workforces, roads dangerously crowded with trucks and commuters.

The challenge facing policy-makers is how to make sure the mining boom delivers more value than pain to the economy; that it delivers good, skilled jobs to Australians; that it builds rather than destroys regional communities; that the extraordinary profits being generated in the finite decades of the boom leave a positive legacy for future generations.

But sharing the benefits of the boom is not an agenda Gina Rinehart is interested in. Quite the opposite.

Rinehart’s staunch opposition to the minerals and carbon taxes are well known; and her campaigning is not limited to her bizarre back-of-the-truck performance with Twiggy last year. Despite compelling evidence to the contrary, Rinehart is fond of telling business audiences that the slightest further tax imposition will see miners pack up their diggers and go to Africa.

But Rinehart’s grand vision for mining is the creation of extensive special economic zones across Northern Australia.

The lobby group she spearheads, Australians for Northern Development and Economic Vision, argue that the special economic zones resources should essentially be tax free, with no resources, payroll or income tax collected.

But that’s not all. Companies would not just import their steel and machinery but could import a low-wage workforce to build major projects as well.

“Making our projects too expensive to compete internationally only jeopardises Australia’s future,” says ANDEV’s manifesto.

“Hence, in these special Northern “economic zones”, we should allow competitive and temporary short term workers to build our projects, say for a duration of up to two years nine months or so … our Government could choose, if such workers had proven to be good workers and potentially good citizens, whether to extend their stay to a longer period.”

ANDEV supporters, a collection of mining executives mostly based in Western Australia, find it grossly unfair that other industries can simply off-shore jobs to low-wage economies, but they are restricted by the realities of geography.

“Various industries in Australia already make use of overseas countries labour without restriction – for example, sending work overseas to India and the Philippines and elsewhere in Asia where labour costs are lower. The group argues mining companies should be allowed to hire short term workers from overseas … rather than becoming uncompetitive.”

The current rate of growth in the resources sector means that there is a necessity to bring in skilled workers from overseas. The Federal Government is currently developing the terms of a new arrangement – Employment Migration Agreements – which companies could enter into on major projects.

Unions are not opposed to all use of foreign workers, but we argue they must be paid at local rates and only used when local workers aren’t available.

If Gina Rinehart had her way, mining companies ‘in the zone’ would be given carte blanche to import cut-rate foreign workforces in the construction phase of their projects – the phase that delivers 90% of jobs.

So if we don’t get Australian jobs, if we don’t collect any tax, if we don’t put anything away for the future, if the profits from Australian resources are simply lining the pockets of mining magnates and foreign shareholders – what are we left with?

A buggered economy and some holes in the ground. That’s the real headline.