At the risk of being called naïve or an apologist, I feel compelled to challenge the demonisation of big business.
While it is something that has been troubling me for a while, my concerns have become crystalised by the anti-mining mutterings of my esteemed colleagues on Twitter.
In recent days, the more we non-economists hear about the misnamed Resource Super Profit Tax, the more sensible it seems. But it has taken serious journalists such as Peter Martin and George Megalogenis to take the time to translate this arcane but practical arrangement into plain English.
We should not have been subjected to the shrill objections and counter-claims of the mining industry and Government. Any government worth its salt on the issues management front could have turned this resource and risk sharing arrangement into a good news story by bringing the mining industry into the tent and getting them on side before the RSPT announcement was made.
Is this me being naïve? Or did the Government want the mining industry to be seen to be taking a hit swiftly after it dodged an earlier bullet with the abandonment of the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme?
Did the Government consciously demonise the mining industry in an attempt to regain a few brownie points from the electorate?
Perhaps the answer can be found in the title for the new scheme. The moniker given to the Resource Super Profit Tax smacks of the same hyperbole applied to the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme. The RSPT is no more a real tax than CO2 is real pollution. But these labels provide a mechanism for the government to simultaneously suggest there is a serious problem and that it is addressing this problem with a new acronym, I mean, program.
Aside from this, is the demonisation of the Australian mining industry justified?
Yes there have been sins in the past. And there are still some out-riders who think they can still get away with it dodgy practices. But it is no more logical to burden all miners with the sins of the few, than it is to do the same with teachers, car drivers, or internet users.
Mining companies work on 20 and 30 year timeframes. They understand better than most of us the bounty and the limitations of the earth. Even so, it took them a while to realise that the natural environment is not limitless in its capacity to rebound from the stresses of mineral extraction. It took them even longer to understand how their operations impact on people and societies. But they did come to understand these factors and they took action to change.
Around 10 years ago, led by Australian mining company CEOs, the global industry took the unprecedented step of commissioning an international NGO called the International Institute for Environment and Development (www.iied.org) to run the world’s biggest community attitudes survey. The survey was to find out what communities, governments, environmentalists and other activists in both the developing and developed worlds thought about the mining industry and what they wanted to change about how the industry went about its business.
Some mining companies walked away from this process because they found it too confronting. To my knowledge, none of those companies operate or have a presence in Australia. Some NGOs walked away too because they thought it was a greenwashing exercise. But after two years of the community talking and the mining industry listening, some real outcomes emerged. Perhaps these were less ambitious than some would have liked. But they were a start. A new mining entity was established at the global level to continue the discussion with NGOs and to deliver the undertakings.
My point is that mining companies know better than most that they have to be “good corporate citizens” in order to keep their social license to operate.
It is these companies who have built roads and communities alongside their operations in rural and remote Australia. They have built infrastructure for water and electricity generation. They have education and employment programs for their local people. They have invested in these communities with their shareholders’ funds because governments would not. And as a result they have a relationship with their communities that politicians and other companies could only ever dream of.
While some critics of mining are prepared to acknowledge this investment, they call it the resource curse – communities and economies made dependent on mining revenue that are left stranded when the operation ceases. This may well occur if a mine is closed before its time due to emergency or insolvency. But most major operations include the cost of withdrawal from the community in their initial project costings. This withdrawal includes building capacity within the community to ensure that it can continue to thrive once the mining project has concluded. If you want a real example of that strategy, then look no further than the thriving ex-mining town of Newcastle.
I’ll have other things to say about the anti-corporate, anti-capitalist bandwagon. But for today, I’ll finish by saying this: when a politician points at someone and says they are bad and need to be dealt with, first ask yourself why the politician wants you to believe him …….