There's a wonderful scene in Monty Python's "The Life Of Brian" where Reg, the leader of the People's Front of Judea (not to be confused with the Judean People's Front) asks "What have the Romans ever done for us?". To his annoyance, his fellow rebels answer, eventually leading to Reg having to reword his rhetorical question:
All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?
What makes this even more brilliant is that the benefits of Roman civilization on conquored people have very likely been enormously exaggerated. Ex-Python Terry Jones' book (and television series) Barbarians makes a very strong case that, whatever benefits Roman conquest had (if any!), they were enormously outweighed by the harm done. The Romans were not benevolent conquorers bringing civilization to the benighted savages, they were rapacious looters who drained the wealth from half of Europe and the Middle East and left the conquered people vastly poorer.
Which brings us to Australia in the 21st century. In the same way that the conventional story of Europe is that the Romans brought civilization to the barbarians, Australia's conventional story is that in the late 20th and early 21st century (that is, right now) the mining boom brought wealth and prosperity to our land. But, like the story of Rome's civilizing influence, the story starts to fall apart when you look a little more closely at it. Australia's mining boom has come with enormous costs, not just environmental and political but economic as well, and the wealth generated has mostly gone to a relatively small number of people.
Compared to the resource curse suffered by many developing nations, Australia has escaped relatively unscathed. We don't have warlords and private armies fighting for control over our gold and coal mines. But our all-but-unshakable belief that we are The Lucky Country blessed with natural resources, together with our cultural cringe that nothing we do is as good as what the Pommy Bastards and Damn Yanks can do (even though we're the best bloody country on earth bar none), has made us complacent. With a tiny handful of exceptions, the national character is not just uninnovative but anti-innovation. We give lip-service to loving our inventors and innovators, but except for medical research we just don't want to know. We celebrate the Aussie inventor who builds a better mousetrap, but won't buy it until it's been sold to the Americans for a fraction of what it's worth, then sold back to us at an enormous profit margin.
We have the scientific know-how and the popular support to lead the world in green energy. If Germany can now generate fifty percent of its peak daytime electrical power from solar and wind, we could surely be doing eighty or ninety percent without even raising a sweat. But we lack the political will. Of our two main political parties, the nominally left-wing (but actually middle-of-the-road centre) ALP is lukewarm about green energy, while the right-wing (and getting more extreme every day) Liberal Party is now actively hostile to it. It's not hard to see why: mining companies are big, big supporters of the Libs. Since 2007, for every dollar the mining companies have given the ALP, they have given $25.75 to the Liberals. No wonder Joe "poor people don't drive cars" Hockey thinks that wind power is utterly offensive. In Queensland, Australia's "Deep North", the even more right-wing National Party are trying desperately to destroy the solar power industry because it is too effective.
So what have the mining companies done for Australia? Apart from making us complacent and corrupting our political process?
- Not jobs. Mining provides about 1% of Australia's jobs, compared to about 9% employed by the manufacturing sector.
- They're quick to shed jobs too. If the rest of the country sacked people as quickly as the mining companies did, our unemployment rate would have reached 19.5% during the global financial crisis instead of 5.9%.
- Not taxes either. Despite record profits, they pay only around 2/3rds the tax rate of other companies: the average company tax rate in Australia is 21% but the mining companies pay only 14%.
- Not only don't they pay their fair share of taxes, they're quick to demand handouts. Despite all their profits, they receive $500 million in direct subsidies each year, plus another $4000 million in indirect subsidies, freebies, discounts and other handouts.
- The diesel fuel subsidy alone costs every Australian (at least those who paid taxes) $87 a year.
- They're not Aussie miners either. 83% of Australia's mining industry is foreign owned, which means that up to 83% of the profits are going overseas.
- Let's not forget the environmental destruction caused by mining.
All right, but apart from the pollution, the corruption, the lies, the destroyed industries, the sense of entitlement, and the lost opportunities, what have the miners ever done for us?