The Tasmanian mining town of Beaconsfield was once the more down-to-earth “Brandy Creek”. Townsfolk changed the name in 1879 to recognise a Prime Minister who was conservative in some ways but radical in others. Sound familiar? Back then it was Benjamin Disraeli, Lord Beaconsfield.
Today, Beaconsfield is linked in public memory not with a maverick PM but the mine collapse that, ten years ago, took one miner’s life and trapped two others for two weeks. Another would-be PM, Bill Shorten, also owes his prominence to Beaconsfield. With an eye for ambition and the TV cameras, he borrowed cardboard tycoon Dick Pratt’s jet to reach the town and its media legion in a hurry. Pratt, who sometimes referred to Shorten as “my union advisor — no decisions until Bill signs off” was happy to oblige. He must have been tickled pink by all those poppet-head media conferences and the speculation that here was a PM in the making.
At the time, Shorten was secretary of the union to which the miners belonged. Now he leads the Labor Party into a once-in-a-generation election of both houses of the federal parliament. That election was triggered by defeat of a Bill aiming to re-instate a permanent commission into union activities in Australia’s burgeoning building and construction sector. With the passing of our mining boom, it is arguably the strength of the construction sector that has kept Australia out of recession.
The Beaconsfield mine closed in 2012, putting 150 miners out of work. The domino effect has seen the withering of the town itself, exemplified by the closure of two of the town’s three pubs. What remains of the town is now dependent largely on tourists who come to see where the tragedy and triumph unfolded.
Yet, Beaconsfield’s loss of a heavy industry, and part-replacement by unreliable tourism could be a metaphor for the wider fate of Australia. Since 2006, we have begun to lose car manufacture, steel production and refining of other metals. Now Labor, with the help of the Greens, would have us shut down our huge coal mining sector too.
Ten years ago, Shorten was good at coming on TV at all hours and expressing sympathy and angst about the tragic, tense, hopeful situation unfolding at Beaconsfield. He couldn’t offer any concrete strategy to overcome the immediate obstacles and problems the trapped miners and their rescuers faced. Nor, in the longer run, did he have any strategy that would have enabled the blighted mine to stay open and the many members of his union employed, producing gold that would, in turn, earn Australia export income to pay for its needed imports.
Likewise now, does Mr Shorten have any real strategy for developing gainful, export-producing employment in Australia? The wind turbines and solar panels, those expensive and inefficient power producers on which Australia’s future is said to depend — will likely all be imported. The ALP has a target for 50% renewable energy sources by 2030, so not too many jobs there. In the meantime, many other exporting mines will have to close.
The reason that Mr Shorten gives is that we must lower the world’s temperature. Yet the measures he champions to do so are not proven, are very expensive, will take years to implement, and (most importantly) come at the cost of shutting down much of Australia’s resource-based economy.
If Australia wants to build renewable, zero-emission capacity rapidly, the only real option is to construct new dams up and down the Great Dividing Range. Plans for many of these dams exist, but have been shelved as “environmentalists” made them impossible to construct. (How piquant it is that these protests have resulted in Australia remaining dependent on fossil-fuels. Contrast Norway, where hydroelectric schemes supply most of the nation’s electricity.) One only has to recall the ALP’s own “Biggles”, aka Senator Gareth Evans, back in 1983 ordering an Australian F-111C to spy on whether Tasmanian government-sponsored work to construct the Franklin hydroelectric scheme was proceeding, to realise that the ALP has form here.
Whenever Labor starts to worry that its inner-city seats (often occupied by high-flyers, up-and-comers and ministerial candidates) might be lost to the Greens (with the help, sometimes, of Liberal preferences), then you can be sure that the ALP will embrace greenie policies wholeheartedly. No dams? Done! Let all asylum seekers ashore? Settled! Do away with Australia’s coal industry? In time, of course.
Bill Shorten is on the horns of a dilemma if he states to the faces of unionised miners that mining must end. These are people who have often voted Labor all their lives, as did their families before them, in the Hunter Valley in NSW, in the Latrobe Valley in Victoria, and increasingly in the large coal basins of Queensland. Yet, their livelihoods and towns are to be sacrificed to help inner-city ALP heavyweights and others get themselves elected.
(Yes, yes, but in the long term, it is all for the greater good of the world. Really? Even if the world’s five largest nations — China, India, America, Russia and Indonesia, containing between them almost half the world’s population — continue to develop industrially, based largely on fossil-fuel use, until 2050 at least.)
Contrast Shorten’s dilemma with the view on the other “side” of contemporary Australian politics, where Mr Turnbull is also on record, back in 2009, as stating that an emissions trading scheme was not only a good thing for Australia (and the world), but inevitable and sustainable. (Ho, ho!)
No matter who gets elected, what hope have Australian workers whose jobs are dependent on our fossil-fuel resource sectors? More to the point, what hope have the rest of us Australians, who pray that Government receipts from the resources sector continue to pay the tax we can’t or won’t?
Without ongoing development of our vast fossil-fuel resources, Australia’s economy seems set to slide into that once-in-a-generation recession that Howard/Costello’s financial prudence, or perhaps Rudd/Swan’s cash splashes, or the wisdom of Glenn Stevens at the RBA have avoided for us. (Only the Netherlands, where there are always dikes to be built, has avoided recession longer than Australia.)
This time around, all Australians are effectively stuck down a mine, with both political exits blocked by green rubble, and no white knight ready at the surface to drill down to rescue them. Where, you might ask, is our Lord Beaconsfield to salvage us?
The as-yet-unennobled Mr Benjamin Disraeli didn’t become British PM until he was 63, and then only for some months. When he finally became PM again at a venerable 69, his focus was on shoring up Britain’s international trade, including purchasing an expensive share in the Suez Canal.
That fast route to and from the Orient was a major factor that allowed Britain to flourish industrially in the latter Victorian Era. The Commonwealth of Australia is only, as we would say today, a spin-off from that venture.
How greatly now do we need an Australian leader of Lord Beaconsfield’s stature, one who can recognise and seize opportunities to develop this country’s potential? Unfortunately, the miner’s canary and the Spycatcher’s lawyer who lead our main parties are unlikely to lead us anywhere but down.