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Published 21 February 2013 08:01, Updated 10 April 2013 07:32
The Australian mining sector is a PR disaster. Popular wisdom says it has produced a two-speed economy, a high dollar, distorted labour markets and destroyed manufacturing jobs. Its apogee is the mining tax fiasco. National ambivalence about the sector is not new. Years ago, I described contrasting visions for Australia as a quarry or an electronic Switzerland. It was with great irony, therefore, that last year I found myself chairing a two-nation, CSIRO-led mining research centre in Chile. This is teaching me two things. First, we have seriously neglected and under-valued the role of innovation in the sector and its positive contributions to the economy. Second, we need to address just why we have this love-hate attitude to the sector.
Mining is actually a very high-tech business. It spawns high-growth industries in support services and is a major customer for breakthrough developments in biotechnology and ICT. Usefully for us all, the mining productivity agenda is focusing research effort on water and energy use and efficiency, not to mention environmental sustainability.
Space limits the scope to explore all the possible reasons for our ambivalence but a few stand out. In highly urbanised Australia, few people have direct exposure to and experience of the mining and agricultural life of non-metropolitan Australia. Increasingly, we have a national political agenda geared to a city-based electorate. This highlights the trade-offs, not the synergies.Also, I suspect we have lost the agility that created the positive institutional frameworks for economic development in the 19th century. The inconvenient truth is that Australia has long relied on the mining sector for its prosperity; the trouble is that too many of us wish it didn’t have to.
Among other things, Terry Cutler is chairman of the CSIRO-Chile Mining Research Centre in Santiago.