Rebecca Huntley Columnist

Rebecca is a director of The Mind & Mood Report, an author and social commentator with a background in publishing, academia and politics. She holds degrees in law and film studies and a PhD in Gender Studies.

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Shanty town fears stop Aussies moving for mining work

Published 29 August 2012 05:58, Updated 30 August 2012 04:23

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Shanty town fears stop Aussies moving for mining work

Unattractive? ... While potential workers might be attracted to the salaries in the resources sector, their spouses and kids aren’t so enthusiastic about the lifestyle that comes with it. PHoto: Erin Jonasson

Last week, in a much publicised speech, ANZ chief executive Mike Smith discussed ways in which we might encourage workers to move to resource towns across the country. One of his more controversial solutions was to examine the level of unemployment payments. Was the too-generous dole stopping people from moving from areas with high unemployment to skills-starved areas in other parts of the country?

Smith’s comments raise a question I am often asked … how do we make more people move to mining towns?

I can tell you, at least in the short term, it’s not going to be easy. And it’s not really about money.

Australians know that there are well paying jobs to be found in the resources sector and they have known this for some time. Their perception is that these jobs generally suit single people or parents willing to fly in and fly out for a few years. Do that and you can set yourself up with a new home, pay for your kids education and accumulate a nice little nest egg to invest.

But few people we encounter in our research think this kind of work is feasible long term. Part of that perception is fuelled by confusion about how long the resources boom will last. Why uproot my life, my family, for a well-paying job that might not be there in five years time?

But the real hurdle for many is that the general image of mining towns (gleaned mostly from the media and second-hand accounts mind you) is that they are shanty towns, swimming in cash and grog but without much else to recommend them.

While potential workers might be attracted to the salaries in the resources sector, their spouses and kids aren’t so enthusiastic about the lifestyle that comes with it.

When Australians talk about what makes a home, a neighbourhood, a community worth living in, they are pretty clear about the essential elements. Good childcare centres and schools. Parks and safe outdoor areas for children and for exercise. A good supermarket and other specialty food stores – a butcher, a baker and a veggie seller. A few nice cafes and somewhere decent to go for a meal other than the pub and the Chinese take away. A decent GP (preferably one that bulk bills) and a physiotherapist. A decent hospital in driving distance. Something to entertain the kids that doesn’t involve a screen (a skate park for example). Not much to ask for but how many mining towns have all of this?

Even those people worried about money and job security aren’t convinced their problems will be solved by a job in the resources sector. Last year I was sitting in the living room with a group of mums in Wollongong, in the weeks after Bluescope had announced some job cuts. They discussed the merits of moving west; most knew families where the husband or wife was a fly in fly out worker. They all agreed it would have to get pretty desperate before they would consider that life or, even worse, relocate permanently.

Woman 1: They had a CEO from WA, some open cut mine, saying he had 900 jobs he couldn’t fill. That’s fine to say that but where are those jobs actually? Do they actually exist? Maybe some people will uproot their families or fly in fly out, but other people can’t or don’t want to.

Woman 2: I couldn’t do it.

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