As if to demonstrate the often-lamented media focus on politics rather than policy, the recent report of an inquiry into fly-in, fly-out (FIFO) and similar workforce practices in regional Australia has as yet been subject to little detailed analysis.
The title, "Cancer of the bush or salvation for our cities?", acknowledges the polarising views these work practices attract, and indeed the report has already been strongly criticised by some within the mining industry.
It does not present a simplistic conflict, however, and if it has an overriding theme, it is this: issues arising from FIFO are not straightforward matters of ‘us and them’. This is not about industry versus communities or blow-ins versus locals.
The established regional communities that provided submissions to the inquiry "were keen to emphasise that they did not oppose resource companies and development" but "expressed great pride in the … operations that they sustained and that had sustained them". Their concern was rather at the industry’s apparent prioritisation of "quick profits over long-term sustainability".
Independent MP Tony Windsor, Chair of the House Standing Committee on Regional Australia, noted that the inquiry "heard extensive arguments from both sides of the debate — the benefits that the high wages and time at home bring to [FIFO] workers and their families, and the damage that the practice is doing to the prosperity of some of those in regional communities".
In light of some of the attention the report has attracted, this point bears repeating: it was in no way an attack on the mining industry. It began by citing ABS figures showing that in 2009/10, the resource industry contributed $121.5 billion dollars to the Australian economy (8.4 per cent of GDP) and also advanced the rather dubious proposition that the resources sector was "an integral part of our … national identity".
The report acknowledged that FIFO was "warranted … for construction and very remote operations", and also quoted people for whom FIFO has proved beneficial, noting that these work practices had afforded many "the opportunity to access the wealth of the mining industry without uprooting their families and social networks" as well as allowing workers "predominantly fathers … to spend large blocks of time away from work to concentrate on full-time parenting".
Ultimately, though, it concluded that "governments at all levels must acknowledge that, for some communities — particularly those traditional resource communities, [FIFO] is a cancer", arguing that we need policies to ensure it "does not become the dominant practice".
FIFO practices are so embedded in our lives that it may seem that the fluro-clad queues in our airports have always been there. They haven’t, of course; although as Conzinc Rio Tinto of Australia Ltd Chairman Sir Maurice Mawby stated in a 1971 speech, mineral reserves have long been concentrated in the continent’s "remote and inhospitable regions", until the mid-1980s the resource industry largely relied on workforces resident in local areas. The industry helped to create towns, some of which became "ghosts" while others endured.
Nowadays, mining companies no longer build towns and are instead accused of "hollowing" out existing ones: installing a "shadow" population distinct from the community with attendant damage to the social fabric and no requirement to pay council rates; placing pressure on essential services, such as medical services; often failing to hire local contractors or businesses (particularly Indigenous businesses, although the report arguably does not sufficiently address the impact of FIFO practices on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities); and perpetuating the view that regional Australia is merely where one goes to make money.
"Cancer of the bush" is lengthy, and space simply doesn’t permit exploration of all its conclusions. Some of the major points are as follows.
Firstly, it laments the lack of usable national data on the scope, effect and cost of FIFO practices. Some private organisations have collated information; a 2005 survey of over 100 mine operators and over 18,000 resource industry personnel conducted by the WA Chamber of Commerce and Industry found that in WA 53 per cent of all mining employees (contractors and direct employees) were employed on a residential basis while 47 per cent were employed on a FIFO basis. The report cites these and other figures and recommends that the Commonwealth fund the ABS to conduct further research on the extent of FIFO practices, for "without a real grasp on the figures involved, it is difficult to propose solutions".
Secondly, the report examines the impact of FIFO on distinct groups, noting for instance that "host" and "source" communities have different experiences and that for many partners of FIFO workers, relocating to rural Australia would mean a loss of employment and support networks.
Thirdly, the report challenges the logic of economic rationalism which has been embraced by both major parties, and to which the Nationals have largely acquiesced. It argues that the market alone will not provide; citing examples from Canada and Mongolia, the Committee contended that "when governments place expectations on companies, this sets the standards".
As Windsor noted, what the report termed the "mantra of ‘choice’" was misconceived in this instance. The popular line that "choice must be provided to workers to fuel the high-speed mining economy" belied a vicious cycle: the fact that FIFO was "eroding the liveability of some regional communities to such an extent that it is increasingly removing the choice to ‘live-in’ rather than simply ‘cash-in’".
Further, the report noted that the dominance of FIFO reflects more than neutral "choices" — tax subsidisation of these work practices "distorts the capacity of workers to make the choice to live and work in regional communities". For instance, companies can write off FIFO expenses as a cost of production; the application of fringe benefits tax favours the development of work camps rather than community investment, and the living away from home allowance applies to FIFO workers even where their workplace is situated close to an existing community. The report concluded that the weighting of the tax system towards FIFO was "completely contrary to the aim of building regional Australia".
Not all committee members concurred with the report’s deviations from free market orthodoxy. A rather non-specific "dissenting report" from Victorian Liberal MP Dan Tehan came in the form of a single sentence: "Some of the reports’ [sic]recommendations require further amendment so they don’t lead to additional bureaucracy, additional red tape and add to the cost of doing business for mining companies at a time when they are facing increased international competitive pressures".
Tehan’s statement seems to sum up the very narrative the report challenges: economic growth is an unalloyed benefit, the mining industry must be supported at all costs, and restrictions on its freedom to act in its own interests are to be regarded with suspicion.
FIFO practices affect many Australians and this report is therefore to be welcomed, but its focus is also relevant on a broader level. David McKnight, author of the excellent Beyond Right and Left, wrote in 2006 that the "fixation with economic growth damages the social fabric … [i]ncreasingly, we live in an economy not a society".
‘Cancer of the bush’ addresses some of the tensions between economic imperatives and human relations that exist in 21st century Australia and asks how the impacts of a market economy on individuals, families and communities are to be managed. It ultimately asks, therefore, what kind of country we want to live in.