Boom and Bust Cowboys Hit The Tarkine


The current Griffith Review is dedicated to Tasmania. Celebrity chef Matthew Evans writes with amazement at the sheer richness of the state’s northwest, being clean, lush and with some of the country’s richest soil. But he is equally dismayed about the lack of awareness from local producers at how they could capitalise on it. He describes some of the best milk in the country being homogenised in processing plants and mixed with lower-quality stuff without a care, adding:

"We can continue to rely on single industries to provide the jobs, and wave them goodbye when conditions change overseas, or we can try to take more of our destiny in our own hands [by branding]the region on the basis of what makes it special … History shows the area simply can’t rely on big industry to stick around forever. Even worse in terms of creating more sustainable industries, an incredible resource is being squandered…"

What Evans says could apply to Tasmania in general, not just its agriculture sector. The state can’t seem to shake its cargo cult mentality and remains beholden to the idea heavy that heavy industry and big business will save it.

The northwest is home to the Tarkine. The Australian Heritage Council’s rigorous assessment (pdf) of the area found that it has outstanding natural values. In 2010, and again in 2012, it recommended protecting 439,000ha as a National Heritage Area.

The Tarkine should be another Daintree, Kakadu or Flinders Island, but in a shock announcement in February, Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke protected just 4 per cent of the area from mining.

Trucks, heavy mining equipment and dozers are now preparing to destroy this vast and pristine wilderness, home to the critically endangered Tasmanian devil, wedge tailed eagle and many other species.

There are 58 exploration licences lodged for the area and 10 proposed mines.

Ever since Burke’s announcement, mainstream Tasmania has been under the impression that a mining boom is coming.

"Boom times ahead", declared the Mercury, suggesting the cash-strapped state could be on the "cusp of a new golden era" of mining.

The problem with booms is that they don’t last. So if there is to be a mining boom in the state’s northwest, it will be only half the story. A bust will follow. This is cowboy economics: smash, grab, fill your pockets, move on. Boobyalla, Crotty, Dundas, Gormanston: these are just some of Tasmania’s mining ghost towns.

The Tasmanian Chamber of Commerce’s chief economist, Phil Bayley, tweeted that mining means "greater wealth in whole communities", and that without mines there would be "no modern bldgs [sic]or tech".

This suggests economic value prevails above all others. It suggests that mines create lasting wealth. They don’t: their "wealth" lasts as long as they do, which generally isn’t long.

The environmental movement in Tasmania is not anti-mining. Mines like South Hercules and Rosebery, near the Tarkine’s southern border, are accepted. The Greens have even proposed new mining projects.

Greens’ Senator Peter Whish-Wilson backed Bright Phase Resources’ proposal to reopen the Cleveland tin mine at Luina, which closed in the eighties (1986). Tailings at Luina are leaching acid and other contaminants into at least 6km of the Whyte River. "By cleaning up the tailings, we are going to get a pretty positive result. It costs the taxpayer nothing to remediate the area and creates jobs," he said.

Burke claimed that he "simply wasn’t able to find that boundary" between protecting the Tarkine "in a way that was not going to have a massive negative impact on jobs in Tasmania".

But this claim has been rubbished by Labor heavyweight and Australina Heritage Council chair Carmen Lawrence.

"To read [protecting the Tarkine]as prohibiting development is simply wrong. I’m very disappointed, and I’m sure I speak for other members of the council," she said.

Former AHC chair Tom Harley, shares Dr Lawrence’s distress: "Certainly it is possible to have economic development alongside natural values. Look at Kakadu."

In reality, Burke’s decision was 100 per cent political. Labor’s traditional working class base has fallen away since the Labor-Greens state government moved to end subsidies to the state’s flawed timber industry. Burke is happy to wreck the Tarkine if it keeps Tassie a Labor state and wins back these estranged supporters. And he has partly succeeded.

The state Government is already trumpeting mining’s success in the state, claiming revenues exceeded $50m for the first time last year. Paltry compared to WA and, in fact, comparable to the $58.2m and 1100 jobs, which a recent report  found that a Tarkine National Park could generate for the local economy — without a single mine needing to be cut.

With heavy industry poised to invade, the environmental campaign has already ramped up. Markets for Change, which proved decisive in opening the eyes of investors in the recent push to end native logging in the state, is poised to act to protect the Tarkine. This will complement the direct action actions that will begin delaying and disrupting mining activity in the area. GetUp! has made the Tarkine a national issue.

It’s still the cargo cultists and cowboy economists in charge of Tasmania — and they like nothing better than a good ol’ fashioned boom. But just as the state’s forest wars have subsided, the mining wars look set to kick-off. And with the prize of the Tarkine, to be protected or exploited by either side, the stakes couldn’t be higher.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.