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Wells Haslem’s WA affiliate, Dr Ron Edwards, was the Federal ALP Member for the Perth seat of Stirling from 1983 to 1993. In 2006 he was awarded a Doctorate in Education (UWA) which investigated factors that promote social inclusion.

With both a State and Federal election in 2013, he examines a side of the WA resources boom some politicians would rather ignore. 


In October 2011 the Perth Mint unveiled the world’s largest gold coin. You can go all the way back through antiquity -- the Egyptians, the Greeks and the Romans – and nothing so large has ever been struck. It is a thing of rare beauty. 

Weighing in at 30,000 ounces, with the gold price at US$1650 an ounce, the coin is worth close to $50 million. The most valuable ever minted.

But why did Western Australia produce a coin of such size and value? 

Firstly for the Queen, to mark her attendance at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Perth in 2011, where she can gaze on the most valuable image of her to ever appear on a coin, unveiled by WA Premier Colin Barnett.  

And secondly … because it could. 

And here, in stark and golden relief, is the confidence and style of Western Australia.

People like Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest epitomise this. 

Be bold and go out and achieve something of worth. 

Just as Alan Bond did, when he set out to win the America’s Cup. Assemble the most creative team of designers, boat builders, sports managers and sailors and think about the best and most creative way to achieve something.

It is for this reason that, despite all of his corporate scandals and crimes, the adventurous spirit of Alan Bond is remembered in Western Australia.

In recent years, due to the growth of companies such as BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto Iron Ore, Woodside, Fortescue and others, WA is home to some of the best people in the resources sector anywhere in the world. Accordingly others had to lift their game.

But while much attention has been paid to WA’s booming economy and sense of prosperity, there is another important story being overlooked.

Most investment in physical infrastructure is so huge that projects without ‘billions’ in their price tags rarely rate a mention. 

Yet there is little discussion of the commensurate social investment required in a state where 1000 people per week join the population. 

The issue raised its head in the most tragic way in 2011 with the discovery by a cleaner of two bodies in two motel rooms a major Pilbara centre. Suicide was later determined as the cause of death in each case. 

This was a resource town in the middle of an Australian mining boom lauded as the saviour, not only of the individuals working in the industry but of many other Australians.

This was the industry that piloted the nation through the GFC and the backdrop for endless groups of politicians wanting to be seen in high-visibility vests and hard hats in front of small mountains of iron ore or gas production plants.

But there is part of this story that some politicians don’t want to acknowledge exists; one that is the real consequence of the rapid growth in resource developments.

Whether it be the phenomenon of fly in fly out (FIFO), rapid increases in personal wealth or simple social dislocation, all is not as clean and healthy as some of those political leaders would have you believe. Significant increases in the drug trade and the prostitution industry targeting resource workers are indicators of these changes.

A glance at the rents in the Pilbara tells another part of the story. Weekly rents in Port Hedland are $2301, Newman $2212, South Hedland $1843, Karratha $1401, Dampier $1335, Onslow $1625 and Tom Price $1500.

Where in all of this is the sense of community envisaged originally by those such as Sir Charles Court who insisted upon mining companies building community towns as part of their licence to proceed? In the rush for wealth there is the risk of social fallout that will not be welcomed in the medium to long term.

That fallout won’t be confined to the resource towns alone but will be shared with places such as Kogarah, Epping, Logan etc from where the FIFO workers come. It will be felt in terms of dislocated families, alcohol and drug abuse let alone the sense of entitlement that comes from quickly-earned wealth.

Australia now has the much-discussed two speed economy but in addition we have in the mining areas three layers of economic and social development. 

At the top, those employed in the private sector who are realising significant incomes, many of whom are FIFO workers. 

The next layer consists of those employed in areas such as federal, state and local government such as teachers, police officers and nurses. Their incomes struggle to match those in the resources industries whilst experiencing the increased cost pressures on housing and other services. 

The bottom layer consists of the unemployed or otherwise disadvantaged. The indigenous communities make up an important number of people in this category.

Whilst all of this represents a problem for governments and the community there is also a great opportunity to address the situation provided the correct policies and structures are put in place. 

The enormous wealth from the resources sector means that, with an appropriate governance arrangement, the wealth of the private sector can be harnessed alongside the not-for-profit and government sectors to address these concerns at a local level.

Whilst this seems so obvious, there is a failure of many to want to recognise the problem let alone address it. Apart from within the Government of Western Australia there is little understanding of the issues involved nor an appreciation as to how to address them. Premier Barnett’s Department of State Development is engaged in social planning with Rio Tinto in the Pilbara. Additionally the agreement signed for the Browse Basin gas development envisages similar outcomes for indigenous communities in the Kimberley. 

Much of the focus has been upon the massive investments in the physical infrastructure required for these resource developments. It is clear that a commensurate investment is required in social planning.

The impacts of these changes are also seen in the schools, the courts, resources for police services, sporting teams and health services provisions. All of these areas are impacted by FIFO. Another area that is set back is volunteering. Whilst the populations in resources areas increase rapidly the capacity to support the population through local people, including in the role of volunteers, is spread more  thinly. In some cases, such as sporting teams and health services, the impact can be largely negative. 

It is not too difficult to undertake the strategic planning required by the federal, state and local governments to address these concerns. What is required is the political will at the Federal level that this is a problem, yet there has to be a recognition that the problem exists. The problem won’t be addressed by the Mining Resource Rent Tax as currently configured.

The emerging problems in the resource regions require new ways of thinking and a shift of power away from the traditional  welfare models. When confronted with the problem and the observation that the social problems can be addressed through a strategic framework in which private sector resources can be made available there is little or no capacity for many politicians and bureaucrats to adjust.

The response very often from those with vested interests is that this approach is risky. 

Of course it is risky. We might fail. Yet what you are doing now is failing. You are failing the disadvantaged in our community. The big risk in this approach is that you might actually succeed and then what?
 

The ALP and Coalition face double the challenge in WA in 2013, with a State election in March and the Federal Election in September. 

During the summer of 1986-87 a surprising selection occurred in the Australian cricket team. 

The player bowled off spin for Australia against England in his first Test match and emerged with figures of 6 for 78. He was man of the match. His name was Peter Taylor.

In September 2008, the retiring Member for the WA State seat of Cottesloe, Colin Barnett, was stopped on his way out the door by his own party and persuaded to take over as Liberal leader. The subsequent election resulted in a hung Parliament; however Colin Barnett went on to become Premier following the formation of a coalition with the Brendon Grylls National Party, which won 4 seats.

The Government was also supported by three independents. The Liberal Party went from holding 18 seats in the previous Parliament to 24 in the new, while Labor fell from 32 to 28. Labor ran a poorly-focused and directionless campaign in an election they were expected to win, leading to Barnett becoming the surprise Premier.

The consequence is that Barnett is not owned by any of the Liberal Party factions and doesn't owe anyone any favours. In a state that has also produced a political figure like Brian Burke, this is an immensely powerful quality to have on your side. Burke became infamous for many things and allowing the proper processes of government to become contaminated was one of them.

Barnett’s personal style, while cautious and low key, reflects an old style Menzies Liberalism, with a strong emphasis on moderation and recognition of the need to show a social dividend from economic success. 

His opponent Mark McGowan had 12 months to establish himself but has struggled to cut through. For example, Barnett deregulated retail trading hours. Labor for too long was locked into appeasing the Shop Assistants Union led by right-wing powerbroker Joe Bulloch.

McGowan’s predecessor Eric Ripper never took on the challenge, leaving the impression Labor was locked into a pre-Whitlam, 36-faceless-men policy position with unelected trade union officials determining policy.

A similar position existed on the left with the Miscellaneous Workers Union leader Dave Kelly carrying great policy weight. The impression in the electorate was ALP policy depended on Bulloch and Kelly’s assent.

McGowan has worked energetically to overcome this yet still trails the Premier as preferred leader, as does the ALP in party voting terms. Much of the interest in the election will rest in those contests where the Nationals go in against their coalition partners the Liberals and in seats held by independents such as Fremantle and the southern Perth seat of Alfred Cove. Brendon Grylls is taking on the seat of Pilbara, having left his safe Nationals seat of Central Wheatbelt. Yet buoyed by his own ground breaking Royalties for Regions Policy he stands a strong chance to win the seat.

The state election will be held on 9 March and the campaign is off and running with the usual sparring and an occasional resort to negative messages.

Surely following the disastrous campaign by Anna Bligh’s Labor Party in Queensland, the message must have sunk in that the public has little time for negative political campaigns.

The Federal implications for Labor in WA are also ominous.

Julia Gillard is making great efforts to lift the Government’s position in WA yet it still languishes. The legacies of the mining tax, the carbon tax and marine national parks don’t assist the Labor position in a resource state like WA. Essentially the trick in Western Australia is for federal politicians to position themselves alongside the community rather than against it. Attacking the WA Government whether it is Labor or Liberal will never work. Bob Hawke and John Howard both understood this. The challenge for Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott is to learn how to position themselves in a similar fashion.