Wealthy miners must learn to grow up
Wayne Swan's now famous Monthly essay asked Gina Rinehart, Andrew ("Twiggy") Forrest, Clive Palmer et al if they "had a right" to use their economic position to endeavour to shape public opinion, and through it public policy.
Of course they have the right -- the High Court has implied the right to free speech, after all. My question of those captains of the mining industry is: is it responsible for you to do so given your new position at the forefront of the Australian economy?
Australia is going through a sustained minerals boom. Unlike past booms, this one looks like lasting a generation. It's also propelling the mining industry to the centre of our economy.
These changes should bring great prosperity to all Australians in the long run, but to harness this prosperity, many of us will have to change our ways of working and of seeing the world. The leadership of the mining industry is high among that number.
A new responsibility rests on the shoulders of its executives. A responsibility of leadership, measurement and accuracy in public pronouncements. This is a responsibility to the whole economy, including the majority of us who work in the "slow lane" of the two-speed economy.
The mining industry's communication with government and the public is yet to show it is making the transition from brilliant but troubled teen to mature guardian of our prosperity.
Industry executives' advertising and keynote speech-driven response to public policy they don't like is stuck in the 1990s bull-at-the-gate approach, when unsupported hyperbole, loose conspiracy constructions and scaremongering were the first port of call -- not a last resort. During the 1993 Native Title Act debate, the mining industry released a series of full-page advertisements, signed by 16 senior industry executives, warning of capital flight, reduced economic growth and reduced employment. BHP's then chief, John Prescott, warned of reduced mining exploration resulting from the complexity of the act and of the impact of the regime given the global economic conditions.
Western Mining chief Hugh Morgan said that the act would "guarantee" economic stagnation, while a senior Lehman Brothers analyst said we were in danger of becoming a "Stone Age culture living on witchetty grubs".
If all of that sounds eerily familiar, it's for a good reason. It's broadly reflected in the industry's recent response to the mining tax and carbon pricing. Mining exploration will collapse, capital will flee overseas, the economy will suffer, the complexity is too great and the regulation unfair given the difficult global circumstances. None of it is supported by fact. Much of it was proved wrong in 1993 and may be again two decades later.
One could forgive captains of many industries being seduced by the apparent success of the anti-mining tax advertising campaign in mid-2010.
But this campaign took place in something of a perfect storm. It was elegantly designed by Australia's leading component of public affairs advertising, Neil Lawrence, the federal election was only a matter of weeks away, the Prime Minister was under intense internal pressure, and the government had hamstrung its own ability to respond through effective advertising.
Whether it was a combination of factors or the advertising alone that precipitated the government's partial backdown on the issue is a moot point.
Almost every other "sky-is-falling" campaign before or after has been unsuccessful -- just ask the "Retailers Coalition" about their campaign for the application of GST on online sales.
Fortescue Metals' only partially intelligible advertising rant in response to Swan's essay would have achieved little other than helping some advertising sales executives exceed their targets -- let alone the fact that a sceptical public is increasingly capable of decoding corporate spin, particularly that of the more shrill nature.
As the mining industry continues to assume its rightful place in the Australian economy, its executives take a growing responsibility to all of us. A responsibility to communicate with governments and the public in a measured, truthful and mature way aimed at ensuring the growing prosperity of the whole country, not just a few.
This is an extract of a speech given to the Resources and Energy Symposium in Broken Hill Monday 21 May 2012.