Friday, July 02, 2010

Coal comfort

Mineral Wealth by Pants

John Paul Getty's famous formula for success is, 'rise early, work hard, strike oil'. He's also the wit who quipped, 'the meek shall inherit the Earth, but not its mineral rights'.

It's always amazed me that a form of theft has been universally sanctioned because none of us, including Pants, likes to be cold. A buccaneering class has been allowed to trample untrammelled over our shared space and snuffle up whatever takes its fancy. Great wealth and respect have accrued to the prospectors who tear up our Earth for profit.

The knock-off guys who used to bring goods from the back of their friends' cousins' lorries to my door when I lived in Hackney enjoyed much the same social standing in my neighbourhood for similar reasons. They delivered what people wanted - cheap and with no questions asked. I never bought anything from them except books. Backdoor guys bringing books just seemed like a brilliant subversion to me.

Today, Australia's new Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, has 'struck a deal' with the nation's 'miners' to have a percentage of the profits from our mineral wealth returned to the public purse. The details, together with an almost implausible spectrum of views thereon, is available absolutely everywhere and I'm not going to go into any of that here. I can't be fannied to study it properly and, in any case, my intuitive guess about these things has always been a better-than-even-money stab in the dark so I'm sticking with that strategy.

A month or so ago, Kerryn Goldsworthy over at Still Life With Cat published a brilliant post slagging off our lazy media for accommodating the mining barons' self-branding as 'miners', enabling them to credential their billionaire arses as 'working people'. She says,

'Miners are the people that Margaret Thatcher brought to their knees in the 1980s. Miners are the dudes with the pickaxes, the dirty faces, the high mortality rate, the not-high-enough salaries and the really really terrible lungs.'
Kerryn remains the only commentator, as far as I can see, to spot the value disjunct. I was living in Britain during the period of the miners' strike (1984-85). I was in a band and we played at benefits where genuinely impoverished miners in authentically soiled donkey jackets wept real tears as punters who were on the dole themselves put pound notes into plastic buckets. I stayed for a generation so I also know that a lot of the communities destroyed by the pit closures of the 1980s took that long to recover, if they ever did. The spectacle of Australian mining magnates squealing over a possible prosciutto-shaving off their morbidly bloated personal hoards shames us all.

But let's not pretend this isn't how the world works. The deal that has been achieved today is neither here nor there in terms of its capacity to enshrine a fair distribution of national wealth. In any case, I would argue that these days we ought to be thinking more in terms of how we use our mineral resources to equitably benefit the whole of humanity. The words sparing and sharing come to mind. I lived in Europe as dozens of countries were crawling painfully but hopefully towards common economic ground so it's incredible to me to hear Western Australia proclaiming its desire to secede from the rest of the federation purely on the basis that its small population literally controls a commodity bonanza within its pencilled boundary. Fine, but don't come crying to us when your citizens are rioting over their broadband speeds.

In 1984, (and believe me, the irony is not lost), the British Government owned the nation's coal resources. A government that goes to war with its own lowest paid employees in an industry that is both financially and socially profitable is morally and organisationally bankrupt and quite possibly criminally insane to boot. Yet, retrospectively Margaret Thatcher is hailed as an early bell ringer on climate change. If so, she is surely due a Guinness Record in the category of biggest sledgehammer to crack smallest nut with most devastating social consequences. And possibly a Mystic Meg Magic Marker as well. I'm reasonably sure she wasn't thinking of saving the environment as she was fucking over the miners and their families. Is it any wonder that after Thatcher people didn't trust the people to manage the people's resources?

Now, instead we have a much better system. We let half-a-dozen wankers who love helicopters, themselves and whomever they happen to be with when the share prices are announced decide whether the real miners, the people who physically do the digging, will have jobs or not. We also extend to them the invitation to harangue us at every opportunity with the argument that any prosperity we have somehow managed to scratch out for ourselves is, in fact, due to their efforts.

Julia Gillard has created bubble'n'squeak out of the dog's dinner Kevin Rudd left behind. I expect it's the best that could be managed in the circumstances. It was crazy to introduce any kind of new tax in the last few months of a first-term government's tenure. The price is a weaker deal for the Australian people than the one that was originally proposed, for the moment. Breaking the resources oligarchy in this country will be a long and clever game. I don't know if we'll ever have politicians who'll be up to that challenge. I'm still reeling that these vital resources ever got into such a cabal of greasy palms in the first place - that's how retro old Pants is.

What we at least have now is a Prime Minister who is not of the sulky persuasion and who does seem to be capable of thinking outside of her own moment. Let's hope it lasts.