You will find Kalgoorlie six hours east of Perth, on a drive past rained-on war machinery and clean swept service stations, through the West Australian Wheatbelt and the Greater Western Woodlands. I moved there last year, and began working as a journalist at the town’s newspaper, the Kalgoorlie Miner. I had grown up in Perth and seen much of Western Australia, but I knew little about Kalgoorlie before I arrived – far from the coast, it had a reputation as an outback desperado town, full of eccentrics in the ‘mining game’. That was one reputation – the other was of a grim and utilitarian place, dominated by the enormous gold mine at its centre. These were contrasting versions not only of the town, but also of the state, which was now in the second decade of an uninterrupted mining boom.
I did not choose Kalgoorlie. I had returned from several years overseas working as a reporter, penniless and restless and no longer feeling at home in my hometown. Kalgoorlie would provide a salary, and as a transient mining town there would be no obligation to make it my home. It would be a chance to reflect on where I had been, and where I was going.
The Kalgoorlie Miner is housed in a grand three-storey building on the main street of town. The two flights of wooden stairs are worn and sculpted by the footsteps of hundreds of reporters. The first edition of the Miner was printed on the heels of prospector Paddy Hannan’s gold find more than one hundred years ago. The newspaper was printed on-site. Signs of this remain – the ground floor window-display includes the typesetting machine that once cast an alphabet of hot lead onto an iron-printing cylinder.
These days the printing happens in Perth. Much has changed, and the paper now has to contend with the rise of digital publishing. The third floor with its fine views of the setting sun has been vacated, and the blinds are drawn. Having brought witness to so many changes in the town, and having seen the rise and fall of many other enterprises, the newspaper’s own future appeared uncertain, and its slow withdrawal would go mostly unrecorded. From the main street you could look up and see the words ‘Kalgoorlie Miner’ painted in tall Gothic type.
Australia is the world’s second largest producer of gold, and two thirds of its production comes from Western Australia. The Super Pit in Kalgoorlie – an agglomeration of hundreds of shafts that had once penetrated the ‘Golden Mile’, considered by some to be the richest square mile of earth on the planet – is the largest open-pit gold mine in the Southern hemisphere, and the largest gold producer in the country. It produces 850,000 ounces, or 20 tonnes, of gold a year – about a tenth of Australia’s gross output. At US$1535.50 an ounce (the price at the start of trading on April 15) that much gold is worth more than US$1.3bn. Soon after I arrived in Kalgoorlie there was a sudden fall in the gold price. In one day, gold fell $US1400, wiping more than US$100m off this gross figure. In the months since it continued to fall, and at the time of writing this feature it stands at US$1250 and is projected to fall below US$1000.
I never went down into the Pit. But I did stand on the lookout watching the jumbo dump trucks edge around the narrowing walls. Each jumbo carried 20 tonnes of ore, which after processing, would on average, produce a golf ball-sized amount of the pure metal. This abstracted ‘wealth’ would eventually feed into that volatile realm of digits and trading algorithms that ultimately determined the gold price. Rather than indicating stability and permanence, the impressive scale and physicality of the Super Pit was proof of its vulnerability, for it had to be so big because the ore being mined was so thin, and small falls in the gold price would erode the fine profit margins.
The economic prosperity of a town dedicated to the laborious work of shifting raw earth was decided by something intangible and unpredictable – the floating price of gold. The price could fall any day. But Kalgoorlie was used to this peril. The town had not invested in expensive beautification schemes. The main street was full of discount retail shops in the shells of buildings from the turn of the century. These remained because they were heritage listed, but also because there was little cause to invest in a town with such an uncertain future. The population had not increased in 100 years. The perfectly straight main street had been built wide for the turning circle of ox trains. The al fresco cafe culture of the cities had not really taken off – the heat was intense, and 12-hour shifts were common. Often at night the main street was empty, with just a few taxis parked outside the big corner pubs, a paddy wagon pulled up on the verge, and electric light glowing above the tailings of the Super Pit.
Take away the Pit and the town was halved, take away mining and the town was a rail depot and open-air museum, or worse – a former mayor had famously declared that if gold was found under the main street he would not hesitate to knock down the town hall. Only the gold would be spared – the certainty that the town would ultimately fall into ruin when the gold ran out was seldom raised by residents, for it would have been considered callow to needlessly undermine business confidence. All protest should be directed towards the distant horizon.
And there was protest. Few issues in Kalgoorlie escaped being linked to federal or state politics – from the two-week wait to see a doctor (mainly state politics), to the clocktower not working (state), to the unemployed drillers (definitely federal), to the fuel price (federal), to the heritage bordellos closing (federal), to the cost of alcohol (state), to the cost of eggs (the federal carbon tax). In part, this was a function of the town being relatively far from both Perth and Canberra – either could be blamed for just about anything.
There was also a cultural element; a vague and ill-formed sense of alienation from the urban, cosmopolitan, service-industry-based parts of Australia. The protests were a declaration of independence and autonomy; while also signalling government neglect, voicing fears about the future, calling for aid and lamenting the region’s century-long fall from power. All this was underlined by a mood of nostalgia for the halcyon gold rush days. Half protest, and half prostration. As the gold price continued to fall through winter and as the September federal election approached, the mood became more frantic.
Fresh from the life of an ex-pat, I had arrived in town with romantic ideas of belonging and place. I had hoped I could learn more about these things from the men and women who spent their days picking over the ironstone and quartz of the Goldfields region, which is an arid and flat, mostly saline part of the state, extending south and east of Perth to the Southern Ocean and the remote interior of the Nullarbor, from which wild mongrel dogs would emerge, feeding on carcasses of camels and goats run down by the locos.
Shortly after I arrived, I had visited the prospector’s private club with panning basins on the walls and Fanta for a minimum donation, and had asked for stories about those who had found the great antlered nuggets in the photos. The men (it was all men that day) wore visor sunglasses and spoke in the low chuckling voices of bashful sons at home. The prospectors’ creed is one of cheerful greed and stoicism; the hardship making the gold-hunger virtuous; the autonomy making the heat, boredom and isolation seem more of a vocation. Or so I understood. The solidarity of their rare profession made them easy company when they met in a group, but it also meant I was never able to win their confidence and verify my observations with the men themselves. I half admired them, half mocked them. Before coming to Kalgoorlie I would not have truly believed there were still full-time prospectors; men who survived by what they found in the ground; relying on their capacity for labour and the quality of their luck. All appeared to delight in their insider knowledge of the country, of its back roads and secret haunts and hiding places, and perhaps also in the knowledge that tomorrow they could find a fortune that would transform their lives. Each lived constantly with that future life, and perhaps this helped to make them aloof. Perhaps the find would take them away from the woodland leases. It was easy to see how this could keep a person awake at night, and how it could become an obsession that would give purpose to your days, even as the solitude and the repetitive tasks of separating earth to dust frayed and emptied the working hours of any meaning. There also remained the satisfaction of reading the veins of quartz and traces of green copper oxide and a thousand other surface clues that suggested the make-up of an invisible subterranean world, deep and dark and largely silent.
Political support for the mining industry sometimes obscures the reality of government neglect of regional Australia. The carbon and the mining taxes, for example, were criticised for their impact on the regional economy. But it was hard to see how the mining tax would affect the Goldfields, when it only applied to coal and iron ore. The carbon tax increased electricity prices, but affected businesses had been subsidised, and even without this, the cost of the tax was far less than had been predicted by the critics. The plan to ‘Axe the Taxes’ was sold as regional policy, but it would do little to improve many regional areas.
The wealth of the mining industry could also obscure the economic hardship of some mining towns. Mining bosses such as Clive Palmer, Gina Rinehart and Andrew Forrest are stupendously rich, and the industry is famous for its six-figure fly in, fly out salaries. But mining regions themselves can receive little of this money. Smaller towns, in particular, tend to have less influence on where the state-collected mining royalties are spent. These towns are also worst hit in a downturn because their economies are less diversified.
In April, Clive Palmer announced he was setting up a new political party and would run as a candidate at the next federal election. He was an intriguing and charismatic figure, and the news was initially met with bemusement and the assumption he would win few votes. But the Queenslander offered to bridge the gap between smaller regional communities and political power, and he seemed to understand their feeling of isolation.
I once asked a local prospector what he liked about Clive Palmer. ‘I heard he lived in a tent for 10 years,’ the prospector said.
After the first fall in the gold price, in April, the marginal gold mines began to close, and the smaller Goldfields towns relying on a few key nearby mines grew ever more gaunt and bare, sustained by pensioners and welfare recipients. It was said you could determine the prosperity of the Goldfields through counting the masts of the drill rigs that showed above the fences of the Kalgoorlie equipment yards. Each mast represented the unemployed.
In 1852, the second year of the Victorian gold rush, mining output comprised 35 per cent of the gross domestic product of all the colonies combined. By the 1990s this had declined to 7 per cent. An increase in commodity prices drove a boom in mining and the figure now stands at about 10 per cent, although including associated businesses such as construction, the figure could be as high as 19 per cent – mining is the fourth largest industry behind manufacturing, construction and finance. It employs 2 per cent of the workforce, but holds disproportionate political influence, in part due to lobbying and organisation, to the industry’s reputation as a national industry whose prosperity is considered a national project, and in part because mining by its nature requires large labour forces in remote country. As a result several big regional towns are supported solely by the one industry. ‘Mining culture’ is stronger and more self-contained than the culture of any other industry. (Imagine a political party being ‘anti-construction’ or ‘anti-hospitality’). It is not only that mining is pumping money into regional Australia while agriculture and grazing are in decline, it is also that many mining towns are in arid, marginal country and do not have any recourse to wheat or sheep.
After months of anticipation, Kevin Rudd had announced the federal election on the day before Australia’s National Mining conference known as Diggers and Dealers on 4 August. Kalgoorlie is in the federal electorate of O’Connor, an electorate the size of New South Wales, with a voting population split roughly evenly between the lands and townships that were sustained by mining, and the ones that farmed wheat and sheep. Kalgoorlie is the mining centre – 800km by road from the farming centre, Albany.
The Liberal candidate, Rick Wilson, was the outright favourite, but he was most comfortable with the conservative farmers in the southern and western parts of the O’Connor electorate, and least at ease in the Goldfields. On the other side, the WA Nationals party incumbent, Tony Crook, had announced his retirement. Chub Witham had been nominated only a few months before the election.
State elections tend to be fought on how and where the government will spend the royalties it collects from its resource projects; federal elections are fought on who will tax mining the least. In the state election the Nationals could campaign on a successful scheme tying mining royalty revenues to regional infrastructure spending (Royalties for Regions). The party’s candidate could promise a $150m Goldfields ‘revitalisation fund’. Neither of these were options for either candidate in the federal election as the Commonwealth does not collect mining royalties, and neither candidate supported further mining taxes. And unlike Crook, Witham would sit in the Coalition party room and not on the crossbench. This meant they had the same platform of policies.
The candidates travelled vast distances. The road trips were necessary because without key policy differences the campaign was being fought on identity, and on the question of who would represent the region better. Here they offered variations on a grander theme; Australia’s interior had been industrialised by resources booms, but the flipside of that wealth was the distance between the nation’s control and the mining towns themselves.
I spoke to both candidates often; they would inevitably be on the road in some distant corner of O’Connor. ‘I’m in Wagin,’ one would say, or ‘Wandering,’ or ‘Williams,’ or ‘Westonia’. They tried to campaign in separate towns but their paths would cross. On the phone, they seemed both gladdened to have sighted each other, though also suspicious, and I imagine that in the months of road travel spent away from friends and family they would have looked forward to glimpsing the familiar face of their rival – a face posted on thousands of coreflutes about the electorate. Since they shared the one platform they each had to define their campaign against the other. The prosperity of mining rested on variables that were beyond the control of government. Government taxation of mining could have created a better-funded regional infrastructure fund, but both candidates were against taxing mining, even though they supported more regional spending.
Ahead of the March state election a lobby group had been found plotting to run anti-Greens ads in the Kalgoorlie Miner. The Greens in Kalgoorlie were a tiny party without much influence, tallying about 5 per cent of the vote, while the lobby group, which called itself Dads and Mums Against Greens Extremists (DAMAGE), included former State and federal politicians and several wealthy and prominent luminaries of the business chamber. They all agreed they were ‘sick to death of greenies lying and spinning their way into everything.’ In many ways DAMAGE was irrational but the Greens-bashing tapped into a wilder cultural change; a growing animosity between regional and urban parts of the country, and between the mining industry and those who opposed it on environmental grounds, including on the grounds of transitioning away from high-emitting industries to combat climate change. It was never exactly clear how this ‘transitioning’ would occur, and to many in Kalgoorlie it sounded euphemistic, like the Greens were simply ‘anti-mining’.
The population of Kalgoorlie ‘belonged’ to an industry. This was nothing like the romantic attachment to land I had projected onto the prospectors, but something darker and more insidious. The belonging was more like a spell, a potent charm, and it had the familiar, dreamy outlines of a fairy tale where a horseman had seen a glint of metal in a creek bed, and stooped from the saddle and picked it up. A town had grown, sprung up almost instantly. The Goldfields remained the second largest mining region in the state, producing millions of dollars of revenue for the state government, but its buildings cast the shadow of its own destruction. This was a town in the middle of nowhere.
The weekend before the Diggers and Dealers conference the delegates began to arrive in droves of twosomes; attired in bold stripes and beige chinos; the kind of clean and sturdy country-wear worn by farmers on market day and country politicians on the campaign trail. The main street became slightly busier, and new girls called to each other from the top floor pub balconies. A great white marquee had been erected close to the centre of town. The former economic adviser to Barack Obama gave the keynote address, broadcast from the auditorium next door onto a projector screen that loomed above the conference floor and the booths set up for trucking contractors, drillers and blasters, catering and security, exploration and processing. Young men in power-striped button-downs leaned on tiny round high-tables, sales-girls extolled virtues of diamond-tipped drill-tech. In the evenings the convention marquee rapidly emptied – everyone decamped for the pubs and restaurants – while on stage a professional in a strapless sequin dress sung covers in a wounded voice. ‘Foot-steps on the dance floor, remind me baby of you.’ This was the 21st annual conference. Ten years ago delegates in the marquee could expect to be served by girls in G-strings, ‘Diggerettes’. Now the skimpies were restricted to the bars on the main street, for which Liquor and Gaming had granted special cabaret-style licenses (the rest of the year the girls were meant to wear tassles). The mining companies put on free drinks, and late into the night delegates stumbled the main street.
The conference took the pulse of industry, but the industry had an incentive to be upbeat, and the presence of so many representatives for mining companies promoting their own prospects in order to attract investors delivered the expected rush of confidence. The mood was down on last year but it was reported as ‘surprisingly buoyant’. It was not clear how this was surprising. Many that spoke of the renewed confidence said in private that they expected the confidence to evaporate within a fortnight of the delegates returning to their usual office routines. There was a wry edge to the boosterism, a tacit acknowledgement that confidence was the real pursuit and dividend of the mining conference. There was also something quaint about its boisterous and rugged ideal of moneymaking, held on the margins of the 21st century problems of debt, austerity and the lingering effects of the GFC.
‘Green shoots’ Witham said at a press conference at Diggers. He had been asked for his thoughts on local mining, and there were so many microphones on the desk they created a low buzz of interference. After the usual dry political abstractions the concrete noun hung in the air for longer than usual. It went down well.
That day gold fell US$5.
The conference brought hope new mining projects would be announced and new jobs created, but by Thursday morning the hotels had emptied. The white cloud of the marquee had been bundled and folded into the waiting trucks. The rain fell, flooding the drainage culverts and leaking through the asbestos roofing of the 1960s workers cottages. The popular bars were cavernous and rank in the daytime, and in the evenings they became grim fortresses of drink and uplifting synth-pop. The skimpies had glitter on their eyes and the old men had engine grease in their wrinkles. Paddy wagons dispatched whoever the bouncers evicted. The town went on. The fleeting visit had been a reminder that, when the gold ran out, the prosperity and attention would prove as ephemeral as the marquee. The influx of white-collar miners from the city had played to the old mining region’s wounded pride and enduring sense of neglect. The opulence (a single ticket cost about $3000) aggravated class divisions within the mining industry; divisions that fell neatly along city-country lines. The delegates were said to be ‘St Georges Terrace miners’ – meaning they all worked in Perth and had never set foot on a mine site or been ‘underground’. The three days were just an excuse to party. This kind of reaction was understandable – nobody likes to see their town become a quaint tourism destination, and it was apparent the conference, or at least the delegates, played on the idea of Kalgoorlie as a frontier outpost. Diggers offered the town recognition as ‘Australia’s unofficial gold mining capital’, and it brought national attention, but this attention focused on stereotypes; the local tradition of prostitution, the bordellos of Hay Street, and the culture of hard-drinking among the locals. The town risked becoming a pastiche of history – the same history it was trying to escape as it aimed to attract young families. The attention did not fall on the problem of rampant alcoholism, (the rate of alcohol-related hospitalisations, for example, was 30 per cent higher than the state rate, and alcohol consumption twice the WA average), or on access to healthcare and youth apathy and boredom. At worst, the reporting of hackneyed ‘local colour’ simply normalised the social problems, confirming an expectation of lower living standards in regional towns.
A federal politician visited. During an interview, he pointed out the gold dome of the clock tower as a sign of prosperity. ‘I see you’ve re-gilded the clock-tower.’ In fact, it had never been gilded before, but it struck me as appropriate the gilding should seem an act of restoration, and that a semblance of prosperity should obscure the economic reality of the town. The dome had been gilded only a year earlier – since the crash the gilding had seemed just garish and hubristic, and more than a little bit portentous. The gold leaf was thin, and the largesse symbolic – a dazzling piece of showmanship.
Months after Diggers and Dealers I was living and working elsewhere. I was trying to make sense of the difference between the ‘city’ and the ‘country’ – an arbitrary divide that seemed to evaporate within the city limits (where no-one talked about the country, except to sell pearls and pink diamonds and hats), but which had dominated the politics of the region where I had lived, and which now appeared to have begun to weigh more heavily on national affairs with the election of Queensland mining millionaire Clive Palmer to the seat of Fairfax. Pending a challenge to the WA senate recount, it looked like his party would hold the balance of power in the senate. Palmer had been able to steal votes from the Right of the Coalition, and he had succeeded by focusing on the feeling of regional neglect and alienation I had encountered in Kalgoorlie. Palmer offered understanding, but more than this, he offered to share the luck and destiny that had delivered him his fortune. He was able to make wilder promises more credibly than other politicians, and as his campaign gained momentum it had seemed to confirm the truth of his instincts and cast doubt on the judgment of others. It was easy to see how this would be attractive to a prospector – and not only to them, but to a nation of shareholders and speculators. Instead of punting on his ability to win gold with his hands, the speculator punted on the ability of the company to do so. Palmer had proved himself to be a great speculator. Now he called on others to speculate in his political future by voting for his party. He offered his story, his success, and that intangible and ephemeral thing: ‘business confidence’. It seemed appropriate that in the weeks after the election stories emerged his wealth had been over-estimated and his business success had been showmanship.