Saturday, September 08, 2012

Saturday Morning Musings - Coal, Gunnedah & that boom

This morning's muse starts with a photo from my recent trip to Gunnedah.P1000613 Just a simple shot of a fairly non-descript building in a smallish New England country town. Yet this shot is an on-ground sign of the changes taking place in Australia.

Gunnedah sits on the Sydney-Gunnedah-Bowen Basin. Without going into the geology of it all, before the Gondwana supercontinent broke up, a 3,000k foredeep or rift that ran from modern Sydney deep into Queensland filled with seawater. The sediments that resulted formed vast coal seams that provided, after iron ore, the second leg supporting Australia's recent mining boom.  

The building is the local headquarters of Shenhua Watermark Coal Pty Limited, a subsidiary of the Shenhua Corporation. Founded in China in 1995, Shenhua claims to be the world’s leading integrated coal based energy company. Its main businesses include production and marketing of coal, power generation, railway transportation and port operation.

The next shot is an inside shot of Gunnedah's Bitter Suite restaurant. It provides breakfast, lunch and tapas. Now that's a cultural melaP1000619nge! Like all modern institutions, Bitter Suite has its own Facebook page. 

This shot was taken just after we first arrived to plan the day. A little later, one of the tables on the back left was occupied by a Chinese Shenhua executive sitting there in the middle of the Liverpool Plains working on his lap top.

In a way, that's the story of the Australian mining boom. Forget the statistics, important though they may be. A boom like the one we have had works itself out on the ground. It affects locals, but also those who come and do such as our Chinese executive, as well as those who feed off the whole thing in the big metro centres in Australia and elsewhere.

Australia has come to the effective end of the current boom, although the effects will continue. Gunnedah locals know boom bust cycles all too well. During the 1990s, Gunnedah was hit be the closure of mines and the abattoir. Had the resulting job losses occurred within the easy travel range of Australia's metro located reporters, they would have been national stories. Here they went unnoticed. Only stories relating to insecticides and the local cotton crop made national news at the time, and then because they were sufficiently sensational to demand attention. P1000589

Shenhau is not the only big company in town. This is the local Bhpbillition office. As I walked past in Gunnedah's glorious early morning sun, I wondered about the people working here. There must be such a huge gap between them and the heavies making the real decisions. For the locals beyond the office whose very livelihood depends on those remote decisions, the gap must be larger.

This is a muse, by the way. I am not writing a highly structured piece, simply letting my recent thoughts take me where they will.

Over the last few years, I have written a fair bit on this blog and elsewhere about issues associated with the mining boom and the consequent changes within Australia. I have spoken of the thinning out of the Australian economy. I have spoken of the clashes that arise between those who pay the price of change and those who benefit. I warned of the ending of the boom when euphoria's golden glow still covered  official forecasts. I claim no prescience, simply the caution generated by experience and a tendency to look at the evidence. Plus, I suppose, an interest in looking at and trying to understand the on-ground impacts in areas that I know and love.

I regret that we were not able to capture all the benefits before the boom ended, that the fight to achieve some balancing of costs and benefits has failed. I regret that our obsession with big picture items, with simplified national measures, has derailed the process of discourse. Yet it's not all bad.

in a piece in the Lowry Institure blog, Australia's economy: Crash or crash through?, Roger Donelly compares the contrasting domestic and international views of the Australian economy. I was surprised at the apparent international pessimism about  Australia's economic outlook. I actually think that the end of the current mining boom is no bad thing, nor would I be distressed if the value of the Australian dollar fell. It slows the pace of adjustment, gives the country time to catch up, punctures certain balloons.

Mind you, I want to resume my travel writing, and to do that I need to travel. I had begun to work out how I might return to the Greek Islands next year, adding Turkey. That way I could resume my Greek series and then extend it geographically. I fear that a lower dollar might put a cramp in my plans.

Meanwhile, in Gunnedah candidates for the Shire Council elections have been spruking their wares, explaining where the town and shire should go now. But that's another story. 


Rummuser said...

I suppose that you are aware of what is happening in India about Coal. We have just had a washed out monsoon session of the parliament with the opposition asking for the resignation of the PM due to what has come to be called the Coalgate scandal.( Bryson covers some aspects of Coal towns and the boom times in his book Down Under. I found that fascinating and the controversy about the coal magnate Clive Palmer is in the news here for wanting to build a Titanic replica in China.

I find all this fascinating.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Ramana. Thanks for the heads-up on the Indian controversy. I was only vaguely aware of it. It's time I wrote more on India.

Clive Palmer is nothing if not colourful.