04/04/2012 - 11:16

It’s boomers or busters ... and pipeliners

04/04/2012 - 11:16

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It is worth borrowing from demographers to help categorise the three distinct groups which clash over the resources boom.

It is worth borrowing from demographers to help categorise the three distinct groups which clash over the resources boom.

I AM a bit of an admirer of demographers who use special names, sometimes derived from acronyms, to help identify certain groups of people.

When we hear of baby boomers, dinks and cubs we know fairly well what they are talking about without some form of long-winded, scientific description.

It helps tell the story of what otherwise would just be data.

I won’t pretend to be Bernard Salt, Richard Florida or any other rock star demographer, but I will borrow this technique of labelling people to help me tell a story.

In my view, there are three distinct types of people clashing over the massive growth of the resources sector, a phenomenon which has become a mainstream political event.

There are those in favour of rapid and near-unfettered development, those who enjoy growth but want it controlled and those who want it stopped.

I have been mulling over what to call these people. Those at each end of the debate are relatively easy: to borrow a demographic term, the boomers want to see development take place at as fast a pace as possible. Their opposition is the busters, those who are so opposed to development they will do anything to stop it.

The middle group was the hardest to land but I eventually decided on pipeliners, because they believe that by slowing down development we can avoid costly and disruptive simultaneous project construction and replace that with a pipeline of projects.

Each of these groups has fundamentally different ideologies and beliefs. Each looks at history in a different way and, therefore, apply the lessons they learn accordingly.  

The boomers firmly believe the boom caused by China’s demand is a once off that needs to be taken advantage of before it ends. 

Boomers are not worried about the side effects of rapid growth, so long as it does not stray into economic, environmental or social vandalism, which could otherwise be avoided. 

In fact, the boomers believe that if China’s needs are not satiated by Australia, then the Asian giant will seek its resources elsewhere, where rapid growth may be much less manageable than here.

Boomers believe that fly-in, fly-out workers, straining infrastructure and the need for foreign labour are natural, if short-term, consequences of rapid development. 

But the bigger picture they see is that once these projects are built they will provide longer-term jobs and economic opportunities, much as a dusty, noisy housing estate development can be a wonderful community of the future.

A boomer will look at gold rushes of more than a century ago and see the positive legacy that rapid development left; such as the charm of Melbourne’s CBD and the water pipeline to Kalgoorlie. 

Boomers look at the Snowy River scheme and see the social and economic benefits of significant migration, even though there was upheaval at the time. 

But this nostalgia is not one that requires preservation of the past. For instance, they hear concerns about declining manufacturing but struggle to see the point of propping it up. Boomers believe that the strength in the resources sector is simply accelerating the inevitable for traditional manufacturing, which was already on the way out.

Boomers have some sympathy with pipeliners, whom they generally believe to be well meaning but misguided. 

The pipeliners have a different view on China. They believe China’s current level of demand will be long term and, by hastening development, we only risk flooding the market with our finite resources and selling them too cheap.

Furthermore, pipeliners believe that to develop a project by importing materials and labour means that we are also missing out on opportunities at the front end of this long Chinese boom. 

We would be better off, they believe, slowing everything down so that we can develop the projects at a pace that is not calibrated with China’s needs but, instead, that suits our small workforce and which is less disruptive to pre-existing social conditions.

They also see that measures to slow resources development, such as taxes, will rebalance the economy and allow both existing old industries to deal with the current decline with more dignity and new alternative industries to organically take their place. 

Some of these new players will service the slowed resources sector, which will no longer be as attractive to multi-nationals currently swarming to meet Australia’s big current needs.

Pipeliners disagree the moment could be lost with delay. They think that Australia’s resources are much more accessible than most others and that China will struggle to rapidly develop alternative sources to meet demand, allowing our relatively small population to comfortably take advantage of this desperate but dragged out need.

Pipeliners appreciate sustainable growth but warn of places like Nauru, which mined out its phosphate and mismanaged the money, leaving it broke. 

When they look at the Goldfields they see ghost towns left to ruin when the local gold sources ran out. They point to collapsed fisheries and logged-out forests not so much as environmental mistakes as economic ones because the communities that relied on them have suffered while those made rich often move on to new opportunities.

Busters tend to be, but are not exclusively, conservationists.

If they are not environmentalists then they are simply happy with Australia’s place in the world and don’t want any drastic change, even that which the pipeliners would tolerate.

The busters’ first objective is to stop new developments. We see via protests at James Price Point in the Kimberley a successful effort to split the indigenous community. 

In Queensland, they are making the prospect of shipping through the Great Barrier Reef increasingly difficult.

While they may worry about the flow-on impact of stopping Australia’s resources development, this is still a priority aim for them. 

They see the democratic institutions of Australia as more vulnerable to legal tactics aimed at stopping development when compared to less advanced countries, which offer them few avenues other than naming and shaming companies operating there.

Busters see modern human history as little more than a series of horrific episodes of exploitation, punctuated by occasional enlightenment – such as the invention of the 45rpm single or the internet – which involved the largely peaceful alteration of society without the perception of environmental impact.

While some busters would be satisfied by a no-growth scenario, ultimately, most want our economy, and that of the rest of the planet, to shrink to a more sustainable level. 

Would I be giving myself away if I think pipeliners and busters live in two different types of fairyland?

• mark.pownall@wabn.com.au

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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