20/10/2020 - 11:00

Political business at Diggers & Dealers

20/10/2020 - 11:00

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This month’s Diggers & Dealers was notable as much for what didn’t appear on the official program as what did.

Political business at Diggers & Dealers
Mark McGowan was a controversial choice to open the mining forum. Photo: DnD News Bureau

With gold trading close to an all-time high, it was no surprise the delayed Diggers & Dealers mining forum in Kalgoorlie this month was a thumping success.

That’s even with a 30 per cent drop in delegates courtesy of Western Australia’s hard border.

The mood of the meeting was unquestionably upbeat, perhaps the best in 20 years, but beneath the buzz there were four issues that surfaced in conversations on the sidelines of the official program.

The hard border was one of the most-discussed topics. While welcomed by most delegates for the way it has kept COVID-19 out of WA’s mining regions, almost everyone agreed that the sooner the border was opened the better, because prolonged closure would inflict permanent damage on WA’s globally-focused economy.

Once a curse, isolation has become a blessing for WA during the pandemic. But continuing to grow behind a wall is not easy, and there are plenty of examples of what happens to countries that cut themselves off from the world: eventually they shrivel.

WA is not completely cut off but there are already signs of economic distortion developing, such as the forced move of fly-in, fly-out mine workers from the eastern states to WA, providing a corresponding boost to the property market and a shortage of residential rentals.

Perth property owners are enjoying the price boost today, but the longer this artificial situation exists the more painful the correction when normal business conditions resume and the FIFO workers go home, which they will.

Closer to the forum itself, there were three other issues bubbling under the surface but not officially discussed, perhaps because most delegates didn’t want to talk about them in the hope they would be swept under the carpet.

The second issue, which plays into the theme of an open and free-trading economy, was the question of how to manage Australia’s souring relationship with China.

Reports of a Chinese ban on Australian coal surfaced midway through Diggers & Dealers; and while it essentially involves exports from Queensland and NSW, it didn’t escape the attention of anyone in Kalgoorlie that WA’s most important export, iron ore, could be on the Chinese list of Australian commodities it can do without (or at least try to do without).

Mark McGowan touched on the strained relationship with China in his speech before he officially opened the conference, but the fact that WA’s premier was on metaphorical ribbon-cutting duty was the third issue that raised the eyebrows of a few delegates.

The problem with the premier, and it’s not his fault, is that he’s a politician, and since the Kalgoorlie conference started, first at the Palace Hotel and then at the School of Mines conference centre, politics has been kept off the agenda.

There’s a good reason for not letting politics in the door of a business event – it’s simply too polarising. This year, the organisers of the conference argued, was different.

There was the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced the shift of the event from its regular early-August date to October. There’s the hard border, which kept numbers (and revenue) down, and there was the loss of the original keynote speaker, a former vice-president of the World Bank, Ian Goldin, who is stuck in Britain.

It was with those issues weighing on them that the organisers decided to invite Australia’s most popular premier, who also happened to be available free of charge (whereas airfares and accommodation costs, and speaking fees for an international star probably doesn’t leave much change out of $50,000).

However, inviting a speaker who doesn’t charge for the privilege has its own cost. In this case, the cost is mainly to do with the credibility of the event and its long-standing ‘no pollies’ policy, which looked (and sounded) worse because Mr McGowan was in full pre-election campaign mode.

What he said in Kalgoorlie could not be faulted. The premier praised the wealth and job-creating nature of WA mining and hinted at more to come. But it was also a speech best delivered immediately after the governor, Kim Beazley, fires the starter’s gun to officially start campaigning for the state election.

Whether the organisers of Diggers & Dealers realised the premier would deliver such a highly political opening speech is hard to tell. If they didn’t, they should have. And if they did, they will have alienated a section of their regular paying delegates. And if they’re completely innocent, then next year’s opening speaker, or soon after, has to be a Liberal politician to balance the scales.

And all that is before asking whether there really isn’t anyone in the WA mining, and broader business community, with the qualifications to deliver a non-political opening speech at Diggers & Dealers.

What an awful situation to get into, a game of duelling pollies on the podium in Kalgoorlie, with the only upside of that scenario being that there will be plenty of seating room in the relatively small auditorium at the arts centre.

The fourth issue, which became obvious as the conference moved through its three-day format, is that potential delegates stuck on the other side of WA’s hard border were treated to an excellent video transmission of the event.

The quality of what the technical people at Diggers & Dealers delivered was top shelf.

The appearance of Jake Klein on the video screen from his Sydney office was an eye-opener because the executive chairman of Evolution Mining, after a pre-recorded segment, was able to answer questions from the Kalgoorlie audience and indulge in a little banter with stockbroker Michael Manford, who was chairing the session when Mr Klein spoke.

Perhaps even more impressive was a live video link with Tony Makuch, president of Kirkland Lake Gold, from his home in Canada.

A pre-recorded talk is nothing to excite a conference delegate, but a real-time exchange of questions and answers, plus the banter bonus with Mr Manford, triggered a few suggestions that the long and expensive trip to Kalgoorlie might become a chore of the past for those outside WA.

As an event, Diggers & Dealers is unique. It’s a mining conference in a mining town in the outback that tops rival events such as Mining Indaba in Cape Town and PDAC in Toronto for the title of the world’s best mining event.

But it can only stay that way if it reverts to its successful formula of the past. No politics because it is a business event (with sidelines frolics), and no video transmission to interstate and international markets, because beaming the message to the rest of the world will kill the magic of Kalgoorlie.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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