by Viv Forbes, 20/9/1997, from his private archives
Government has made a new discovery — how to convert coal into paper. Their process is so efficient that I suspect the conversion rate is approaching one tonne of paper per tonne of coal.
Their favoured method is to announce an enquiry affecting the industry. This results in new committees, scoping documents, agenda, notices, minutes, hearings, submissions, draft reports and voluminous final reports. Multiple copies are prepared, flung all over Australia, discussed in the media, supported and opposed, copied throughout the industry, and filed.
This process was discovered about fifty years ago. My archive boxes still contain the grand-daddy “Powell Duffryn Report into the Coal Industry”. Rex Connor refined the process in the 1970s. He discovered how to get the answer he wanted from an enquiry. He commissioned secret enquiries which, if satisfactory, got dropped on the industry like a stink bomb into the Governor’s Garden party. This process converted a huge amount of coal into indignant papers in a very short time. The Fitzgerald Report was the most successful example of The Strangler’s technique, and the mere mention of its name will still raise blood pressure in mining executives of that era.
More recently, the ALP and Mining Unions pressed for the Taylor Enquiry, hoping to get a blueprint for “The Commonwealth Coal Marketing Monopoly” out of it. When Taylor did not oblige, they quickly disowned it and filed it.
The latest coal-to-paper converter is the Industry Commission Enquiry into the Black Coal Industry. At the same time there are enquiries into rail, port, power, royalties, minerals policy, research, global warming, tax reform, world’s best practice and workplace reform. The people supposed to be producing coal are actually writing weighty submissions which attempt to minimise the damage that could be done by any one of these enquiries if left to their own devices.
There are only two reasons for a politician to commission an enquiry — to find out what he should do, or to provide respectable support for what he has already decided to do. This means that “Government by Enquiry” is only used by politicians who are anatomically disadvantaged — either no brains or no backbone.
In addition to these never ending enquiries, those supposed to be setting world’s best practice in coal mining are reading laws and regulations, calculating and paying taxes and fees, submitting returns and getting approvals from a permanent governing aristocracy in local, state and federal jurisdictions. All of these experts know how to mine coal, but don’t want to risk their money, their reputations or their clean hands in the business.
All this hit me strongly when I got a note last week from our own GUCES (rhymes with “Gooks”). GUCES are private auditors, accountants, lawyers and agents who are forced to act as “Government’s Unpaid Compliance Enforcers”. Our GUCES asked me to confirm that I had complied with all legislation relevant to coal mining in Queensland.
Attached was a “brief checklist” of eight pages of the more important legislation — just forty “Core Statutes” and thirty-three other acts and regulations. (14 Commonwealth and 59 state edicts — it appears local government hasn’t got the GUCES working for them yet).
All of this over-regulation and over-taxation has created another government industry — the export of Australian jobs. In every mine and exploration camp all over the world you will hear the welcome Aussie accents. Despite the abuse we attract in our homeland, Australian geologists, engineers, metallurgists, drillers, contractors, consultants and investors are well regarded in countries which still recognise that mining and agriculture are the primary creators of all material welfare. Our despised miners are creating jobs for foreigners which could have been created here in Australia.
Coal mining and processing is Australia’s biggest export industry. However, this position reflects past exploration and investment decisions. In most cases, the returns from those investments have been abysmal. Today, the massive exploration and investment efforts are occurring in Indonesia, South America, Africa and China. That is where tomorrow’s coal mining industry will develop.
So what can we tell the Industries Commission Enquiry into Black Coal? The same as we have told every other commission. Get government out of all business ventures affecting our industry, remove all barriers to trade and investment, remove all discriminatory taxes, give us secure tenure to our resources, repeal 90% of the special industry legislation, abolish all of the special government boards, tribunals, agencies and commissions and allow management the right to manage the technology, resources and human energy in the most efficient way possible.
The coal industry and its subsidiary industries seem to attract government meddlers like milk and honey attract flies. For example, when ruled by the laissez faire philosophy of the Whigs, Great Britain grew to lead the world in coal, steel, and railways. Then came the era of socialism, nationalisation, taxation, and interventionism, all in the name of national planning, the national interest or “the workers”. All of these great British industries were unionised, nationalised and went into terminal decline.
When British Coal was nationalised in 1947, it had 980 mines and 711,000 workers producing 200 million tonnes of coal per year. By 1981, after 34 years of control by bureaucrats and union officials, 400,000 men had lost their jobs, 759 mines had been closed and the remaining bureaucracy was so unproductive that it only stayed afloat on subsidies from taxpayers.
Then came Margaret Thatcher determined to make British Coal competitive and saleable. This provoked a year-long strike in 1984. By 1992, nationalisation and destructive union action had closed 95% of British coal mines, 93% of the jobs had been destroyed and coal production was down to one third of its 1947 level. Neither British Rail, British Steel or British Power could afford to use British Coal. It is now estimated that, if subsidies were removed, only 19 mines would stay open employing 18,000 men and producing 20 million tonnes of coal per year, just 10% of the 1947 output.
Sir Richard Marsh, Labour Minister at the time of the Nationalisation of British Steel, made this statement in 1981: “Looking back, I regret the nationalisation of British steel as one of most disastrous things I have ever done in my life.” No one has yet admitted the same monstrous errors were made in coal and railways.
As in so many things, the rest of the world followed the stupid trendy things done this century by Britain. They adopted the poisonous philosophy of the Fabians. Then they admitted the hordes of union militants, academics and bureaucrats who moved overseas when it was clear their ideas were killing their British host industries.
The difference between Australia, Britain, India and China is merely one of degree. Bureaucracy, taxation, subsidies, lawless unionism and emasculated management are just a mild version of total nationalisation. The same British disease has done great damage to the coal industries of China, India, Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.
Most of our coal originated in the verdant greenhouse of the Carboniferous and Permian swamps. Modern coal miners are back in the swamps, with snapping alligators all around them. The way out of the swamp is to reverse out the way we got in — slash bureaucracy, privatise government businesses, reduce tariffs, taxes and subsidies, remove wage and price controls, repeal industry specific legislation, remove the power of unions to coerce both employers and employees, repeal laws which prevent Australian coal sellers from co-ordinating their selling strategies, remove the barriers to foreign investment, restore some sanity and security to land and mineral tenures, curb the green gestapo.
If not, the only future for future generations of Aussie miners will be in Africa, South America, Russia and China. All Australians will be the poorer if this is allowed to occur.
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