Culture: On mining, alcohol and community

Culture: On mining, alcohol and community
Out of the Pit 'Mining for Christ' Conference 2012
I am thinking about the mining boom and coal seam gas and other divisive matters of national discourse as I coast along in my husband's Toyota Land Cruiser on the open roads, listening to James Taylor as we go, passing heapings of coal alongside billboards imploring men and women to join the workforce that is taking the nation to heights of economic greatness amidst the gumleaf greenery of the inland rural terrain.

Jingoistic fears that the nation risks losing its prime farming land to foreign and local interests intent on ripping stuff from the ground and hauling it all overseas to feed and clothe and fuel populations far away permeate far and wide out here. Here where smart businessmen are diversifying their revenue sources as manufacturing goes on the blink and the mining "boom!" eases to more of a resonate sound.

One of my great fears (not "fear", per say, more sadness) for young men, and old and the women, too, in this country is the mining industry – the disconnectedness that comes with being isolated down a hole or in a big truck all day, and in a new community, far away from family and familiarity, lured by the promise of large salaries that may not carry longevity.

But this is not necessarily new: men have always gone where the work is, just as the Gold Rushes sent them to Bathurst, Ballarat, Bendigo and Kalgoorlie circa 1850 to 1890, bringing new arrivals in from overseas. The post-war Snowy River Scheme. The Newcastle steelworks. Those boom times brought with them the establishment of new communities: hotels, butchers, bakers, schools and churches.

The nature of the second mining boom workforce is different.

Health professionals have warned that the fly-in, fly-out (FIFO) mining workforce culture is putting a enormous social strain on marriages and partnerships. Into these "divided lives", where the miner lives separately to his family and community, it's anticipated a host of social problems, for both the mining communities and miners themselves, are festering: relationship breakdown, alcohol and drug issues, and mental health problems exist amid a "macho culture".

In March, The Australian reported on the death of one lonely miner lain deceased in his donga for up to two weeks, apparently unmissed.

"The loneliness of the 55-year-old's death, which is still before a coroner, highlighted just how isolated life in these mining camps can be for the thousands of fly-in, fly-out workers who are paid handsomely to stoke the engine room of the Australian economy around the clock," reported the paper. "It's just one of the factors social workers believe is contributing to a dark social consequence of the resources boom: depression, anxiety and even suicide among mine workers."

Into that space, where real connectedness belongs, come distractions, like the grog and the gambling and the girls and the big toys. And capturing all this are magazines like Shaft, not my pick of the newsstand and a fantastic example of how to capitalise on an economic shift, that could very well undermine the people it purports to support.

The current issue has a story called "Give it to me straight" (tagline: 'So you think you know your bourbon?'). "There’s also plenty of laughs and a birds eye view of the things a good mining income allows you to enjoy: holiday destinations and things to do with your missus, hot hot hot 2 wheel super-bikes, even hotter SHAFT babes that really make you want to scrub up well and some things that are just plain fun to do."

Oh, dear. Now, excuse the snobbery – I can spin a yarn with your average bloke at a pub good enough, not afraid of getting my hands dirty doing sweat-inducing work, but how about taking the high road, at least as far as community foundations are concerned?

You can't blame a bloke or a woman for chasing dollars to bring prosperity to their family, or a young fella for throwing caution to the wind and earning a decent dollar (rumour has it that word on the mines is, 'Go slow... we get paid by the hour', a peculiar notion for an industry that ramps up talk of productivity).

Inadvertently, they bring divisiveness and work practises and lifestyles into the communities where the coal, iron ore, copper, uranium, natural gas and gold resides – and with them rising real-estate prices (which has other social repercussions) – and they carry the money home.

"Towns are at risk, I think, of losing their identity and I think it's emblematic of a number of mining towns across Australia. It's turning from a proud self-contained community into a hotel town," said demographer Bernard Salt. 

As with the other boom times, the lands of milk and honey dried up eventually. When the money is gone, what lifestyle will you lead? How far have you gotten in over your head? What family can you go home to who will take you for richer or for poorer and put a roof over your head? The merciful father may take in a prodigal son, but what has been lost in the meantime?

Social problems exist across industries and economic groups – alcohol knows no chasm. Indeed, in this country it is even looked fondly upon as a great "social lubricator". But such a concentration of men and money, as we are seeing with the mining boom, is surely to have a detrimental effect.

James Taylor could tell you all about that – he lost his brother, Alex, to alcoholism and battled the bottled disease himself. Beauty may often be born of struggle, but so too is devastation, heartache, sorrow. Taylor, who battled depression, lost Carly Simon to drug use and alcoholism.

Responsible alcohol campaigner Michael Thorn appeared on One Plus One on Sunday evening, lamenting the status of alcohol in our country, its gross misuse, the way this British and Australian style of consuming alcohol is even having an impact on European culture, and the how the Australian community is seemingly content to wear the enormous associated costs (policing, health, lost productivity, family breakdown).

Did you know that our spending on fuel and power is equivalent to our spending on alcoholic beverages (2.6 per cent of our household budget)? It is. And to think we are up in arms about electricity costs.

The alcohol industry, which helps to buffer the national budget and those of sporting groups nationwide, is ultimately about cultivating profits, not community – though one would be hard pressed to argue against the idea that solitary souls at a bar are better there than alone at home.

Probably we should be having a tipple, or at least a friendly chat, with them, depending on your take on such things.

You can be victorious in the face of temptation, but you might also need support. Harder, it is, if the behaviour you are personally practising is condoned by society at large. Going into these mining communities are people who will help the blokes and the ladies keep their lives on track, including the mining chaplains from Out of the Pit (how apt!).

Looking out for each other – what's more Aussie than that?

Girl With a Satchel


Scarlett Harris @ The Early Bird Catches the Worm said...

One of the first articles on GWAS I've agreed with in a long time! Keep up the good work xx