Erasing mining’s battle lines: research points to new approach
As Australia’s remarkable mining boom enters its second phase, evidence abounds of the rapid new development it has brought to regional areas, but the extent to which regional communities benefit, and how these benefits can be maximised, is not well understood.
The findings from the Regional Australia Institute’s recently released policy briefing; ‘Benefits of the Boom’, reveals that jobs and wealth derived from resources projects flow mainly to connected capital cities and larger regional centres.
It shows that ensuring regional communities feel the full socio-economic benefits of resources projects, is not a clear enough goal of resource development.
For example, research in Western Australia indicates that for every ten jobs created by a resource development, two will be sourced from the host region, seven from adjacent regional cities, and one from elsewhere.
This research project came about due to the undeniable discord which exists within some regions hosting mining projects. Too often, a community’s expectations of the benefits a mining project will bring to the region are not reflected in reality.
A community’s sense of receiving mixed outcomes and not finding the transparency or ease they had hoped for in dealing with a resources company, only serves to fuel perceptions that community interests and mining interests do not have equal footing.
This emotion was most recently characterised when MP Tony Windsor paraphrased the Mayor of Kalgoorlie’s description of the FIFO phenomenon as “the cancer of the bush”.
While FIFO is often singled out as a factor which erodes the liveability of some mining communities, this is merely symptomatic of broader interactive problems between miners and mining communities.
Community issues may not be the biggest cost base a resources company identifies as it prepares to set up or continue projects in a region, but in reality this area can have a significant bearing on a project’s ability to succeed and to secure a stable workforce for the life of the project.
The RAI believes the approach for involving local communities in the resources development process needs considered review. An effective project should be profitable for the resources company, provide jobs and wealth for the nation and create opportunity for sustainable local development.
Effective local action is the most important driver of success in capturing local benefits from resources projects. However, it is not clear to what extent current development processes enable or confound this effective local action.
The current Environmental Impact Assessment framework does not provide an appropriate umbrella for socio economic issues, having evolved during the earlier stage of Australia’s resources boom while undergoing little review or change since.
The EIA framework is an obvious place to start in ensuring that the needs of resources companies and the needs of host communities are communicated well and negotiated harmoniously.
An alternative approach, focused on local engagement and agreements targeting net social benefits should be considered based on local and international evidence.
It will be of interest to follow the outcome of the Queensland Government’s recent introduction of social impact management plans as a requirement of mining proponents to submit along with the EIS.
The plan, which applies to the construction, commissioning, operation and the decommissioning of the project, describes the project’s potential social impacts, both good and bad, as well as mitigation and management strategies.
The way things stand, there are varying approaches to community engagement, and many companies put a great deal of effort into this process, but evidence points to a wider framework that does little to aid this.
A good process applied across-the-board will minimise community opposition and ensure communities can manage the pressures of rapid development, and in some cases the cumulative results of multiple projects.
In the export phase of the boom, featuring an increasingly cost competitive environment, effective community strategies will become even more important to achieving commercial success and potential state royalty streams.
The RAI research project has found that communities that achieve the best localised outcomes report a positive experience of engaging with a mining presence in their town, while communities without effective strategies for managing key issues, often end up experiencing negative outcomes.
There is no simple, one-size fits all solution to these issues. The challenge in many projects will be recognising the opportunities for regional communities, resource companies and governments during the approval process.
Ultimately, company leadership will have the most transformative effects on community-mining relations.
As the boom marches on, an across-the-board improvement in community engagement is possible. Now is the time to identify the best approaches and most positive outcomes for communities – and to build on these examples from region to region.
If you are interested in engaging with the RAI’s goal to improve the outcomes for both mining and community interests throughout regional Australia, follow this link to read the policy brief http://regionalaustralia.org.au/regional-knowledge-base/item/benefits-of-the-boom and leave your own comment.