Mining's key to our past - and our future - The Australian

The focus is firmly on the north, where major infrastructure works are under way

The mining sector feels a little like Mark Twain at the moment -- "The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated". While many have announced the end of the mining boom, in many senses it actually has not ended.

Last year Australia exported record amounts of coal and iron ore, and we are on track to become the world's biggest exporter of liquefied natural gas. The resources sector now employs double the number of people it did before the boom and, as a share of our economy, it is at a record postwar high of 9 per cent.

As the historian Geoffrey Blainey titled his history of Australian mining, the industry is "the rush that never ended".

What has ended is the peak of mining investment. Commodity prices have declined substantially from their peaks and that has put many new mines on hold and mothballed older ones. People have lost their jobs, investments have been written down and some mining companies are struggling under large debts, even as their operations remain sound.

This hurts regional areas reliant on mining. Unemployment rates in parts of regional Queensland are in double digits. This lived experience exposes as myth the notion that we could shut down mining and its more than 220,000 workers could easily find jobs elsewhere.

Mining is a core part of Australian history. Every Australian schoolchild learns at least one thing about Australian history: the Eureka Stockade.

The gold rushes of the 1850s changed Australia. In the 10 years after 1850, Victoria's population grew fivefold and, from 1860 to 1880, Australia's population doubled. Melburnians may not feel the same connection to the mining sector today, but living in Melbourne and calling for the end of the mining sector is a bit like hoping your parents never got married. As Marty McFly discovered in Back to the Future, that's a dangerous wish to make.

The gold rush developed our nation, not just Victoria. Rich and powerful political figures in Melbourne, such as William Stawell, wanted to expand Victoria's power. On the back of the gold rushes, the Burke and Wills expedition was financed not just for scientific purposes but to explore, settle and potentially annex parts of north Queensland for Victoria. Thankfully they failed in that latter aim or else Queensland may be playing AFL not rugby league, and we probably would not have won 10 of the past 11 State of Origins.

Australia has just been through the biggest mining boom since the gold rushes. We must use this opportunity to grow our nation once again. That is why the federal government has an agenda to develop our north, including the areas that now often bear the names of Australia's most famous explorers.

We are investing $700 million in northern roads, including a son of the Menzies-era beef roads program, $200m for new dams and a $5 billion bank to help provide low-cost development finance.

The resources sector will continue to play an important role in northern development too. A large Indian company, Adani, has plans to open the first mine in Queensland's Galilee Basin. The Galilee has high-quality thermal coal reserves and it will be the first time a new coal basin has opened up in Australia for 40 years.

If the mine goes ahead, it will help develop a genuine frontier of our nation. As so much of Australia's history shows, new mines are often the foundation stone for what turn into diverse centres. Just look at Cairns, Rockhampton, Melbourne, Kalgoorlie, Ballarat and Bendigo.

Now is also the time to start looking for new mineral resources. The government is investing $100m towards an Exploring for the Future fund that will boost exploration investment, assess our groundwater resources and analyse the salinity risks in future agricultural areas.

While there is a downturn in exploration from private companies, now is the perfect time for the government to ramp up its role in mapping Australia's resources.

The mining sector will continue to thrive, in part thanks to its record of innovation. Australian mining is a world leader and the pressures of the past few years have brought out the best in the industry. Labour productivity over the past year is up more than 20 per cent. The Queensland coal industry now exports 2800 tonnes a person, up 170 per cent in just four years.

Mining is part of our collective history. It has driven so much of the economics and politics of our present and it will continue to play a hugely important role in Australia's future.

Matt Canavan is Minister for Resources and Northern Australia.

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