Over the past week, I’ve been working with John on a cultural heritage tourism project in a town in central western Queensland. During a focus group, a participant explained that she couldn’t get to a cultural festival in a nearby town because all the accommodation was booked out, presumably to mining companies. The only option was camping in her car at an unreasonable cost and without access to amenities. Presently, the greatest demand on accommodation, particularly outside of tourist season, is by those associated with the mining industry. During tourist season tourists are competing with mining companies for accommodation. Apparently, this story is repeated throughout regional Queensland. While some consider the expansion of extraction and exploration a boon, there are considerable negative social and economic impacts on regional communities and townships, which remain unaddressed. As one person said, “it’s business”. Even so, it’s a situation that doesn’t make for robust and diverse local economies. This is, in part, evidenced by the prevalence of empty shops and buildings in most towns along the highway.
Cultural events are multipliers in local economies and are part of the equation of attracting and retaining visitors. While tourism comprises a comparatively small proportion of the economies of rural and regional areas, those communities tend to be more dependent on that economic activity. Gradually I see and understand the issue of resilience in small towns more intimately. To learn that cultural events, such as festivals, which are integral to the development of social and cultural capital and the growth of the tourism industry in regional areas, prompted us to think more deeply about the impacts of mining at the local and micro-scale. Those mobile and FIFO/DIDO workers, with no stake in the local economy or community, are usually under the pump, working to tight schedules or resident in camps and unable to engage. At most they seem to eat, drink, sleep and refuel in country towns. The mining company workers have a visual presence too, standing out in their high visibility vests and clean white new model utes. There are obvious benefits, which often seem like distortions. For example, the publican at Alpha was quoted in The Courier-Mail saying that her business was increasing as a result of the resources sector, yet accommodation in Gladstone is at a premium with lower income earners squeezed out. The roads, however, have never been so good. While big mining companies sponsor some local cultural events, they direct more significant funds to the major festivals and institutions located in capital cities where they can capture ‘public opinion’ and, perhaps, labour force. It seems to deepen the divide between metropolitan and non-metropolitan (city/bush), attracting attention and, potentially, labour. Mining is embedded in the Australian cultural imaginary, sometimes romaticised and often unrealistic.
In his report, State of the Regions, economist Peter Brain commented that mining ‘crowds out’ other industries, especially manufacturing, due to pressures on exchange rates, wages and the like. In other recent conversations about skills and labour shortages, I heard someone describe the mining industry as ‘poachers’ – poaching human resources, rarely investing in human capital. As another said, “extractive by name, extractive by nature”. Brain issues a clear challenge to local authorities in mining regions: “The message of this report to councils hosting mining is that they never should believe industry blarney about the massive contribution mining makes to local and national economies. Mining is profitable and there is no reason why it should be subsidised. As for councils located away from the scene of operations, a few benefit but mining booms can easily damage the economy of whole regions.”
Having worked on a couple of projects focused on mining impacted communities and working on heritage assessments, I was broadly aware of the social impacts and pressures caused by mining. In the process of our work on this project, in a region where resources exploration is underway, I had wondered how mining impacts tourism as an industry. Mining can strip away a sense of place. This story of the festival and the lack of accommodation made me realise another dimension of this erosion; at some point that festival may not be viable due to the lack of visitation caused by pricing, access and accommodation. In this context, ‘crowding out’ happens literally and in ways that bite into the cultural and social capital that is integral for placemaking.