The Hunter Research Foundation (HRF) recently released figures which outlined the potential sectors for growth in the Hunter Region. The figures suggested the Hunter was beginning to move away from the mining and resources sector - the industry that has kept the region thriving for centuries - and instead shift to a services sector. It’s a revelation that’s sure to worry traditional mining towns in the Upper Hunter.
Mining has been a staple in the region for centuries and has fostered the union movement in the mining sector, not just across the Hunter, but the entire country.
Writing in his 2011 essay, The Rise and Decline of Australian Unionism, Bradley Bowden suggests Australian unionism began in the Hunter. He says Newcastle miners “shared with the owners an economic imperative that drove both to collective action.” This imperative was to keep coal prices high. Because of the need to keep coal prices high for mutual benefit, workers united together to work with coal owners because “an individualist approach … was contrary to the commonwealth”.
Bowden says Newcastle mines were heavily unionised towards the end of the 19th century, and unionism was beginning to move into the Illawarra and Lithgow. Because of this union past, the Labor party has always held a strong presence in the electorates surrounding the coalfields and Newcastle port.
Unionism was initially supported by both miners and mine owners, but the power of the unions caused a dramatic confrontation between police and miners at the Rothbury Colliery, just outside Cessnock in 1929. The event sparked when miners were given two weeks’ notice that their wages would be cut by more than 12 per cent.
The roughly 4000 miners protested against the suggestion, and marched on the mine after non-unionised workers were brought into the mine. The miners confronted the 400 police that were brought in to protect the mine. The two parties clashed and saw police fire shots into the crowd, killing 15-year-old miner Norman Brown.
NSW Labor leader Jack Lang condemned the event and accused the conservative Bavin Government – who called in the police – of “permitting the use of the police to further the efforts of the mine owners”. Miners eventually gave in to the demands from mine owners in June 1930, after 15 months without an income, 10 months after the Wall Street Crash.
Rothbury and the history given to us by Bradley Bowden show how the Hunter became a hotspot for mining unionism and the support given to these workers by Lang and the NSW Labor party played an important role in “rusting on” generational support for the ALP.
With a structural – rather than cyclical – downturn in demand for coal, many communities are worried for their future. Property prices in the mining towns of Singleton and Muswellbrook have dropped. The HRF is adamant that “the Upper Hunter still has strength in traditional industries such as agriculture and mining”. Mining remains one of the key industries in Australia and will remain so during the early parts of the transition to, as the Turnbull Government calls it, “an innovative and agile economy”.
But just how important is the coal mining industry to the Hunter right now? Well, according to Hunter MP Joel Fitzgibbon, it’s still a driving force in the local economy. “Mining is of critical importance,” he says.
But Fitzgibbon says the local economy is very diverse. “Mining’s enabled us to build that diversity,” he says. Fitzgibbon points to the Hunter Expressway as the most prominent example of how mining has allowed for diversity in the Hunter’s economy to flourish.
Planning for the expressway began in the twilight years of the Howard Government, with construction beginning and continuing through the Rudd and Gillard Governments before being officially opened in March 2014 by the Abbott Government. “When governments invest in big infrastructure projects these days they do a cost to benefit ratio and they don’t build it if the numbers don’t stack up,” Fitzgibbon says.
“The numbers would never have stacked up for the Hunter Expressway without the mining industry,” he says.
Mining has been a staple for the Hunter since British colonisation, and Newcastle is home to the largest coal export port in the world, delivering more than 180 megatons of coal annually to nations across the world. But the transition to renewable energy is gaining rapid momentum.
For Fitzgibbon, the market will “dictate” when it’s no longer worth exporting coal. “But while we’ve got a resource in the ground that’s worth something we should – where we can – in an environmentally sound way, dig it up and exploit it because one day it’s not going to be worth anything,” he says.
Not everyone shares Fitzgibbon’s view, with The Greens now calling for an immediate end to coal mining across Australia. The party have long campaigned for the gradual closure of operating coal mines. In reaction to the recent approval of a coal mine by the Coalition Government, Greens leader Richard Di Natale said that the Greens would “not be opening a new coal mine … and fuel[ing] catastrophic global warming”.
It’s a sentiment that Hunter Greens candidate Peter Morris unsurprisingly embraces. He says farmers in the Hunter are quite concerned about continued coal mining. “So many farmers are feeling threatened by coal mining and gas extraction.”
It’s unlikely coal mining will end anytime soon in the Hunter, but Fitzgibbon cautions against everything being predicable from now on. “Predicting what the coal will be worth in the future is a difficult one,” he says.
He says still developing nations such as China and India will need coal in future, keeping the industry alive for a while longer. This is true, but with China doubling down on renewables, investing CNY 100 billion on a large hydro-electric dam, Hunter might need to heed the Hunter Research Foundation’s warning and begin shifting to the services sector sooner than expected.