We discovered a bottomless pit of Australian political history while mining data for this week’s Friday on My Mind. I searched “Paul Keating opens McArthur River Mine” because I could not remember the year it happened. What I found was a Federal Government archive of all speeches made by Australian prime ministers. I asked my trusty ideologue and research assistant Little Brother to plough this fallow field. He remarked: “Mate, that’ll be like pushing a barrow load of bricks along the Canning Stock Route.”
Paul Keating flew in the RAAF VIP jet to a tiny private airstrip at McArthur River, one of the early fly-in fly-out operations, to officiate at the mine opening in September 1995. He was welcomed by the then owners, Mt Isa Mines and a Japanese consortium (Nippon, Mitsui and Marubeni). Keating was asked to open the McArthur River zinc mine because the Commonwealth had made it possible, buying Bauhinia Downs cattle station and giving it to the Gurdanji people as part of a compensation package that included mining jobs.
The Feds also spent $6 million diverting the road around the Borroloola Aboriginal Community “to make this a much more pleasant project for them”. Zinc concentrate from McArthur River is transported by road to the company’s Bing Bong loading facility where it is loaded onto barges and transported to ships in the Gulf of Carpentaria. When I attended the opening, scribbling away in my notebook, promises were made about ensuring the trucks making the 100 km road trip would have their loads of zinc/lead concentrate covered and fully secured.
These days McArthur River mine is owned by international mining giant Glencore which like all such companies focuses on maximising volume and keeping production costs down.
Paul Keating’s 1995 speech made much of Australia’s then still powerful commercial relationship with Japan and made comparisons between the egalitarianism which existed in both countries. (Comments in parenthesis are by Little Brother)
“I would say to our colleagues in Japan, I hope they understand that when they deal with an Australian business, and I’m sure they do, that it is real and it will be here in five years or 10 years or 15 years (right so far, Paul) and that when you do business with Australia, you don’t wake up in the morning, some morning, to find a general in charge of the country, that it is the solid democracy, that our word matters (semi-colon) that you can litigate your interests here in our courts and like you (comma) we are a democracy and also like you we don’t have a two-tiered society. We used to have the remnants of our failed upper class, they have disappeared (oh yeah?), thankfully, into obscurity.”
Little Brother sighs: “That bloke could talk under wet cement.”
No doubt the articulate, quick-thinking Keating would have ad libbed his way through the prepared text. I do recall he did not tarry long at McArthur River, jetting off to another in a series of ribbon snippings to promote One Nation, (not to be confused with the right wing political party launched by Pauline Hanson in 1997). Keating’s One Nation was a programme of infrastructure works carried out from 1991 to 1996, including the single gauge rail from Brisbane to Perth via Melbourne and the Brisbane Airport international terminal.
I’d like to thank Paul for unwittingly providing me with fodder for Deadly Diary, all these years later, and for unwittingly participating in my song Paul Who, which satirises the (male) cult of personality. You have to say he was one of our more colourful PMs. Political life in Australia must indeed be dreary when brief TV interviews with Keating, Malcolm Fraser and even John Howard seem vital and perspicacious by comparison with the present lot.