Digging up the past

No stone unturned ... mining has been a part of our history since the gold-rush era.
No stone unturned ... mining has been a part of our history since the gold-rush era.

What happens when the mining boom ends is a question that keeps many awake at night, from politicians and economists, to highly paid miners and getting-by city dwellers who have been spared the hardships of a recession that has hit just about every other developed nation.

But if there's only one lesson to take away from the engrossing three-part history series Dirty Business, it's that Australia's next mining boom is only just around the corner, and that its effects, like every other boom in our relatively short history, will rattle the very foundations of our society.

History books tell us what happened, but it's when you connect those past events that they start to take on wider meanings. Dirty Business does a commendable job of linking events - from the gold-rush era, which ushered a wave of mass migration, riots and prosperity, to the present day, when an elected politician standing against Big Mining's interests is toppled and Western Australia threatens to secede from the ''federation'' (pointedly, an idea that was first hatched during a previous mining boom).

After their previous history series Immigrant Nation, producer and writer Alex West and co-writer and director Jacob Hickey from Renegade Films were keen to find another vehicle through which they could explore Australian history. Both men are relative newcomers to Australia, which goes some way towards explaining their knack for identifying ''big picture'' themes from our past. Mining, West says, ''was so obvious as to not be worthy of comment''.

One of the first books West read when he arrived here from Britain was Geoffrey Blainey's The Rush That Never Ended. ''Just the preface of that book nailed it about the profound influence mining had had,'' he says.

West was surprised to discover that apart from Blainey's book, first published in 1964, the subject hadn't been treated comprehensively since.

Part of the reason that mining doesn't occupy this centrality in Australian history, he believes, may be a form of cultural cringe, as well as the perception that mining is boring, that it's ''just about digging shit out of the ground''.

From the outset, Hickey and West decided against a strictly chronological approach, opting to identify events to which mining was a key backdrop.

''Nothing else has impacted on Australia for so long and in so many different ways, economically, socially, politically, environmentally,'' Hickey says.

According to West: ''As soon as you have a story with those resonances - the more things change, the more they stay the same - what you get into are the true lessons of history. What's it telling us about now? What it's telling us is that the essential nature of mining never changes in Australia, at least.''

The themes that drive the three-part series are power, money and land, which is the subject of the contentious final episode. There, outspoken academic Marcia Langton talks about the impact of mining on first Australians and takes aim at conservationists and leftists who oppose it.

''It doesn't get more fundamental than who owns the ground beneath our feet,'' Hickey says.

Having worked with Langton on Immigrant Nation, Hickey and West knew her views were likely to challenge established orthodoxies. What's revealing, however, is the overlap of interests of at least some indigenous Australians and Big Mining. Early in the development of Dirty Business, West met with senior representatives of Rio Tinto and BHP in London.

''I said, 'we want to engage with you because we want to … tell your story. We will be fair in the way that we know nothing. We don't come to this with a view that mining is good or bad, merely that it's a phenomenon,''' West says.

A breakthrough was meeting with Rio Tinto's Bruce Harvey, a former field geologist who today runs the company's global practice division, which deals with issues pertaining to the company's social responsibility for the indigenous people who are, for the most part, at the front gate of any mining enterprise.

''He's gone on this amazing journey, from being one of the crew who shows up in these places - it was basically appropriation - to a guy who goes around the world making sure these things are done with a degree of communication and sensitivity,'' West says. ''I wanted to tell that story. I think those guys are genuinely concerned about the impact mining has. They're also part of the mining industry that's just trying to make money.''

Both West and Hickey are keen to point out that their goal is to elevate the heated (though poorly understood) debates around the mining industry and the polarising people who drive it.

''Most people have never been to a mine,'' Hickey says.

''They're big holes in the ground far away and though they influence people they don't have a direct impact on their lives. So it leaves people to have carte blanche opinions about them. It's the tyranny of distance that people don't understand the business.

''If we're honest, while we have a completely open mind, we like to make counter-intuitive programs. That's counter-intuitive from every angle … because they question everything slightly sideways''.

Langton's divisive position on mining is a perfect illustration of that, he adds.

''If we get attacked by the left and right we've done our job. Love it or loathe it, mining has made Australia. This, for better or worse,'' West says, waving at the street, buildings and traffic outside, ''is built on it. If you're groovy and hang out on Brunswick Street you are somehow an inheritor of that, too.

''I think we all need to recognise that, and hopefully that's where the greater sophistication of the debate around it will bring together those who regard mining as an engaged economic activity within wider society, rather than this two-dimensional polarity.''

Too often, West says, history is told in the passive tense.

By contrast, the present is the starting point for the various events that Dirty Business explores. A shot of contemporary Melbourne segues into an archival photo of the tent city that sprang up at the time of the Victorian gold rush, a reminder that it happened here.

''The great thing about making history in Australia is it's all still here,'' West says. ''It hasn't been over-treated. By making it relevant, viewers think, 'Wow, it happened right here.'''

They also invested heavily in the striking aerial footage that features prominently in the series. Rather than using a helicopter, a camera was mounted on a fixed-wing plane, which captured dramatic footage of mines and monster trains hauling ore through the outback.

Dirty Business: How Mining Made Australia

SBS One, Sunday, 8.30pm

This story Digging up the past first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.