'Dirty Money'

A great help comes from Matthew Benns’ book Dirty Money: The True cost of Australia’s Mineral Boom. It pulls together material in thirteen chapters to give a clear picture of the behaviour of Australian resources companies. Besides the well-known destinations and producers, Benns introduces us to Australian ventures from Mongolia to the western Sahara, from exploiting rare earth minerals to phosphates.

Benns is a journalist. He opens with a story from the Congo to set the tone of the book - Australian entrepreneur; silver and copper mining company; political friends; no taxes; ‘friendly’ soldiers of the mine kill over 100 locals; windfall profits and it moves on. So What? is the owner’s comment.

The human cost of exploiting resources is alarming. There is intimidation, rape and murders and the loss of livelihoods. For example, there is less fish for local communities in PNG and the Philippines as rivers and reefs are polluted. There is disregard for the spiritual meaning of undisturbed places, lowered health outcomes among resource workers. Social disruptionalso arises from the resource workers and their transient life styles, or some singles camps have been tagged as places of Booze-Blokes-Brawls. These human costs can be hidden in a financial analysis and town leaders often play them down fearing local jobs will be threatened – keep silent, keep jobs.

Average readers of newspapers gain glimpses of resource company stories without ever knowing the whole story. As a journalist, Benns’ many sources help us follow stories from around the world and in Australia.

Greed, Pollution and Murder are words on the front cover of Benns’ book and cites examples of various Australian mining/energy ventures to back up theses three words. Examples are not just regrettable and unforeseen outcomes but calculated and repeated in new ventures – only profit counts.

Benns explores the distorting effects of super-fast resource development on a nation’s economy. First it creates a money bubble in just one sector that exasperates inflation and so nobbles other sectors, especially manufacturing. This leads to a skills shortage and rampant wages in one sector contrasting with unemployment in other sectors. In spite of impressions deliberately cultivated, the resource sector provides only 4% of Australian employment.

The PR machine of the resource companies also act indirectly to puff up their supposed benefits to society. Benns returns several times to the manipulative role of philanthropy. There is great fanfare when resource ventures promise local communities hospitals and schools or when a local sports club grains sponsorship. But the benefits are often whittled down or do not eventuate. The Australian government can hardly object to such dishonesty when Benns has calculated it did a $100 billion shakedown of East Timor over oil rights.

Benns’ work includes material on uranium, coal seam gas, alternative energy, Chinese deals and scattered reference to the strings attached to DFAT (Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade) overseas aid and the corrective role of NGOs. He gives examples of ecological damage caused by resource companies. There are lies about fixing the damage of oil spills off New Orleans and Ashmore Reef as well details on a Federal government approval for a more risky venture in the Great Australian Bight drilling at 4,500mtr. There are detailed lies about the 60sq.klm dead zone caused by Lihir Gold mine in PNG dumping tailings in the sea. Uncaring about either human or environmental side effects, relegated to ‘externalities’ in economic terms by professorial experts, governments accept that ‘best business practice’ can sidestep these costs.

Benns concludes by referring to the ‘elephant in the room’ planners try to ignore - the limited supply and life span of resource extraction in Australia. In 1997, black coal reserves were calculated to last 190 years. Under pressure to mine more quickly, this has already been reduced to a 90 year assessment. Copper and silver will last even shorter times. He pushes the question, "... is the nation squandering this limited bonanza on recurring spending? Or can we learn from Norway which puts resource source taxes in an off-shore sovereign fund?"

Dirty Money is a book about ethics. It offers a clear map in exposing the mal-practices of mining/energy companies and the feeble regulation of the mineral boom by Australian governments.

Fr Charles Rue SSC is the Coordinator of Columban Justice Peace Integrity and Creation (JPIC) at the Columban Mission Institute, Strathfield NSW .

Read more articles from the current E-News