The boom boon

Zanny Begg

Australia’s colonial history is nasty, brutish and short. Within this history there have been at least five mining booms, and each has been greeted with greater optimism and excitement than the last. Mining booms have been accompanied by waves of migration, both into Australia and between Australian states, as people have moved to work directly in mining or in other mutually expanding aspects of the economy. I am interested in the patterns that link mining, myths about Australia and migration. It seems to me that some of the intolerances developed with each boom foreshadow the current hostilities toward asylum seekers. For example, the border has frequently been used as a “method” (to take political theorists Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson’s phrase) to control the flow of migration. The border is porous, allowing poor and hard working migrants to cross it to work the mines and carry out large-scale infrastructure projects, yet its divisive qualities, separating one section of land from another – its existence as a border – inspires racism and targeted attacks on certain sectors of the migrant population, fragmenting and devaluing the migrant experience. This article will outline the economic shape of each boom and highlight the patterns of migration associated with each period.


Borderlessness as method: Undrawing the Line collective (Mona Moradveisi, Safdar Ahmed, Zanny Begg and Murtaza Ali Jafari) In the Shade of the Waq Waq Tree 2014


In The Shade of the Waq Waq Tree facade project, Vienna, 2014.

The first boom, the gold rush of the 1850s, is easily the most famous, often credited (by Manning Clark among others) with creating the “Australian Nation.” This is a powerful myth but a slightly misplaced honor, because, in terms of resource extraction, this boom was relatively atypical from those subsequent. Surface alluvial gold required little capital infrastructure and was a potentially obtainable resource for a wide range of ordinary people who flooded NSW, and then Victoria, seeking a way out of poverty. While most failed to make their fortune – the Pennyweight Flat Children’s Cemetery near Castlemaine is a testament to many a gold diggers’ broken dreams – there were a few years where it seemed Australia might deserve the nickname “lucky country”.

Measured in terms of value added to GDP, the first gold rush far exceeded all subsequent mining booms, with mining reaching 35 per cent of GDP by 1852.1 And the ready abundance of gold loosened the grip of the colonial ruling class, as wages rose by 250% in Victoria in the three years after 1851. This fuelled working class confidence in the years following and in 1857, male suffrage was achieved, allowing all men the right to vote regardless of whether or not they owned property.

The promise of gold also sparked Australia’s first significant wave of non-convict migration. The Australian population grew from 430,000 in 1851 to 1.7million in 1871 leading to the formation of Australia’s first cosmopolitan city, Melbourne.2 Migrants came to Australia across Europe, America and Asia bringing new languages, traditions and cultures. Much is made of the “mateship” forged on the gold fields and the spirit of “rebellion” of the Eureka stockade, but less is made of the cross-cultural exchanges that allowed this rebellious mateship to flourish. A Polish digger, Seweryn Korzelinski, summarised (in the broad cultural strokes of the time) the nature of these exchanges in his memoir of life in the goldfields, “a colonel pulls up the earth for a sailor; a lawyer wields not a pen but a spade; a priest lends a match to a Negro’s pipe; a doctor rests on the same heap of earth with a China man; many a baron or count has a drink with a Hindu, and all of them hirstute, dusty, and muddy, so that their own mothers would not be able to recognise them.”3

During the Eureka stockade trials the colonial authorities tried to undermine this solidarity by placing John Joseph, an African American, and Raffaello Carboni, an Italian, on trial first, anticipating that they would benefit from the racism of the jury to ensure a conviction. This backfired. Both were acquitted and paraded through the streets of Melbourne as heroes. Yet, as is well documented, the cross-cultural dialogue did have its limits; “mateship” did not extend as readily to the Chinese diggers. In the aftermath of the stockade, Chinese migrants were blamed for shortages of opportunities and resources in a racist scapegoating campaign that laid the foundations for the White Australia Policy. This aspect of the first mining boom came to define the modern Australian nation.


Raffaello Carboni, Italian Nationalist and writer, fled Italy to the goldfields, to then provide the main eyewitness account of events at the Eureka Stockade.

In their work on migration and labour, Mezzarda and Neilson use the phrase “border as method” to describe how borders not only physically constrain the free movement of people around the globe but police a global division of labour “that serves to equilibrate, in the most violent of ways, the constitutive tensions that underlie the very existence of labour markets”.4 One way of understanding how the border was used as a method for producing the Australian labour market is to examine the case of the Irish convicts and free settlers who came to Australia before Federation.

The Irish Catholics constituted about one quarter of Australia’s population before 1901. Their migration was largely the result of borders marked out by the British Empire. Within the discourse of British Imperialism, the Irish were considered barely human, “white Negroes”, of “Africanoid stock”, and similar to apes or Gorillas. These ideas were imported to Australia and adopted by the ruling elite; for example, Samuel Marsden wrote in 1800, that Catholic convicts were “composed of the lowest class of the Irish; who are the most wild, ignorant and savage nation”. Comparisons were often made between the Aboriginal population and the Irish, some British people regarding the Irish as inferior to Indigenous Australians. For example, one British traveller commented that Aboriginal houses were a “distinct improvement” on those she had seen in Ireland.5

Then, towards the late nineteenth century, the prejudices against the Irish began to shift to accommodate the needs of the new borders forming around the Australian nation. As cultural studies academic Jonathan Stratton explains, around this time, “the Irish previously racialised, and to all extents and purposes, excluded from whiteness in England and Australia, become reconstituted within Australia as acceptably white, helping to produce a claimed homogenous white nation”.6 The Irish transitioned from being a racialised “other” of British Imperialism to being a poor and exploitable layer within the Australian borders. “Border as method” works in nuanced ways between global and domestic contexts.

Concurrent with attempts to “whiten” the emerging Australian nation was the second mining boom. Like the first, this boom was focused on gold (and some other metals). As agricultural industries suffered from industrial disputes (such as the Shearers Strike of 1891) and financial difficulties arose during the depression, new gold fields were opened up in areas that had been more sparsely occupied by colonial forces, including Queensland, Western Australia and western NSW, intensifying the theft of Aboriginal land. In Victoria, new technologies were also introduced that allowed gold to be mined from deeper underground.

During this boom, gold overtook wool and grains as Australia’s leading export, and capital intensification, mostly from overseas sources, allowed the formation of the first mining companies and a new industrial working class. Broadly speaking, the dividends of this boom were contested. Wealth began to concentrate in the hands of some families that still dominate the Australian economy, yet workers were also forming their own political parties and winning some economic concessions. The racist tensions against Chinese immigrants also intensified during this time, as migration patterns became more scrutinised and eventually regulated through the White Australia Policy.

The third and fourth mining booms in the 1960s and 1970s saw a shift towards coal, iron ore and the energy sectors. These booms were far more capital intensive then the previous two, with mining investment rising from about 0.5% of GDP in 1960 to a peak of almost 3% in the early 1970s. These booms were accompanied by another wave of mass migration, as Australia absorbed a portion of the peoples displaced by WWII and, for the first time, opened its doors to some forms of Asian migration as the White Australia policy was officially dismantled. By this time, the Irish had been readily absorbed into the Australian population with the somewhat historically anomalous term Anglo-Celtic (used only in former British colonies such as Australia) becoming the norm against which the “other” might be measured. The 1970s were a time of high growth, with vibrant struggles over how economic wealth might be spent; significant concessions were granted to the poor through wage rises and the welfare state.

The most recent mining boom, still in its endphase, has continued the trend of the last two with a focus on coal and the energy sectors. This boom also hoovered up increasing capital with mining investment as a share of GDP significantly higher than recorded in previous booms. In terms of additions to output, the contribution of mining during this boom has been larger than during the booms of the 1960s and 1970s, but still below that of the late 19th century, and much lower than that of the 1850s.7 Ironically, given the history of anti-Asian racism the most recent boom has been, to a large degree, driven by demand for resources by emerging economies, with China being the most significant. Migration has not played such a dramatic factor as in previous booms but Australia continues to accept around 190,000 migrants a year, with mining companies pushing for expanded enterprise migration agreements and increases in skilled migration quotas.

Last year I decided to visit the Coal Industry Centre (CIC) in Singleton, to participate in new micro-growth industry, “resource tourism”. Newcastle hosts the largest coal exporting port in the world, shifting up to 10,500 tonnes of coal an hour, 365 days a year, yet surprisingly the tour office was unexpectedly homely. Unfinished piles of knitting were bundled in the corner of a fairly non-descript room crammed with a messy assortment of handmade models and coal memorabilia. The Centre is nominally independent of the coal industry and run by a coal enthusiast Ross Fleming. Ross ushered us into a conference room dominated by a huge map of the local area and began to explain the scale of the resource extraction taking place around us.

In 2012-2013 NSW mines produced 260 million tonnes of raw coal and 196 million tonnes of saleable coal. Over 136 million tonnes of this was for export, creating an estimated $15.2 billion for the coal industry. Queues of up to 50 ships bank up offshore as companies scramble to load and transport coal out of Australia, mostly to Asian markets. A far cry from the hopeful gold digger of the nineteenth century, the industry is dominated by massive companies such as Swiss commodity trading and mining giant Glencore, which runs 10 mining operations in the Hunter Valley and is NSW’s largest coal producer. Over 90% of coal production in NSW is owned by overseas multinationals.

After the lecture, we drove to visit some of the mines. The massive extraction of resources is artfully hidden from view behind earth walls and landscape gardening. According to Ross “mine landscaping” is a big part of the business, allowing tourists visiting the Hunter Valley to drive past the mines without being troubled by the ominous craters and blackened mountains that coal mining creates. A quick look on Google Earth reveals a different reality. The region south and west of Singleton is broken into a patchwork of mining moonscapes. But the industry’s days are numbered. Workers have round the clock work schedules, “everyone is trying to mine as much as they can before it’s over,” Ross explained. The prediction rings true. Last November, mining giant Glencore announced it would be closing its mines in NSW for an extended period.

While the picture I’ve drawn here of the economics of each boom is incomplete, it seemed important to sketch their outlines because there is a sharp contradiction between the enthusiasm with which we have greeted each mining boom and the concurrent increase in the concentration of wealth invested in resource extraction. As each boom invests more in resource extraction than the one previous, less wealth is shared across society. The recent booms have been dominated by a robber baron mentality with a vast extraction of resources benefiting the very few. Glencore is an extreme example of this trend. In June this year, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that the company paid “almost zero tax over the past three years, despite income of $15 billion, as it radically reduced its tax exposure by taking large, unnecessarily expensive loans from its associates overseas”.8

Looking back, the racism against Chinese migrants on the gold fields provides an unsettling reflection into current debates over border protection. Approximately 150,000 people flooded the Victorian gold fields in 1858. It is estimated that less then 4% of these were from China. There is no doubt that life on the gold fields was hard and that the broader mining community found it challenging to adjust to the Chinese miners new techniques, work culture and customs. Yet, the stigma, violence and ostracisation that the Chinese miners faced was vastly disproportionate to their influence, success or wealth. Instead, anti-Chinese sentiment took on mythic proportions, fusing with a broader cultural desire for the production of borders around a “white” nation.

Zanny Begg The Right of Passage, still, 2013

Today Australia accepts an humanitarian quota of approximately 20,000 refugees a year. In 2013, approximately 20,587 asylum seekers arrived in Australia by boat.9 Any of these who successfully settle in Australia will be deducted from the humanitarian quota, leaving Australia’s refugee intake at less then 1.5 per 1000 head of population, far below Germany, France, Yemen or any other country we might care to compare ourselves with.10 And, while the government may claim this level is due to their draconian measures “stopping the boats”, Australia is also low on the list of desired countries for refugee settlement.11 On a local and global scale, the number of asylum seekers arriving, or wanting to arrive in Australia, is small. Furthermore, the government and mining council has argued the mining boom has been driving the economy, creating wealth and jobs and helping Australia steer through the rocky waters of the global financial downturn. When discussing Australia’s attitude toward asylum seekers, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, was forced to conclude it was outside rationality, “a kind of collective sociological and psychological question.”12

I would argue that one of the psychological issues at play is that hostility toward refugees forms part of the “border as method” way of controlling global labour markets that has come to define what Australia is and how its natural resources will (and will not) be shared. Isolating one aspect of this discussion – human rights – makes this clear. Marina Gržini? points out that the international human rights regime was developed in Western Europe after World War II as a point of positive differentiation to the totalitarianism of the Soviet Block. The convention relating to the Status of Refugees was signed in 1951, at the height of the Cold War, and sought to both resolve the aftermath of post-war displacements while recouping the moral high ground for capitalist “humanism”.13

While many have applauded Australia’s early signing of the convention, Australia’s embrace of post WWII immigrants and refugees played a double role. As well as fulfilling the country’s human rights obligations, it satisfied domestic concerns regarding population – “populate or perish” – with controlled migration, thus helping to secure the borders against the perceived threat of Asian invasion.

More recently, human rights as a global reference point has been discarded through legislation such as the Migration and Maritime Powers Legislation Amendment (Resolving the Asylum Legacy Caseload) Bill 2014, and the increasing demonisation of refugees. Concurrent and central to this process are the links that Gržini? (after Achille Mbembe) draws between necropolitics and a “racialisation” that enacts a “process of capital’s differentiation between citizens (first and second grade citizens), non-citizens (refugees and asylum seekers), and migrants; they are all violently, but differently discriminated as the labour market under global capitalism imposes processes of racial, class and gender selection.”14 For example, refugees are violently excluded from the “official” labour market, yet surreptitiously included in the shadow economy as a vulnerable and super-exploitable workforce that can be drawn in and out of paid work at whim.

For Marina Gržini? this shift marks a change from the biopolitical order that sought to regulate the “good life” to a necropolitical order focused on the disposability of life. In her reading, Foucault’s biopolitics can be designated in an axiomatic way as “make live and let die”. Necropolitics regulates life through the perspective of death and can be summarised in an axiomatic way as “let live and make die”.15

The five mining booms I have outlined here have been, on a dramatically increasing exponential scale, a boon for capitalism. Yet each boom has layered deeper layers of amnesia over the fact that Australia’s resource extraction has been made possible by migrant labour. Many of those lauded and described as migrants and free settlers in the past, for example, the Irish persecuted in Britain, would possibly count as asylum seekers today and face indefinite internment.

  1. Ric Battellino, “Mining Booms and the Australian Economy”, The Reserve Bank, accessed November 28, 2014, []
  2. “The Australian gold rush”,, accessed November 28.2014, []
  3. Gold, SBS interactive map, accessed November 28, 2014, []
  4. Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson, “Border as Method, or, the Multiplication of Labor”, Transversal Text, accessed November 28, 2014, []
  5. Jon Stratton “Borderline anxieties: what whitening the Irish has to do with keeping out asylum seekers” in Whitening Race: Essays in social and cultural criticism, Aileen Moreton-Robinson (ed), Amazon ebook, p229 []
  6. ibid, Jon Stratton “Borderline anxieties: what whitening the Irish has to do with keeping out asylum seekers” p229 []
  7. ibid Ric Battellino, “Mining Booms and the Australian Economy” []
  8. Michael West, “Glencore tax bill on $15b income: zip, zilch, zero”, Sydney Morning Herald, accessed November 28,2014, []
  9. []
  10. Sarah Whyte and Inga Ting, “As world refugee numbers hit 50 million, Australia goes backwards”, Sydney Morning Herald, accessed November 28,2014, []
  11. Refugee Council of Australia, accessed November 28,2014, []
  12. ibid, Sarah Whyte and Inga Ting “As world refugee numbers hit 50 million, Australia goes backwards” []
  13. Marina Gržini? and Šefik Tatli?, Necropolitics, Racialization, and Global Capitalism Historicization of Biopolitics and Forensics of Politics, Art, and Life, Lexington Books, 2014, kindle edition, []
  14. ibid Gržini? 2014 []
  15. ibid Gržini? 2014 []
Zanny Begg works as an artist, organiser and curator. She has exhibited and widely and participated in residencies internationally. She was the director of Tin Sheds Gallery (2010-2014) and is currently employed as an academic at the College of Fine Arts, UNSW.