Reviewed by Norrie Sanders
“The first sign of a boom is always the same: strangers. From nowhere they appear, first in drips, then as a flood. They are people in fluoros and suits no one has seen before. As more follow, there are more cars on the road and more car accidents, and, eventually, when they have a feel for what is happening, the company men come calling to talk business.”
Boom and Bust is a deceptively simple book. Focusing on the historically large mining boom that began around 2003, each chapter tells the story of one or two people whose lives were entwined with the boom and its aftermath. Some are famous – politicians and mining magnates – but most are not. They each tried to ride the giant wave, but many were dumped unceremoniously.
There is so much material out there that the author has chosen to limit the subject matter to iron ore mining in Western Australia – although the cover suggests a more comprehensive review. This is not limiting because many of the themes are nationally applicable – real estate oscillations, FIFO controversies, two speed economies and winners and losers.
The usual suspects of high profile are former Premier Colin Barnett, Nationals leader Brendan Grylls and billionaire miners Gina Reinhart and Andrew Forrest. Their chapters fill in some background for those unfamiliar with Western Australian affairs and demonstrate that their own lives have seen, if not quite boom and bust, then triumph and rejection.
One of the most compelling stories is that of Michael Woodley , CEO of the Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation. His battles with Fortescue Metals CEO Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest invoke David and Goliath. The descriptions of Forrest’s negotiating tactics provide an interesting counterpoint to his media persona as a benefactor to indigenous people.
“When the Yindjibarndi pulled the pin on FMG’s survey team in lieu of a better offer, the terms of a ten year fight were drawn: on one side was a company that at the time could boast a trading income of $201 million and…against them was the Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation with a reported income in 2008 of $115,705, which was fighting to use its land in modern ways without giving up what they considered to be their best traditions”.
Valuable insights come from the battlers and opportunists who share their travails and philosophies. Most are FIFO (fly in fly out) workers who can suddenly find themselves earning $250,000 each year. And for weeks on end, at an isolated site, having nowhere to spend it. Amongst others, we meet, mother of three Alice, who loathes FIFO; Dom the saver and his mate, Pete the big spender.
“[Pete] was one of those guys you hear about who blew every single cent minting new memories, and he refuses to apologise for any of it. Whether it was clubbing, or booze, or women, or the casino, that money meant freedom and he’d do anything he wanted, whenever he wanted, until his bank account was demolished”.
We soon learn that the workers have widely differing takes on what to do with the money. Royce’s selection of stories leave the reader feeling that a lot was wasted, or, in economic terms – boosted consumer spending. Even those who saved had only a short window of opportunity – the boom may have been ten years, but job turnover was on a much shorter cycle.
Ironically, during the boom many Australians became poorer. Their purchasing power was diminished as house values skyrocketed and goods and services in high demand outstripped wages in the non-mining sectors.
The title is ambiguous. It implies a linearity to the book where a single boom is followed by a single bust. But in the mining hubs of Perth and the Pilbara, we learn that it is a repeating cycle and risk/reward is a way of life in a state economy so dependent on one industry. More importantly, many of the stories cover similar time periods, so that we see similar events from different perspectives.
All but one of the chapters is about people, with limited space for analysis. The exception is a story of the very last Holden to roll off the Elizabeth (Adelaide) production line. It is a more reflective chapter with a roller-coaster ride through tariffs, taxes, manufacturing and macroeconomics. Similarly, the story on economist James O’Neil is a clever way to introduce the rise of China as a global benefactor to Australian mining. The final story begins with a couple that the author meets in a Perth casino, whose conversation segues to a brief authorial reflection on gambling and mining.
Perhaps in a nod to journalistic tradition, Royce lets the stories do the work but retains a subtle authorial voice. This is commendable, but the diverse perspectives of the subjects leaves contradictions and gaps. To be fair, the mining boom affected millions of people uniquely and it is an impossible task to tell each story or to provide a universal synthesis.
Hachette tells us that “Royce Kurmelovs is a journalist and writer whose work has been published by the ABC, CNN, BBC, Al Jazeera English, VICE, The Guardian and other publications. Royce’s bestselling first book, The Death of Holden, was published in 2016 and his critically acclaimed second book, Rogue Nation, was published in 2017. Boom and Bust is his third book.”
Boom and Bust could be read many ways and that may have been Royce’s intention. To some, it will have the ring of an anti-capitalist manifesto. To others it will point to the virtues of free enterprise, entrepreneurs and hard work. In selecting his subjects and in sifting out the material on each, the book succeeds in making us think, without launching into a polemic about the evils of money or the virtues of deregulation. This reviewer made no attempt to score the pros and cons presented, but there is a feeling of balance by the last page.
The final chapter is entitled “The House always wins” and we might ask who the house is? Is it the magnates and other smart operators (“Boom or bust, the house of Hancock always wins”)? Perhaps the government? Surely not the workers? One thing is certain, the inflows of foreign funds to Australia – whether as investment, infrastructure or payments for goods – was immense. The big question is whether we used it wisely? Royce astutely implies that the jury is still out.
by Royce Kurmelovs