Saturday, February 4, 2017
Because people like me have spent so much time over the past decade and more banging on about the resources boom, we've probably left many people with an exaggerated impression of the sector's importance.
It's true that, thanks to a quadrupling in the value of its physical capital, mining now accounts for about 7 per cent of our total production of goods and services (gross domestic product), compared with less than 5 per cent in 2004, at the start of the boom.
But 7 per cent ain't all that much, and if you measure mining by how much of our workforce it employs, it's even less: 2 per cent.
That's just 230,000 people, about as many as are employed in the arts and recreation.
It compares with 300,000 workers in agriculture, 400,000 in financial services, 800,000 in accommodation and food services, 900,000 in manufacturing, almost a million in education, a million in construction, another million in professional services, 1.2 million in retailing and 1.5 million in healthcare.
Still think the economy revolves around mining?
How can an industry account for 7 per cent of our production but only 2 per cent of our jobs? Because it's so "capital intensive" - it uses a lot of expensive equipment, but not many humans.
Because it employs so few people directly, the industry is always paying "independent" economic consultants to estimate how many people it employs "indirectly" as dollars earned from mining are spent in other parts of the economy.
This is always a good way to impress judges - who know a lot about law, but little about economics - when you're trying to persuade them to let you despoil the environment.
It's true that money earned from mining has a "multiplier effect" when spent. But it's just as true of money earned from any other industry. Or money spent by the government.
Normally I'd be happy to defend an industry against the idea that it didn't contribute much because its capital intensity meant it directly employed few workers.
That's because what matters most is how much income the industry earns from its production. When that income is spent - by employees, suppliers, tax-receiving governments or profit-earning shareholders - jobs will be created somewhere in the economy.
In the case of mining, however, there's weakness in the argument. Our mining industry is about 80 per cent foreign-owned - mainly by BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto and Glencore - which, in econospeak, adds a huge "leakage" to the "circular flow of income" around our economy.
(Another leakage is that most of the heavy equipment the miners and natural gas producers use is imported.)
If most of the profits made by our (highly profitable) mining industry don't belong to us and end up being spent in some other economy, this greatly reduces the economic benefit we get.
Which makes it doubly important the mining companies are paying a fair rate of tax on their earnings in Oz.
Here, the industry often pays "independent" economic consultants to write reports showing what huge amounts of tax it pays.
But these usually rely on the legal fiction that the minerals royalties the miners pay to state governments are a tax. In economics, a tax is something you pay the government for nothing specific in return (if you are paying for something specific, it's a "user charge").
Royalties are a user charge. The miners are buying access to valuable mineral deposits owned by us. Royalties are levied on different bases but, overall, they're probably charging less than the minerals are worth.
So the miners shouldn't expect brownie points for paying for the minerals we hand over to them. The Rudd government did try to ensure we taxed their profits more fairly and adequately but, as you recall, the miners objected and so Tony Abbott abolished what was left of the tax.
But, whatever their profits, they're paying 30 per cent of them in company tax, right? Right in theory but, as we've realised, in practice not so much.
Our big foreign mining companies are heavily into minimising the tax they pay by moving profits offshore, claiming to do their "marketing" in Singapore, where the tax rate is lower.
All of which makes you wonder how well we do from our foreign-dominated mining industry, considering all the environmental and economic disruption we have to put up with.
But it's worse than that. Our politicians, state and federal, are so desperate to create the temporary appearance of progress and jobs that mining projects bring - and, no doubt, to say thanks for the generous political donations the miners make - that they often use the offer of hefty subsidies to attract them.
The subsidy comes in the form of governments building railways, ports and other infrastructure on the miners' behalf. (Not to mention the federal government's exemption of mining from paying the diesel fuel excise, worth billions a year.)
Take the Indian Adani company's proposed Carmichael coal mine in central Queensland, which is so huge it would lower the world price of coal, to the disadvantage all existing Australian coal miners.
Queensland's Newman government was so keen to use the project as proof of progress it offered Adani a "royalty holiday". Now the Turnbull government is offering a $1 billion-plus concessional loan in the name of developing Northern Australia.
Both the miners and the politicians indignantly deny the industry receives any subsidies. But that's not what the West Australian and Queensland treasuries say in their submissions to the Commonwealth Grants Commission, revealing how poor the mining companies keep them.
If the nation is ahead on the mining deal, it ain't by a lot.