Lang Hancock.

For many, modern mining conjures up images of fly-in, fly-out workers, scarred landscapes and cashed-up bogans, with vague notions of learning to drive a dump truck in order to make a quick buck up north.

The true significance of mining to this country is brought to vivid life in an absorbing three-part series on SBS, Dirty Business: How Mining Made Australia.

Colourfully narrated by Colin Friels, archival footage, newspaper clippings and animated reconstructions are slickly combined to show how mining is at the core of Australia's development.

WA features strongly, as the series looks at the gold rush in Kalgoorlie, the State's push to secede, C.Y. O'Connor's pipeline, the rise of Lang Hancock and the violent conflict at Noonkanbah over drilling in sacred sites.

It is vital viewing for West Australians interested in the extraordinary and often unexpected impact of mining on this State.

Shots of Australia's modern, glossy cities punctuate the turbulent tale of the booms and busts behind their growth. Throughout the series, various experts, including WA historian Geoffrey Bolton, offer their own nuggets of knowledge.

"Many people in Australia take a very short-term view of the mining industry," he told me via phone.

"They see it as the saviour galloping to our economic rescue over the past 20 to 30 years. But ever since gold was discovered in the 1850s in NSW and Victoria, on more than one occasion, mining has given an essential boost to the economy."

Professor Bolton, who was a consultant on the series, has given it his nod of approval. "It makes a fair fist of compressing the history of mining, given the complexity of the subject," he said.

"Rather than a linear approach, the documentary looks at a different theme in each episode - money, power and land."

The series effectively illustrates how our mining history is rich in irony, as well as iron ore. For instance, it was a catalyst for women getting the vote, but inspired a concurrent boom in sex trafficking.

The race riots of Lambing Flat, in NSW, in 1861 saw violent demonstrations explode against the Chinese, who are now bolstering the Australian economy through their demand for coal and iron ore.

Perhaps the biggest irony comes in the third episode. It puts forward the view that though in the past mining has wrenched Aboriginal lands away, it now provides the best hope for many indigenous communities. "This episode is likely to be the most debated and contentious," Professor Bolton said.

It is also the most gripping and disturbing, as it traces the David and Goliath battle over land between Aboriginals, mining companies and government.

Professor Bolton said the series made an effort to show not all miners were wicked capitalists.

"Australia has done a reasonable job of persuading international companies they should be interested in the benefit and wellbeing of Australians, and not just digging big holes. It will be interesting to see if new investors conform to a similar code of conduct," he said.

With its sweeping view of history, the series is likely to spark debate about everything from the social implications of mining to how best to invest the profits of the current boom.

Professor Bolton said earlier booms resulted in development of very fine infrastructure. "The series shows how the development of 'Marvellous Melbourne' in the 1880s was the result of wealth generated by gold," he said.

"It would be wise for us to see what we can develop while the good times last. It is important to have a highly educated workforce, to develop downstream industries and make sure we have sound permanent assets such as museums and art galleries and public welfare.

"I would hate to see the only monument to the mining boom being McMansions in the posher suburbs."


The West Australian

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