Sunday, June 27, 2010
Miners stay on guard in row over Australian 'super-tax' Investment Australia
Dispute remains unresolved as new Australian prime minister tries to defuse issue while also declaring industry must pay fair share of tax.
In the gold fields of Kalgoorlie in remote Western Australia the men from the mines are worried.
Despite the new Australian prime minister, Julia Millard, calling a temporary truce over the controversial Resource Super Profits Tax (RSPT), employees of the mining industry believe the fight is far from over.
Miners are concerned that the proposed tax, which would place a 40pc levy on all company profits above a 6pc return, would seriously dent their bottom lines.
"It's an uneasy time out here," said Chris Banasik, director of exploration at Silverlake Resources, a small gold mining company.
Of the 28,000 people who live in Kalgoorlie, the vast majority rely on the mines making money.
"No one goes to Kalgoorlie for the beaches, because there are no beaches," Banasik said.
"No one comes here for the cool weather, because in summer it is ferociously hot.
"You're here because you're in the mining industry, and the tax puts the viability of all that into question."
His concerns are mirrored in mining towns across the country, from the lofty offices of iron ore giants BHP Billiton to the small and medium sized nickel and gold operations dotted across the Outback, and analysts believe that the companies won't be happy until the RSPT is off the table completely.
Currently, mining companies in Australia pay royalties to the government levied on the amount of minerals that they remove from the ground. Under the system, when the price of iron ore rises there is no lift in government revenue.
The RSPT seeks to address that imbalance and centralise the tax on minerals.
Despite backing for the tax from economists across Australia, the miners argue that it would spell an end to the country's prosperity, wiping 100,000 jobs by 2020 and costing the industry A$60bn (£34bn) a year.
Spooked by the prospect of a big new tax, several companies have put large projects on hold, angering communities in Western Australia and Queensland that had been counting on the investment.
On Thursday, it seemed that the voice of the miners had finally been heard in Canberra, when Gillard was installed as prime minister in a brutal but bloodless coup that ousted Kevin Rudd.
The former prime minister was a champion of the RSPT and it has been widely acknowledged that his refusal to budge over the controversial tax contributed to his downfall.
Rudd's exit came amid a multi-million dollar advertising campaign by the resources industry that called on the Australian people to "keep mining strong".
Despite Rudd's argument that "Australians actually own these resources and deserve a fair share back from them", the electorate saw the tax as a populist stunt that would put jobs at risk and drive valuable investment offshore.
In an extremely rare case of the public siding with big business, the mining companies had won the PR war.
When Gillard was handed the leadership of the country, she immediately sought to defuse the dispute.
In her first press conference as prime minister, she directly addressed the controversy surrounding the tax, telling miners that she was willing to negotiate and that "the door of this government is open".
The new prime minister also cancelled an unpopular A$38m nationwide advertising campaign aimed at selling the tax to the electorate and called on the mining industry to cancel its own anti-super-tax campaign.
Mining giants BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto and the influential Minerals Council of Australia agreed, cautiously welcoming the new prime minister's fresh approach.
Hopes rose that this Welsh-born politician, whose own father had worked in the coal mines, could be coming to the aid of Australia's resources industry.
But not everyone was convinced. In the same breath that she used to declare a truce over the RSPT, Gillard warned that the mining industry must pay its "fair share" of tax.
She also failed to set a timetable for resolution of the dispute, putting off new negotiations until she names her cabinet this week.
Some miners remained wary that Gillard and her deputy Wayne Swan had supported the original RSPT proposal and that their policy could yet align with Rudd's.
"It is a positive thing that she wants to come out and negotiate and be genuine with us but she was part of the team that ambushed us," David Flanagan, the managing director of Atlas Iron, told the Australian Financial Review.
Other miners voiced similar fears, but some analysts predicted that, with an election just months away, Gillard would have to significantly lower the level of taxation to win votes back in the mining states or defer the tax entirely until after a vote.
Prof Quentin Grafton, professor of economics at the Australian National University in Canberra, said the mining companies had nothing to lose by continuing their offensive.
"The mining industry won't accept this new tax unless it is not going to increase the take that the government gets from its profits, which completely defeats the purpose.
"The new prime minister made it clear that she is prepared to negotiate, which indicates that there will be some backdown."
Ross Louthean, a resources expert from Perth, said he had never seen the mining industry so united and so angry.
"There was no chance of a deal with Rudd and now there's a small chance that there will be a compromise and a solution with Gillard.
"She is smart and she is a tough talker but the resolve of the mining companies is very strong."
See FULL ARTICLE