For all the stories of Australia being forged “on the sheep’s back” it is mining that also parallels our history. Our cities, immigration, economy and cultural development are all mirrored in mining booms and busts.
This three part documentary series from Renegade Productions seeks to encapsulate all the major turning points over 150 years and it manages to make the yarn entertaining despite the fact that dirt and minerals are at its heart.
It begins in Melbourne in the 1850s when a gold rush made a fledgling city the fastest growing in the world. Men turned their lives around with the discovery of gold, just inches from the ground, most notably around Ballarat. Still thousands more threw caution to the wind in the pursuit of riches, creating a new class of citizens: fossickers, travellers, gamblers, prostitutes who lived in tent cities on the fields and in the city.
Chinese immigrants came in their thousands triggering the first race riots and leading to political acts that would eventually become the White Australia policy. Multiculturalism was at a pioneering crossroads, but it detoured down a terrible path for decades.
There are yarns about early entrepreneurs, stories of conflict between Europeans and Chinese and hardship by those determined to change their lot.
Another boom arises in Kalgoorlie in the 1890s. In addition to its reputation for gold and brothels, there was also the building of the massive 530km water pipeline from Mundaring Weir to Kalgoorlie.
Yet another boom begins in the 1950s when Lang Hancock discovered the world’s largest iron ore deposit while flying over the Pilbara. A contract that was signed -without a sunset clause- not only ensured his wealth, but has since seen his daughter Gina become the richest woman in the world.
The first episode also touches upon the establishment of Broken Hill Proprietary, including how one-fourteenth of the company’s shares were lost in a gambling wager.
It also touches upon Federation, Indigenous rights, and -in the toppling of Kevin Rudd as PM- suggests that the mining industry is more powerful than government itself.
It also doesn’t go unnoticed that China returns as a major player in the mining industry, by financing transportation, foreign ownership and our trading partner exports. It’s an ironic twist on the way the industry attempted to shut the door on early prospectors.
The series draws upon historians, archival material and contemporary footage, all linked together by Colin Friels adding gravitas as narrator.
SBS has previously screened important documentaries in the new year to considerable success, such as Once Upon a Time in Cabramatta and Immigration Nation. Presuming it capitalises on less competition from other networks, there’s no reason to think this one should be any less successful.
Based on the production from Renegade, it deserves to be.
Dirty Business: How Mining Made Australia Sunday, 6 January at 8.30pm on SBS ONE.