Boom times pushing regional towns to the limit

As Queensland rides the wave of riches pouring into the state from the latest mining boom, the rapid growth is having unintended consequences for many rural towns.

ABC’s Background briefing program travelled to Moranbah, 200 kilometres west of Mackay, to see first hand a community struggling under the weight of its mineral wealth.

Built 40 years ago by the Utah Development Company to take advantage of nearby coal deposits, Moranbah is in the grip of its second mining boom, which has sent property prices soaring and is stretching local infrastructure to breaking point.

While the boom has brought wealth for some, the fly-in-fly-out (FIFO) nature of the workforce means the non-mining parts of the town are struggling to survive.

The sign on the road leading into Moranbah proclaims it’s the capital of the coalfields. This is the town that former premier, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, told the Utah Mining Company it must build if it wanted to mine for coal.

And now, 40 years later, the way mining is done is completely different. Moranbah is in the thick of a new coal rush. Huge new mines are opening up and the town is in a real estate feeding frenzy.

Wendy Carlisle in Moranbah


Long-time residents say the workers are stripping the area of its sense of community, and are angry the State Government has sidelined their interests to accommodate resource companies.

The police station is short staffed as affordable housing for officers is nearly impossible to find. In the new town square, the toyshop is on the verge of closure, and the dress shop is closing down.

The fruit market is on its last legs and the bakery and coffee shop have closed early because of staffing issues. Even KFC was feeling the pinch, with shorter opening hours.

One of the most high-profile casualties is the women’s clothing boutique Boalywood, which is shutting its doors after 22 years in business.

The store is an icon of the region, and counted former Queensland premier Anna Bligh and Prime Minister Julia Gillard among its visitors, but owner Ruth Boal says she can no longer afford to stay open.

“I have lost over 200 customers. Sometimes it’s up to five a day that we hear that are leaving. Leanne [her assistant] will say, ‘So-and-so’s leaving, so-and-so’s leaving,’ and it’s just so very, very sad,” she said.

“One lady did tell me that since I’m closing this, I’m breaking the spine of Moranbah. That hurt a lot, but I did give the ladies of Moranbah and the surrounding areas a shopping experience like you could get nowhere else in Australia.”

It’s very difficult to get trained staff. Particularly for the tyre shop we have to train our own. I’ve only just got another mechanic; it’s taken me over six months to find another mechanic. I’ve got to try and provide them housing, which is just an outright impossibility, to find housing.

In the six years I’ve been here, you can feel Moranbah is becoming an oversized camp compared to a community town.

Dave Clayton, Moranbah mechanic


The boom is also changing the face of the town, with apartments and houses springing up to take advantage of weekly residential rents that can run into the thousands.

New rules allow developers to buy houses, demolish them and put up small apartments, and a proposed 5,000-person mining camp will encroach on the limited space left for residential expansion.

Ms Boal says the new laws are evidence of the Government ignoring the interests of Moranbah residents.

“There’s houses with units going up in backyards. If you drive around, it is not the Moranbah of 12 months ago. Five years ago the council would not even allow anyone to put a caravan in the yard … and now they don’t give a flying rat’s of what goes on in these yards,” she said.

“There’s houses with units at the back, the sides, everywhere – All full of men.”

‘Full of men’

The number of male workers came up regularly during conversations with residents.

Karen, who works at the Moranbah Motor Inn, says she is considering selling up and moving closer to Mackay.

She says while the move is partly to take advantage of the spike in real estate prices, the sheer number of men in the town makes her uncomfortable.

“It’s just starting to turn into a big camp. No, the town’s just not what it used to be. And all the people that have lived here for a long time, they’re all leaving,” she said.

“Nobody likes it here anymore. I don’t have a problem with the contractors. It’s just the whole town’s just turning into a big camp with men everywhere and wherever you go there’s just heaps of men.

“We’ve got men living in the house next door to us, a lot of contractors. If you go out for dinner, it’s just full of men. I mean, most of them are probably married anyway – I’m not putting it that way. I just don’t like a town full of men, and when you’ve got little kids and they’re getting around it’s a worry.”

There is no evidence that the kids in Moranbah are in danger, but there has been independent research to show that mining towns in Queensland and WA are more violent than before, and the roads are full of fatigued drivers, driving home hundreds of kilometres after their shifts.

Doctors get the feeling that there certainly are increasing numbers of presentations at the emergency department at the hospital, after hours-type presentations where there’s either been drinking or just reckless behaviour of some kind; people getting into fights, people possibly taking drugs and so on.

Unfortunately no one looks at that and you take that back to possibly the fact that these are young men who possibly have more time on their hands than they should have.

They don’t have families to go back home to, and they don’t have a stake in the community.

Laura Terry, Moranbah Medical Centre practice manager


The mining companies might disagree, but not many dispute that Moranbah has gone from being a family town to a man’s town.

The blame for this shift is being laid at the feet of the recently deposed Bligh government, with residents saying their interests are being overlooked in favour of those of the mining companies.

No one really knows how many non-resident workers there are at any one time in the Bowen Basin.

The 2006 census, the most recent available, found that 20 per cent of people in Moranbah on census night were visitors.

But that number is now way out of date. In truth, no one really knows, but according to research done by KPMG, non-residents will overtake locals by the middle of this year.

Wendy Carlisle in Moranbah


Lynnie Bush, from the Moranbah Traders Association, says the anger reached new heights after the decision by the Government to allow BMA, the BHP Mitsubishi alliance consortium, to have a 100 per cent FIFO workforce at its proposed Caval Ridge mine.

“I had never seen in 40 years so many different people on different sides of the political fence – businesses, council, unions, you name it we had it – everyone from every gamut of the profile of the community. And everyone was angry, they were all on the same page,” she said.

“The reason was because we’re all family people and we live here. Even if you don’t have kids, you live here; this is your town, and it was seen as a precedent to opening up the floodgates.”

Better way

The decision to allow a 100 per cent FIFO workforce stands in stark contrast to the regulations laid out by the Bjelke-Petersen government when the town was formed.

Anne Baker, ALP councillor on the Isaac Regional Council, says there are lessons to be learned from how Joh Bjelke-Petersen dealt with mining companies.

“One positive, and I don’t feel real comfortable saying this, but one positive thing about Joh Bjelke-Petersen was when the mining industry went to him, they were always conditioned to supply permanent residential accommodation in the communities they were in. And that’s what I see that’s not happening now,” she said.

“Definitely [I don’t want to] bring back Joh, but I do believe we can learn from each other, and while he welcomed industry, he conditioned the applications. So that’s where the whole conversation starts.”

In a 1977 Four Corners interview, Utah Mining’s Moranbah’s manager explained the company invested in the town to make it an attractive place to live, and had an employment strategy focusing on families.

“We employ approximately 80 per cent married men and 20 per cent single. When I started with the company five years ago, the proportion was about 60/40,” he said.

“We’ve gradually increased that proportion up to the current 80/20, largely following a request from the unions to increase the percentage and also from our own deliberate acts, because we believe it offers more stability and a greater opportunity for breadwinners in a family situation to find employment.”

We talked about it, moving up, but just couldn’t afford it. Yeah, you know, sell your house down there and come up here and you can’t even buy half a house.

Houses are $750,000, $800,000 – [you pay] $3000 a week rent.

You know, if they want to stop the fly-in fly-out, lower all the prices and people will move here. Yeah, we’d move here.

Brisbane-based FIFO worker


BMA declined a request for an interview, but at the time of the FIFO announcement, the Queensland Resources Council’s Michael Roche said the strategy of employing locally was unfeasible.

“So our biggest coalminer, BMA, has 1,000 vacancies they simply can’t fill,” he said.

“So if you keep trying the same old model of trying to recruit locally and having people live locally and you have 1,000 vacancies, well maybe you’ll start thinking about some other models.”

BMA says it is spending $65 million on community support initiatives, and under Queensland law, companies must now conduct social impact statements into any new mines, but residents remain sceptical the situation will improve.

Laura Terry, the practice manager at the Moranbah Medical Centre, says despite the consultations, residents’ concerns are not been listened to.

“I think the community is really starting to feel quite disillusioned. These consultants come around and consult local residents … and ask us what impact it’s going to have, and we tell them, and there’s no real change in any of the decisions that are made,” she said.


More strike action planned at BMA mines

A dispute between unions and one of the world’s biggest coal miners has escalated with more industrial action planned in central Queensland this weekend.

BHP Mitsubishi Alliance (BMA) and three unions are arguing over a new enterprise bargaining agreement.

Already workers have staged Australia’s biggest industrial action in more than a decade, stopping work at six mines for a week, interrupting production of one fifth of the world’s coking coal supply.

Russell Robertson, from the Mining Union, says the stoppages are having an impact because they are effecting the mines’ bottom line.

“We’ve applied for another stoppage again on Sunday night and another one again on Tuesday,” he said.

Workers are angry for a number of reasons, ranging from housing through to fly-in, fly-out concerns.

But Mr Robertson says safety is their biggest worry.

“Most of the safety concerns, the ability for the company to take our safety reps onto staff, it loses that safety drive,” he said.

“Workplace representation from a lot of my members has been a big thing, the lack of it in the current agreement the company has given to us; that there is no workplace representation which of course we find very important.”

The strike action comes at a time when the Fair Work Act is being reviewed.

Company executives say they need to have fewer restrictions imposed on them by unions and not more if they are going to remain competitive internationally.

And Mr Robertson admits the current action in central Queensland may not help the union cause.

“I’m not sure about whether it helps but again we’re about protecting our members and it’s driven by our members,” he said.

“Our members have requested this so we’re acting on their wishes.”

BMA declined an interview with ABC Radio’s PM, but it released a letter in the local paper directed at employees and it talks about there being no winners from the action.

It says that it is continuing to offer to increase pay by 15 per cent over three years and to guarantee a $15,000 bonus every year.

The company points out that it needs to remain competitive if it is going to continue to be one of the remaining successful sectors in the economy.