Australians are annoying gits, as any Englishman will attest.
We are crass, opinionated, disrespectful of authority, well-tanned and in general unencumbered by the emotional baggage of inherited privilege and rank. We bumble through life, bothering no one, achieving no great heights, but no great lows either. We are mediocre and proud of it.
It is with monotonous regularity then that that visiting Australians proclaim loudly that they come from "the lucky country". We dare not waste an opportunity to boast to all who care to listen, or who don't care to listen but can't get away in time, that we hail from the land of plenty - beautiful one day and perfect the next.
The obvious retort of "if it's so friggen good, why don't you sod off back there?" is of course entirely lost on us, as is the unfortunate fact that the adage to which we cling so dearly, is not quite what we imagined it to be.
The term "the lucky country" hails from the 1964 book of that name by Donald Horne and was in fact meant as a sneering insult as evidenced by the opening words:
"Australia is a lucky country run mainly by second-rate people who share its luck. It lives on other people's ideas and, although its ordinary people are adaptable, most of its leaders (in all fields) so lack curiosity about the events that surround them that they are often taken by surprise."
Mining has succeeded in Australia, precisely because the government was never allowed to be involved
Predictably, not wanting to let facts get in the way of a good slogan, we promptly turned it around as, after all, who wouldn't prefer to be lucky than good. But, on the other hand, history has shown us that being lucky is actually, more often than not, a bit of a curse.
Humans are, as a rule, pretty lazy beasts; we don't, in general, make an effort to do anything tricky, complicated, or tiresome unless there is some pretty damned good reason to do so, generally related to not dying a painful death.
It is no coincidence then that most of the world's great powers arose from the cold, harsh, miserable unforgiving continents but then, once risen, promptly invaded all the nice warm pleasant places for a spot of sun and some mangoes. Science and technology not only gave people something to do during the cold dark months but were a reasonably sound alternative to starvation, cholera or being slaughtered by Mongol hordes.
In contrast, tropical island paradises, where fruit falls from the trees, were quite wonderful places where no one had to work too hard, other than when trying to scratch those hard to reach places - right up until the point where lads from the previous paragraph arrived, slaughtered all the men, enslaved all the women and settled back to enjoy the view.
History tells us that hardship nearly always wins over plenty.
In theory then, Australia should be a basket case. If other countries, similarly blessed, are anything to go by, we should have long since passed through our period of riches and plenty, done a bit of a Zimbabwe or Argentina, suffered through hyperinflation, decimation of the middle classes, destruction of the economy, obliteration of our self-esteem, had a couple of revolutions, a massacre or two, seen off a couple of despotic tyrants, and finally , having written off several squillion in national debt, lopped a dozen zeros off the end of our currency and taken an IMF bailout, and be at last back on the road to redemption.
But no, in defiance of the script and the weight of historical precedent, despite a few little ups and downs, a couple of Japanese bombs and the odd moment of minor angst, Australia has, by and large, just sort of bobbed along happily at the bottom of the world, getting on with being rather harmless and ordinary.
But Australia does seem to do mining rather well, at least if the statistics are correct.
On current annual production tonnages that I see quoted about the place, it is number one in iron ore, lithium, bauxite, and titanium; number two in manganese, lead and gold; number three in diamonds and uranium, although having by a huge margin the largest reserves of the latter; number four in coal, but the largest exporter; and number five in copper and nickel, but again, with the largest resources of the latter.
Yes, there are a few things Australia doesn't do so well in but, by and large, while Canada, Brazil and Chile make brave contributions, it is very much Australia that stands head and shoulders above the pack in terms of mineral production, with daylight second.
How has it managed to sustain this?
The notion of the "resources curse" is commonly tossed about and generally refers to one or more of three possible illnesses; firstly, being naturally blessed with resources tends to divert funds and talent away from manufacturing, innovation or other longer-term sectors; second, being blessed simply makes the country fat and lazy; or lastly, light-fingered politicians nick the lot.
Australia is certainly guilty of a touch of the first two, but mercifully has managed to keep the last at bay, thus far.
Much has been written in recent weeks and months by others far more qualified and intelligent than myself about peak this or peak that. Whether it be copper or gold, or some other shiny stuff, there is the increasing realisation that, for most metals, the low hanging fruit has been plucked and from here on it gets hard.
It gets hard in the sense that in order to achieve the required level of exploration success, one now only two choices: go deep or go risky. Either start to look for things that are deep or under cover, which is expensive; or head off to the scary, unwashed parts of the world, which is often more expensive.
Yes, Australia is a big empty place, with lots of otherwise useless land that may as well be dug up but it is probably fair to say its rocks are not necessarily any better or worse than many other countries. It's success then is not so much that it has more but that explorers have found more, largely because they have bothered to go and look.
As a mining nation then, it has managed to thus far avoid the resources curse, not only by not being run by criminals, but by constantly replenishing itself. Rather than being a one-trick pony, as one mine or one commodity began to wane, up popped another to take it place.
A dear chum of mine down there is playing host next week to a visiting band of mining officialdom from a certain African nation, looking to drum up enthusiasm for their mosquito-breeding ground of a country amongst the Australian corporates and investors. He loves them dearly, and so is assisting them as he can with all the nuts and bolts of cadastres, mineral policy, base geoscience data and such like, but where he struggles is getting them to stop trying to be involved.
He points out that mining has succeeded in Australia, precisely because the government was never allowed to be involved, other than greasing the wheels back stage. But he fears this falls on deaf ears - there remains this deep-set insistence that government be on the stage in a leading role, and while that delusion remains, deep will continue to win over risky.