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Our mineral heritage: past, present, and looking to the future

AusIMM Bulletin
· 2500 words, 10 min read

This is an edited excerpt of a presidential address delivered at AusIMM’s 1990 Annual Conference, held in Rotorua, New Zealand

I propose to speak today about our mineral heritage. In common usage, ‘heritage’ refers to the past. It means the discoveries, the developments, the mines and the processing plants, the benefits, the consequences and the human experiences flowing from these. The history of the industry, inseparable from the history of the countries in which AusIMM operates, is a rich background of which we can all be proud.

But there is also a much wider meaning to mineral heritage. Our past has left us with the ability to create and operate world-scale enterprises generating wealth for the community, the ability to offer satisfying and challenging careers in a wide range of skills to our young people, and the willingness to follow adventurous and challenging vocations in remote areas, away from the big cities, at a time when the mentality of many is to get the most for the least effort and at the least inconvenience to themselves.

The industry continues to be the repository of the pioneer spirit and a vital contributor to
improving the life of the people in our countries. Thus, while our mineral heritage has much to do with the past, an essential part of it is how we use this rich past to build and shape our future. It is in this broader context that I am speaking today.

The Institute

AusIMM was formed in 1893 in Adelaide, South Australia. At this time the mineral industry in Australia and New Zealand had already been very active for more than 50 years: the South Australian copper discoveries, the New Zealand gold rushes from Coromandel to Otago, the great Australian gold discoveries, the Tasmanian base metal finds and the discovery of Broken Hill had all happened before AusIMM was formed. The discovery of gold in Kalgoorlie was actually in the same year. The first significant mineral discoveries in Papua New Guinea and Fiji came later, in 1922 and 1931 respectively.

At the time of giving this speech, the Institute has 39 branches: 34 in Australia, three in Papua New Guinea, one in New Zealand, and one in Fiji. At the end of 1989 there were 7840 members, including more than 200 women.

AusIMM is the association of all the technical professionals in the mineral industry. While the name, for historical reasons, mentions mining and metallurgy only, the Institute in fact embraces many other mineral and petroleum industry disciplines: geoscientists, engineers, chemical engineers, and so on.

While AusIMM represents individual professionals, the industry as such is represented by other organisations. In Australia, the Australian Mining Industry Council is the national industry organisation, the Chamber of Mines being the equivalent in the states. The members of these organisations are companies.

AusIMM is all about people, and in recognition of this are the AusIMM Awards to members.

AusIMM Awards

AusIMM Awards recognise outstanding service to the Institute, the industry, and the profession. The awards are a part of our mineral heritage. The conferring of Honorary Fellowships to ‘persons of distinction’, both within the Institute and outside, is the longest established tradition. To date 69 Honorary Fellowships have been awarded.

The Institute Medal, which is the highest award, is for ‘eminent services to the mineral, mining, metallurgical or petroleum industries’. Fifty such medals have been bestowed since 1935.

The annual President’s Award, introduced in 1974, recognises ‘some specific sphere of a technical nature rather than a managerial role’. There have been 15 Presidents Awards given so far.

More recently established awards include the Sir Willis Connolly Memorial Medal to ‘notable communicators’, given jointly by AusIMM and a group of members calling themselves the Barbarians after the patron saint of German miners, St Barbara, and the G B O’Malley Medal which is the highest award to a student member for a technical paper. So far, four and two of these medals have been awarded respectively.

The award citations and proceedings at award ceremonies, published in the AusIMM Bulletin, are a valuable biographical record.

The past

The Institute established a Mineral Heritage Committee late in 1984. The committee has
the aims of recording and preserving essential features and artefacts of the past and reminding us all that the present soon becomes past.

The first mineral heritage seminar was held in Adelaide in March 1986, the proceedings of which were published by the South Australian Department of Mines and Energy. The second seminar was held in Sydney in July 1988.

In 1987 the Institute established the Australasian Mineral Heritage Trust to support:

  • research and recording of mineral history in Australasia
  • preservation, restoration and identification of sites, equipment and the like
  • research, evaluation and categorisation of records and archival data and other information
  • establishment and support for museums, exhibitions and displays
  • encouragement of donations, bequests and legacies.

The activities of the trust were initiated with the publication of the Leslie Bradford Golden Jubilee Oration.

Both the committee and the trust maintain in close liaison with organisations such as the Australian

‘The industry continues to be the repository of the pioneer spirit and a vital contributor to improving the life of the people in our countries.’

Mining Industry Council, companies in the industry, the Chambers of Mines, the Australian Mineral Foundation and AMIRA. The subject is so vast and the effort necessary to make even modest progress so great that we cannot afford to duplicate what is being done.

Valuable work in heritage recording and preservation has been done in the past by individuals, companies and local bodies in various mining centres. One outstanding example is in Queenstown in Tasmania where a combined effort by the Mt Lyell Mining and Railway Company, the state government and the Municipality of Lyell in 1983 erected the unique plaza of sculptures by Steve Walker and other exhibits at Miners’ Siding to commemorate 100 years of mining in the vicinity of Queenstown. There are other impressive commemorative monuments and preserved relics in Australia and New Zealand including Morphetts’ Engine house at Burra, the Ivanhoe headframe at Kalgoorlie, the miners’ cottages at Moonta, the mining plant at Ballarat, the Government Battery at Coromandel and other structures here in New Zealand.

In addition to the many physical relics which can be preserved, there are also the written and oral histories. Historical accounts such as those by Professor Geoffrey Blainey in Australia and Professor John Salmon in New Zealand are invaluable.

The stories are about the successes and failures, the marvellous discoveries and the unsuccessful endeavours, those who struck it rich and those who didn’t. The stories are more about people than events and are particularly rich in the wonderful humour that is a characteristic of the people in the industry. It is not companies or organisations who do things, it is people. This is where members of the Institute must make a major contribution as a part of their responsibilities as professionals.

Members in positions of authority in mineral industry enterprises have a particular role in this. We should ensure that no company discards or destroys historical records or mining relics without making sure that those of unique value are preserved in a suitable manner. We should encourage the recording of company histories and contribute towards more general works on broader historical aspects of the industry.

Much remains to be researched and recorded about the early mineral developments, but there are also more stories waiting to be told about the more recent finds and developments: about iron ore, manganese, aluminium, oil and gas, nickel, copper and uranium, coal, mineral sands and so on. It is essential that they be told. It bears repeating that it is largely the responsibility of members of the Institute to see that this happens.

It is by knowing, respecting, and drawing inspiration from the past that we can cope with the future in a way in which our successors can in due course be proud of our achievements. It is very appropriate that New Zealand mineral heritage will be the subject of an address by G G Thornton at this conference. New Zealand has a mining history second to none and New Zealand mineral industry professionals have a proud record of contributing to the industry at home and outside their own country.

The present

The industry and AusIMM are well and active. The President in 1989, Professor Alban Lynch, inaugurated two new branches at Roxby Downs and Ok Tedi.

The anti-development and anti-mining campaigns of recent times have slowed down
and, at times, deferred mineral projects but have not stopped the industry’s growth.

This is not grounds for complacency. We in the industry have generally not been very good at overcoming the negative attitudes and establishing a positive climate of public opinion ourselves.

We have considered what has been said and come to the conclusion that much of it does not make sense. What does not make sense cannot be pursued far in our professional activities so we tend to conclude that it would also disappear in the public arena.

This is a serious misunderstanding, because in politics there is no such thing as an automatic rejection of what does not make sense. Great empires have been founded on false ideas. Given enough pressure from particular interest groups, accompanied by skilful media handling, what does not make sense has an excellent chance of becoming law affecting the industry. Much of it has.

Most of the industry’s activities take place in remote areas, a long way from the large urban population centres. The large majority of people probably never see a mine, an ore treatment plant, a smelter or a refinery, and do not have first-hand knowledge to test the validity of the misinformation so ably distributed by the opponents. Far from assuming that everybody understands what we do, we must regard it as a part of our professional responsibilities to explain our activities and the industry to the public.

Curiously, some of the opposition to today’s mineral developments is on the grounds it would interfere with relics from previous mining, which are now a part of national heritage. At Bendigo in Victoria, a group is proposing to have 40 local government areas, with a population of more than 400 000 people, declared a World Heritage area because it includes the best surviving examples of the 19th century gold rush era in the world.

By contrast, when permission is given to new mining projects, the usual conditions are that everything has to be razed to the ground at the end of mining and covered over to resemble the original conditions. No-one has so far been able to explain this paradox to me.

As I have just reviewed, AusIMM is probably more conscious than any other group of the importance of preserving our mineral heritage. This can be done sensibly, without excluding areas the size of some European countries from future mining or other economic activity. Preservation of unique features of our past does not require neglect of the present.

A part of our heritage is the responsibility to ensure that we and our successors can continue to make the great contribution to the community made by our predecessors in the past.

The future

How can we as AusIMM members live up to this responsibility?

In its now nearly 100 years of existence, AusIMM has been a highly respected body fostering technical progress and excellence and nurturing professional and ethical standards, professional education and the professional standing of its members. We must continue and strengthen all these activities. High professional and public standing and respect are essential to achieving our aims. We must work tirelessly towards this.

But in the changing political and community environment we must also become active participants in public policy formulation affecting our industry and members. Policies are becoming far too important to be left to politicians.

The key to being able to discharge our responsibilities is in ensuring that we are the premier professional body in the mineral industry. We must attract a high proportion of those eligible for membership as our members. While accurate numbers are not available, we believe that it is realistic to think in terms of doubling the membership to 15 000 over a number of years.

It is particularly important to have a high proportion of the eligible students and young graduates as our members. The present becomes the past sooner than we like; the leadership of AusIMM will soon be in the hands of today’s students.

To achieve these aims we must work relentlessly to make the Institute relevant to its members’ needs and aspirations. Greater membership will in turn make it easier to achieve this and will enable the Institute to speak with enhanced authority.

The training and education of young men and women to join the ranks of the professions has never been more important than now. We have first class people today, but the sometimes defamatory attacks against the industry by small but noisy groups create the danger that other occupations are coming to be seen as offering a higher standing in the community, particularly by those who live in the big cities. There is the danger that the mineral industry may not attract enough of the best young people in the future.

The Institute is doing something about this.

The AusIMM Education Endowment Fund established last year (1989) is now operational
and the first scholarships have been awarded. It is focused on attracting high calibre students to study the disciplines relevant to the industry and on establishing and maintaining contact between the industry and the students during their studies.

It is particularly important that the company sponsored scholarships do not stop at simply providing the money. Continuing liaison by the companies with the students is essential in gaining the greatest benefit from the investment and the effort. For scholarships that are not named, AusIMM must act in this capacity.

The Education Endowment Fund is up and running, but the effort is limited by the funds

‘The training and education of young men and women to join the ranks of the professions has never been more important than now.’


subscribed. More financial contributions are needed to build on the good beginning.

For mainly taxation reasons, the fund’s activities are at present limited to Australia. Ways need to be found to extend it to the whole area covered by the Institute.

I have already mentioned the importance of participation in public policy forums. Other organisations – AMIC, the Chambers of Mines and so on – represent the industry in this. We represent the technological professionals.

Our authority is partly in knowledge, and partly in the number of voices we are able to muster. The leaders of the Institute will speak as often possible, but we need more voices: the more the better. I urge all members of the Institute to speak up whenever they can, particularly before audiences not familiar with the industry. We must not think that our individual voices are insignificant and cannot influence the course of events.

Public opinion is the most important force in a democratic society. Our individual voices, sounded often enough, and provided there are enough of them, will add up to a powerful chorus. I conclude as I started: our heritage is as much about the future as about the past. Our industry and professions have the responsibility to continue being great contributors to the community in the future, as they have in the past; this is an essential part of our heritage.

There are forces opposing this, which must be overcome as we overcome many other difficulties and adversities in our professional lives. Success in this is largely up to ourselves, the members of the Institute.

I look forward to working with you all in meeting this challenge.

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