A distinct Australian identity is developing in the west. It comes from the Pilbara as a product of the mining industry, along with iron ore and our ‘comparative advantage'. By propping up Australia's economy in hard times, the mining industry is shaping notions of what this land is good for. It's a strong and masculine image: almost half the population of the Pilbara is employed in mining and construction, and 85 per cent of the workforce is male. That new romantic image of the west was depicted in the cinema success of 2011, partly funded by mining royalties: Red Dog without a master, a wanderer and a loyal mate to homesick miners, misfits and those trying to make an honest buck. This is an Australia where the land is gutted by big machines, where sweat and red dirt paint white men a violent colour. Politicians tell us that this is how Australia survives – it's what keeps us strong while Europe and America teeter on the precipice of financial collapse. The mining companies tell the Traditional Owners that this is the best hope for Indigenous advancement, as though it's this or nothing.
When you head north of the Pilbara there is a different rhythm. The Kimberley spans 420,000 square kilometres, most of it strikingly beautiful. Even the mining industry there has a distinctly feminine orientation. Kimberley miners dig for the ingredients of jewellery, not steel – around nine-tenths of the world's pink diamonds come from Kimberley rocks. Pearls are farmed in its oceans, and the land is now turning fragrant. After forty years of unprofitable crop experimentation Kununurra growers discovered sandalwood, which produces a precious base oil used for perfume and incense. Locals joke that a bushfire would kill every mozzie in the Kimberley with the scent. Diamonds, pearls, sandalwood and the supporting industries constitute more than half of the Kimberley's economy. The national narrative is of dirty fuels and brute strength, but the Kimberley thrives on sweetness, beauty and decoration.
First publishes in Griffith REVIEW Edition 36: What is Australia For?