An inquiry into the impact of commuting workforces in regional communities has advocated a number of controversial policy measures.
The Regional Australia Committee report on fly in, fly out (FIFO) and drive in, drive out (DIDO) workers, ‘Cancer of the Bush or Salvation for our Cities’, sparked a mixed response from individuals, local and state governments, employer organisations, industry groups, academics and unions, receiving both praise and condemnation.
Tabled on 13 February by Regional Australia Committee chairman Tony Windsor MP, the Federal Member for New England, the report detailed 21 recommendations to government – and 12 suggestions to industry – including better resources for communities pressured by FIFO or DIDO work practices, and the removal of tax benefits for companies using transient workforces.
Mr Windsor said the committee believed the report’s recommendations and suggestions could facilitate stronger inland regional communities alongside a strong resources industry.
“It is a pro-regional Australia report that calls for the mining industry to value regional Australia as much as regional Australia values the industry as a major employer and contributor to the wealth of this nation,” he said.
“I hope the government and industry can work collaboratively to fix an issue that is causing serious problems in some country towns.”
Mr Windsor said that the subsidisation of FIFO/DIDO work practices through taxation concessions to mining companies diminished workers’ capacity to choose to live and work in regional mining communities.
“The Mayor of Kalgoorlie called the workforce practice of ‘fly-in, fly-out/ drive-in, drive out’ a ‘cancer of the bush’,” he said.
“He claimed, and many others agreed, that it is eroding the way of life in traditional mining communities like Kalgoorlie, Karratha, Mount Isa, Broken Hill and Moranbah.” Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union national president Tony Maher said the report had exposed the serious shortcomings of FIFO/DIDO, and that miners should have to demonstrate there were no practical alternatives before being allowed to fly in temporary
workforces for projects.
“Mining companies once built towns and invested in communities,” he said. “But we have seen a boom in FIFO and DIDO across regional areas in Queensland, across Western Australia and even in NSW, simply because it’s cheaper,” he said.
“Over time we are seeing the fallout from FIFO – diminishing services in regional areas, social discord with large groups of single men camped on the edge of country towns, and the growing failure of mining companies to invest in training for young Australians.
“It’s time the mining companies were held to account for the damage they are inflicting on regional communities, workers and their families.”
“This report is a good start and has made some welcome recommendations,” he said. However, Minerals Council of Australia (MCA) chief executive Mitch Hooke said the report should be treated with a “deal of scepticism”, and that the MCA would oppose any changes to the taxation of FIFO that added to the cost of doing business.
A demographic profile of the resident population in nine mining regions – released on 4 February for the MCA – showed that on the whole, mining resident populations were increasing and diversifying.
“The findings debunked a number of myths and anecdotal claims – many of which are perpetuated in the committee report – about the impact of the mining sector on regional Australia,” Mr Hooke said.
“Mining and FIFO is not hollowing out the regions in which it operates – it is boosting incomes, attracting families and reducing unemployment.”
The KPMG report found that in the five years to 2011, the population of Australia’s mining regions had grown at 1.5 per cent per year; the same as the national average, but greater than the 0.8 per cent for regional Australia generally.
“This punches a hole in the claims that, with the increase in fly-in, fly-out employees, mining regions are not increasing in population size,” Mr Hooke said. “Employees are flying in, flying out, and moving to the mining regions.”
Australian Mines and Metals
Associated chief executive Steve Knott has also slammed the report’s proposals – which could strip tax breaks from both miners and FIFO workers in regional Australia – and also raised fears that the plan could be used to offset the mining tax shortfall and raise government revenue. Mr Knott told The Australian newspaper that building a highly skilled, mobile workforce for shifting industry demands should be the top priority, “not labelling FIFO a ’cancer’ and further taxing the resource industry and its workforce”.