Posts Tagged ‘industry’

Opels Lose Their Luster

Friday, March 23rd, 2012

Australia’s historic opal industry dying off

By Brigid Andersen

Updated March 22, 2012 01:40:41

As the mining boom roars on, a small, historic part of the industry has been forgotten.

The vast, arid gem fields of South Australia, New South Wales and Queensland are some of the few places in the world where opals can be found.

But this iconic piece of Australian history is being killed off as tourism figures decline and the number of people taking up the opal mining trade plummets.

Kev Phillips has been mining opals in Queensland since the 1980s and says he is struggling to see a future for the industry.

“It’s a very colourful industry; we’ve got people from all walks of life, doctors, teachers, immigrants, it’s classic,” he said.

It’s not an occupation, it’s a vocation. It’s very seldom people in their life can find something that they love.

Opal miner Kev Phillips

“It’s a fantastic sort of industry and it’ll be a tragedy to lose this iconic way of life and the people involved.

“But it is happening.”

He jokes of how he was born with a natural love for gems.

“As a child I’ve had a genetic interest – coming from a long line of criminals – in gemstones,” he said.

He says it is love not money that moves people to some of the hottest, remote parts of the country to dig for opals.

“It’s not an occupation, it’s a vocation,” he said.

“It’s very seldom people in their life can find something that they love.

“You wouldn’t do it for the money.

“I’d earn more money working for the coal seam gas companies.”

He says young people interested in opal mining are now lured away by the fat pay cheques offered by big mining companies.

And Mr Phillips says many of the older opal miners have been forced out of business by a mountain of fees and paperwork imposed by state governments.

“In this term of the Bligh Government we have seen fee increases and legislation pushed through without any consultation whatsoever,” he said.

“They’ve imposed these costs and now we have to just live with them, which is deterring small scale mining from progressing and being a substantial part of the economics of regional Queensland.”

Mr Phillips, who is also head of the Queensland Small Miners Council, says opal miners have been unfairly restricted by laws aimed at the coal seam gas industry.

“We’re only very low impact operations generally, we have to rehabilitate our sites,” he said.

“We had an interest in being involved in this new legislation but the Department didn’t even contact us to see how these new laws for coal seam gas would affect our industry.

“We met with (Queensland Environment Minister) Kate Jones and she more or less implied to us about our concerns that we were environmental vandals and put us in the same boat.

“We were astonished.”

He says unless legislation is wound back, the future for all small miners is bleak.

“It’s not only opal, it’s sapphires and small gold miners,” he said.

“For us it’s been a way of life.

“It’s a lifestyle that’s historical part of Queensland’s identity since day dot.

“What’s happening is the Government is slowly taking away that right in favour of large mining with unionised staff.”

Away from the rough mining camps of inland Australia, the opal trade is also struggling on the tourist glitter strips of the coast.

Marketed as Australia’s national gemstone, opals have always been a hit with overseas visitors.

I’ve been doing this for 25 years and this is definitely the toughest period that I’ve seen.

Opal retailer Scott Coggan

But with tourist numbers dropping since the global financial crisis, the economies of tourist centres like Cairns and the Gold and Sunshine coasts are hurting.

Scott Coggan, an opal cutter and manager of Opals Down Under on the Sunshine Coast, says times are tough for opal retailers.

“I’ve been doing this for 25 years and this is definitely the toughest period that I’ve seen,” he said.

Mr Coggan says the industry is facing a massive change.

“It’s a different type of tourist that we’re getting through. For us here on the Sunshine Coast the Americans that are not travelling here at the moment, that’s certainly made a big dent,” he said.

“We’ve had to change tack and look at other avenues. We’re predominantly targeting a lot of the interstate markets – a lot of Sydney, Melbourne people, the younger market.”

He is confident the industry can survive the retail slump, so long as the mining trade can attract some young blood.

“The biggest challenge for the industry is getting some incentive for young people to get into the mining sector,” he said.

“Anyone that was doing that has now headed off to the resources boom. They can get a steady $100,000 pay cheque without risking their lives underground.”

Mr Phillips agrees.

He says unless the Government steps in, the colourful existence of the opal miner will be consigned to Australia’s history.

“For the small battler like myself that came through the ranks and had an interest in gemstones as a child and got into it as a hobby and then a career path – for it to be over-regulated as it is is just taking that right away,” he said.

“It’s a tragic day for our country when that happens.”

Topics: mining-industry, industry, business-economics-and-finance, mining-rural, states-and-territories, tourism, opalton-4735, qld, australia, quilpie-4480

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