The Magpie Whisperer
Lithgow people are used to the ups and downs of a coal-based economy. Prices plummet. Production slows down. Coal miners get laid off. Months later, prices rise. The phone rings. Miners grab their helmets and go back to work. We’re in one of those slumps now. But, this time, it’s different. Coal is imbedded in the culture and image of Lithgow, but the industry is declining in the region. The utility companies have made their multi-million dollar decisions, and it’s too late to turn back. Coal miners, who have known coal through the generations, are being left behind.
The politicians and industry heavyweights resort to rhetoric and finger-pointing. The coal miners, however, are left with few options but to adapt. And no matter how bad things have been in the region, they’ll probably get worse, even if the Springvale mine extension gets the green light. For more than 150 years the region has been defined by the coal industry, but over recent years, hundreds of mine and energy workers have been laid off, and operations shut down. For miners to dedicate their time to retraining programs – or even think about moving away – they have to finally accept that what’s going on is different from economic slumps in the past. For many, this is where generations of their family have lived, and they feel a connection with the region. Leaving is a last resort.
The current situation also has miners wondering who they should blame. Blaming politicians for the introduction of tighter environmental controls and stricter mine safety regulations, or for failing to diversify the economy to help cushion the blow of coal’s slow decline, isn’t going to help now. The coal industry is simply not going to rebound this time – that’s the reality. There have been and will continue to be local summits to bring people together to discuss the region’s future, and to build public-private partnerships to improve the local economy. Coal is a victim of the same market forces our politicians champion in healthcare and banking, and no politician or policy is ever going to bring back coal’s glory days. Whatever the final decision, Springvale should be seen as the region’s ‘canary in the coal mine’ – the incentive to break with the past, retool local infrastructure, and – with special care given to the people who are unsettled by the transition – reinvigorate efforts to create a post-coal prosperity for Lithgow.