Africa News blog
African business, politics and lifestyle
By Clyde Russell
The idea that Australia is a more dangerous place for mining investment than Mali might seem strange to most observers, but that’s exactly the view of the boss of the world’s third-biggest gold producer.
Mark Cutifani, the chief executive officer of AngloGold Ashanti, said last week he was more concerned about government policies toward mining in Australia than about nationalism in Africa.
On the face of it, this is an extraordinary comment that has gone largely unreported by both the Australian and international media.
How can it possibly be that Australia, a stable Western democracy with rule of law, independent courts and a culture of vigorous debate, is a more risky place than countries like Mali, which had a military coup last month and is battling an insurgency by Tuareg separatists?
Of course, it may be that Cutifani, an Australian-born mining engineer who has headed the Johannesburg-based company since October 2007, was ramping up the rhetoric to make a point when he talked to reporters on March 27 in Perth, capital of the resource-rich state of Western Australia.
But this would appear to be at odds with his previous record of speaking sensibly about the gold-mining industry while remaining an advocate of the interests of his global company.
The point Cutifani was probably trying to drive home is that the debate in Australia over its vast mineral resources appears to have veered off-track and descended into political point-scoring.
“The politicians and we as industry leaders are missing each other,” the Australian Associated Press quoted him as saying. “Somehow, we’ve got to land this discussion and stop the class warfare-type conversations and turn the conversations into constructive dialogue about the future of the country and the industry.”
To be fair, Cutifani has also lobbied against proposals for a resource rent tax in South Africa and moves to raise taxes in other African countries where AngloGold operates, such as Ghana and Mali.
But for Australia, the background to his comments is an intensifying war of words between Wayne Swan, the treasurer in the Labor Party-led minority government, and mining magnates over the new Mineral Resource Rent Tax (MRRT) and the carbon tax.
Both these taxes are due to start on July 1 and have raised the ire of many industries and the opposition Liberal Party.
The MRRT will impose a 30 percent levy on so-called super profits of large coal and iron ore, and doesn’t yet include other producers such as gold miners.
The carbon tax will impose a price of A$23 on the emissions of the top 500 polluters, to be phased in, while reducing income taxes for poorer households in order to offset the expected increase in energy costs.
The Labor Party, which has slumped in opinion polls partly over public disquiet over the new taxes and a broken promise not to introduce a carbon tax by Prime Minister Julia Gillard, appears to be following the tactic of stoking the politics of envy as a distraction method.
Since the financial crisis that sparked the global recession in 2008 it has been easy for politicians to attack the rich and blame untrammeled greed for the economic carnage.
In Australia, the target is billionaire mining barons and Swan attacked iron ore magnates Gina Rinehart and Andrew Forrest as well as coal developer Clive Palmer in an essay published last month.
Interestingly enough, Swan didn’t attack BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto, the two global miners that led initial opposition to a stiffer resource tax that was watered down after Gillard deposed former prime minister Kevin Rudd in a party-room coup.
Swan accused the billionaires of trying to use their wealth to “distort public policy,” apparently without any sense of irony, given that he was using his position as the second-most powerful politician in Australia to do the same.
It seems to me that Australia would benefit from a more sensible debate on how to ensure the mineral wealth is developed in a way that rewards the owners of capital that take the risks of developing projects as well the overall economy and citizens in general.
Debate in Australia appears to be driven by short-term political cycles, with federal elections every three years leading politicians to focus more on spin than sound policies.
Is the MRRT the best design that could have been implemented?
Will it raise sufficient revenue without leading to less investment, and will it help ensure the long-term viability of mining?
Should the revenue it raises be used to fund a one percentage point cut in the company tax rate, as Labor proposes, or would it be better put toward building a sovereign wealth fund?
These are all valid points for debate, but aren’t getting a hearing in Australia currently.
Instead, as AngloGold’s Cutifani pointed out, there is an unedifying mud-slinging match that does little to enhance the reputations of either Swan or his targets.
There has been some excellent writing and drama from South Africa over the years, and much of it is serious stuff.
One thinks perhaps of Athol Fugard and J.M. Coetzee. Even the titles — Sizwe Bansi is Dead and Disgrace — convey a certain gravitas, at the very least.
The pivotal marketing position when South Africa were still bidding for the 2010 World Cup was the assertion it would be a tournament for all of the continent. ‘Africa’s bid’ was the pay-off line used throughout the successful campaign.
Using famous footballing personalities from around the continent, South Africa garnered widespread support with its all-inclusive approach against their Arab rivals in the race to win the right to host the event.
It’s one of the biggest ironies in South African politics — the most loyal ANC voters are often those the party appears to have let down most bitterly.
For millions of poor, mostly black South Africans, life has barely changed since the African National Congress defeated apartheid under Nelson Mandela in 1994.