History in the making - healthcare wins and mining losses

As Barack Obama enjoys the thrill of history, John Key should take a look at his own party's history on mining before commiting too heavily to some big holes in the ground

History. Americans understand how important it is to daily life, New Zealanders not so much. While President Barack Obama declared that the healthcare vote "answered the call of history", New Zealanders debated mining unable to remember back even a few years.

It's hard to understate the significance of Obama's healthcare bill being passed in the US. It's a long way from the government-run system we have here and it a given in all other western democracies, but it's a huge step for America. Remember, this is a country where Republicans have damned universal healthcare as "unconstitutional" because it inserts federal government more fully into the healthcare "market" and interferes with states' rights; the right, that is, to leave millions of Americans without health coverage.

The buzz is that the Democrats will pay the price for this at the mid-terms in November. I'm far from convinced. I think back to the Americans I worked with at a giant bookstore just across the Bay from San Francisco. I wrote about them for the Guardian back in 2007. They were working two or three jobs, in some cases just to get health insurance.

I think especially of BJ, who had to work for Home Depot as well as Barnes & Noble because the bookseller didn't offer health insurance to their staff. This bill means she just might be able to work a little less, maybe spend some more time with her disabled husband. She, and millions like her, will reward the Democrats come November, and with independent estimates suggesting that insurance companies will have to cut their premiums by 10-20 percent, I can see a decent chance of the Democrats gaining from this once the dust of fear-mongering has settled.

Even if Americans haven't been convinced in time for the mid-terms, I think the Republicans have created longer term problems for themselves by so feverishly opposing this. Whether it takes a year or a decade, at some point it will become self-evident to Americans that their healthcare system has significantly improved and the GOP will be, as they say in the US, "on the wrong side of history".

What's this got to do with mining schedule four land in New Zealand? I'm thinking about the significance of history and our inability to think back even to the 1990s, when Schedule 4 was created, putting the land north of the Hikuai-Kopu road in the Coromandel out of bounds for miners.

Thousands of hours of research, protest and argument were spent on this issue less than a generation ago, yet to hear both the government and its critics at the moment is to get the impression that mining scenic and geologically precious lands is some startling new idea, rather than a core part of the country's history dating back to the 1880s and a well-chewed political rag.

It's either a bold new idea to redress five years of slumping exports (no mention of 30 years of flatlined exports) or a radical new attack on nature.

I can't rehearse the debates from the 19th century, but at my elbow on my desk is a story I wrote in 1995 about mining in the Coromandel. The mood and facts of the piece, of that time, are intriguing. Around 800,000 visited the peninsula annually back then, most of them New Zealanders. An Insight survey that year found that 62 percent of New Zealanders supported a ban on mining on DoC land in the Coromandel. That's some risky politics for the government right there.

So risky, in fact, that National's 1990 election manifesto promised to ban mining in national parks and other areas of "high conservation value". That's right, National supported a ban. This shows:

A) That National has long tried to draw a inevitably arbitrary line between "high value" land and "low value" land as a way of convincing the public to allow more mining in this country, and

B) That this government has gone further towards the mining side of the argument than its predecessors, who saw national parks as off limits. Now, the odd bit of national park land is up for grabs.

What also stands out from that old story is something the then-lobbyist for the mining industry, John Pfarlett, told me during an interview. He made the same argument the miners make now about not judging modern mining by the sins of their corporate fathers, that mining has changed for the greener. But Pfarlett then added, "if you're producing minerals, you end up with holes".

He went on to argue that the wealth generated is worth the holes, but it's one of those lines that sticks in your mind.

Another memorable line comes from researchers BERL, which in 1990 reported that "under a reasonably optimistic scenario" the Golden Cross mine, which opened a year later, would bring a net national benefit. Under a worse case scenario, the country would be worse off. It concluded: "The sheer uncertainty and ignorance surrounding hard rock gold mining ventures... renders most such operations, including that of Golden Cross, marginal in terms of economic welfare".

The Minerals Industry Association, which represents mining companies, claims that Golden Cross did turn out well, however. It closed, as planned, in 1998 having employed 243 staff. Nature has reclaimed the area. The company's annual payroll exceeded $10 million, with "an estimated 80 percent of the operation's annual turnover" remaining in New Zealand. Gold and silver worth $430m (at 2001 prices) was excavated for no long-term environmental damage. At least, that's the lobbyist's claim. I haven't had the chance to verify that; maybe someone else can comment.

One thing I'm sure of though is that with the fluctuating price of minerals, any guess at the value of mineral wealth in this country is highly circumspect.

This debate is a reminder that history is alive and kicking in today's political debates, and a memory prod as to how divisive this issue can be; just as healthcare inflames opinion in the US, balancing the economy and the environment is an eternal debate in this country.

So politicians and lobbyists on all sides should tread with care. National, in particular, should be wary of history's call on this issue. Key et al claim it's one step up the stairs of prosperity, but it would also be a step towards the exit.

The last time mining came to a head in parliament, Christine Fletcher crossed the floor to vote with the Opposition, under intense pressure from then-Prime Minister Jim Bolger. He threatened to call an election over the issue; she called his bluff and voted against her colleagues.

In the end, a consensus was formed around Schedule 4, one that has lasted until today. So while Barack Obama can bask in the glow of history today, John Key should be looking at his own party's past very carefully. Big holes can make for big trouble and trip up even the most assured operators.