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Heritage consulting thrives in Australia’s “two-speed economy”

Australia’s “two-speed economy” features a dynamic mining and energy sector, contrasted to flagging retail and manufacturing business. Heritage consulting firms in Australia continue to flourish through providing heritage management services for mining and energy developments throughout the country.

English: The plant at the Brockman 4 mine in t...

The plant at the Brockman 4 mine in the Pilbara region of Western Australia.

According to current Australian Government budget projections, “following growth of 34% in resources investment in 2010‑11, resources companies expect to increase their capital expenditure by a further 74% in 2011‑12, supporting a strong outlook for commodity exports and activity in the related construction and services sectors.” The growth of resources sector investment in Australia for the 2011 calendar year is reported at $450 billion.

Western Australia has the highest value and fastest growth, particularly in iron ore, petroleum and natural gas. The value of Western Australia’s mineral and petroleum industry reached a record high of $101.2 billion in 2010–11 representing an increase of 39 per cent over the previous year. This amounted to nearly 57% of Australia’s total output of minerals and energy, as a major provider of these commodities on the world stage. However, minerals and energy products constituted 95% of Western Australia’s Merchandise Exports in 2010-11, illustrating the dominance of this sector of the economy. The fastest growth continues to be in the Pilbara region in the north-west of Western Australia, featuring hundreds of billions of dollars of iron ore and natural gas resource projects.

Outside of Western Australia, the other standout region for rapid growth is Central Queensland, which has a well-developed, export coal-mining industry, as well as a new offshoot – coal-seam gas. The port of Gladstone has three LNG Plants on the way, with a total investment of around $50 billion (Australian financial Review 15 March 2012).

Australian heritage consulting firms employing archaeologists, anthropologists, and GIS analysts have benefited through their role in servicing the heritage assessments, approvals, and management processes for mining and infrastructure projects. Most of this growth has been in the area of Aboriginal heritage management. There has been associated growth in anthropological research for native title connection reports in the assessment of claims lodged under the Commonwealth Native Title Act (1993), as Indigenous native title claim group hold prima facie negotiation or consultation rights in relation to proposed developments on Crown lands and many categories of leasehold land tenure as well.

While quantitative data are scarce, personal experience indicates that the numbers of practising heritage consultants and heritage consulting firms in Australia has increased by several orders on magnitude during the current resources boom. The value of heritage consultancy projects in Australia is not known, but based on anecdotal information I would estimate that it currently exceeds $100 million per year.

The Australian Association of Consulting Archaeologists, Inc., had 160 members at the end of 2011, with 27 new members accepted that year – more than double the recruitment rate two years previously in 2009. However, membership of this national organisation is voluntary, and there are many more archaeologists engaged in heritage consulting work around the country. For example, the State of Victoria alone has approximately 150 registered “Heritage Advisers”, eligible to conduct heritage consulting work, although not all are qualified archaeologists. These consultants work in a fiercely competitive environment conducting heritage assessment processes required for urban expansion and other land developments by Victoria’s State Aboriginal heritage legislation.

Many heritage consulting firms work on projects outside the States in which they are based. More than half of the heritage work performed in Western Australia is performed by heritage consulting firms from “the Eastern States” (any State except Western Australia!).

There are also increasing numbers of freelance casual heritage consultants, who are hired to work on demand for individual projects or surveys by heritage consulting firms. At least half of the archaeologists working on heritage surveys for major projects in the west appear to be casual employees or independent sub-contractors to the firms contracted for the work.

Because the major resource development areas are in newly developing regions (Pilbara, Central Queensland) far from Capital cities and the heritage work is episodic, heritage consultants have become part of the fly in-fly out (FIFO) workforce which typifies this sector of the economy. Fieldwork periods average two weeks at a time – for larger heritage surveys often two weeks on and two weeks off, with write-up of field results during the home periods. Field accommodation is often at mining camps in remote areas. FIFO heritage consultants, particularly experienced casuals, may spend at least a day and two or more flights plus a stint of four wheel drive driving to get from home to work.

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