Are mining communities’ alcohol and drug fuelled violence rings, overrun by workers who fly in to cause damage and leave again without a care for the community ?
Or are they small towns desperately fighting against the pre-conceived notions of the industry?
Reports late last year on an investigation into mining camps said people living in mining communities are more than twice as likely as those who live in other areas to face violence and social unrest, mostly fuelled by alcohol and drugs.
Local police and mining industry bodies dismissed claims that violence in Western Australia’s mining areas is the worst in Australia following reports on the Queensland University of Technology’s study, entitled ‘Booze, Blokes and Brawls.
"In one WA mining community, which was surrounded by work camps housing about 8000 mostly male workers, the rate of violence was 2.3 times the state average," the report said.
But police in the Goldfields-Esperance district, which has eight mining campsites, say that there has actually been a decrease in alcohol-related violence in Kalgoorlie-Boulder.
"Violence has definitely trended downward in the last 12 months," Goldsfields-Esperance Inspector Craig Parkin explained.
He went on to say that non-domestic assaults in the district had gone down 12 per cent from last year and threatening behaviour had also dropped by 17 per cent.
Parkin has worked in policing in the mining community for eleven years, and says he hasn’t experienced the so-called "culture of violence" in his time there.
Even the author of the study, Professor Kerry Carrington, says the conclusions were blown out of proportion.
She told Australian Mining that the media misinterpreted the findings, which they only "stumbled across" when conducting research into violence in regional communities, not necessarily just mining camps.
"We didn’t go there trying to find this information, but what we have discovered is that more needs to be done," she said.
"The other thing is that those camps are not all bad. We didn’t conclude that at all. They are not all negative. That’s one of the many things the media has gotten wrong."
Carrington does maintain that more work needs to be done to curb what she calls "organised drunkenness" in the mining communities.
"Camps had courtesy buses that would arrive at the end of shift and just drive them to the pubs.
"Police who we interviewed were working out of dongers and they couldn’t cope."
But industry executives say workers are actually subjected to much stricter drug and alcohol screenings than the general population, and companies have no hesitation sacking workers who breach their liquor restraints.
"Our members take their responsibilities very seriously and they are often the only employers which have mandatory alcohol and drug testing", says Reg Howard-Smith, chief executive of the Chamber of Minerals and Energy (CMEWA).
The CMEWA has criticised the claims in the report, saying there is a lack of reliable data or statistics.
"The report used emotive language and relies heavily on anecdotes," Howard-Smith said.
"We don’t know where the research was conducted, who was spoken to, or the circumstances of the incidents outlined."
Carrington defends the secrecy surrounding the exact locations and sources used in the report, and says their complex methodology was approved by the university.
"We cannot name names because of the nature of these communities, but we spoke to mayors, doctors and nurses," she told Australian Mining.
"But if you say, ‘we went to this town and spoke to a nurse’, well she might be one of only a few and could therefore be identified.
"The same thing goes for mayors and councillors; we couldn’t provide details of the towns we were referring to because it would be obvious."
But the findings have been criticised by the Opposition Spokesman for state development, Mark McGowan, who says they are the result of skewed data because the towns do not represent typical gender ratios.
"I think the report is a bit over the top and I’m not sure that it’s accurate, I think in a lot of communities where you get lots of men working together, of course there are going to be incidents," he said.
Robert Hicks, CEO Goldfields-Esperance Development Commission (GEDM) told Australian Mining he disagrees with the findings and says mining communities cannot be all categorised as the same.
"Each mining town is quite distinct and different and has its own community and unique situations.
It’s quite improper, wrong, to generalise on mining towns, because what is a mining town?
Are we talking about Kalgoorlie-Boulder with 40 000 people or somewhere like Karartha with 1 500?"
He said the report does not take into account the day-to-day realities of mining communities.
Hicks fears the negative publicity caused by the reports will discourage families from considering relocating to mining communities.
"It bothers us that this sort of report may discourage people from considering to relocate to mining towns."
There are calls to end the ‘blokey’ culture in the mining towns, by enticing families to relocate to the area and by employing women at the mines.
"The reality is there are a lot more women working in mining," Hicks said.
"When I walk around I see an increase in women at the mines, and the accusations it is a male dominated industry are wrong."
But the report’s author dismissed claims it has damaged the family-focused communities the mining industry are trying to develop.
"I think that’s a cheap point," Carrington said.
Carrington told Australian Mining that one of the biggest problems identified in the report are the FIFO workers.
"Studies of the social impact on adjacent communities needs to be done and council planning needs to take into consideration the affects these camps have on infrastructure because there’s a lot that goes unrecognised in the industry.
"There are a whole lot of discussions that need to be had about whether it’s justified to have seventy to eighty per cent of workers non residents.
"These are debates mining communities and industry and governments need to have.
"Non-residents are not included in the census data so they’re not planned for.
"Communities cannot have enough important institutions, or doctors, nurses, police and the like if they’re only providing for 30 per cent of those who access them," she said.
Carrington says the media’s representation is "problematic. We’re not about bagging communities or pointing the finger, we’re about encouraging industry, workers and governments to work together.