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The local agent for a Sydney merchant named Robert Towns founded it in 1864 to make it easier to export cattle from his employer’s huge inland ranches (or stations, in Australian parlance). The discovery of a rich nearby goldfield a few years later brought much more business to the port, which is closer to Papua New Guinea than to Sydney, and led to the construction of the city’s grand Victorian buildings.
Copper, lead, phosphate and zinc are mined in Queensland’s vast, arid outback and shipped to the city for export. And closer by, dense green fields of sugarcane topped with fluffy white tufts of seed fill the narrow tropical littoral to the north and south of the city.
A nickel refinery on the outskirts of town folded, putting 800 people out of work and leaving A$300m in debts. The plunge in investment allowed the central bank to lower interest rates, lifting the housing business.
Building work had reached a nadir in the first quarter of 2012, when construction firms completed projects worth A$20bn. The number of people visiting has risen by half since 2012, to more than 9 m, and the amount they spend has increased by 43%, to A$21bn in the year ending in March (domestic tourists pony up even more).
Rows of pleasure boats bob in the harbor, which provides easy access to nearby stretches of the Great Barrier Reef. The city’s biggest hotel, the Villa, which overlooks the glimmering Coral Sea, completed a big renovation in July.
Last year the local branch of James Cook University (ICU) spent A$80m on a new science center. ICU plans to invest a further A$1.9bn redeveloping the campus over the next 20 years, and will hire an additional 1,500 permanent staff.
And the local, state and national governments are collaborating to build a big new stadium in the center of the city, at a cost of A$250m. In fact, the national government has been spending more on infrastructure around the country in part to compensate for the mining bust.
But it is also because Australian producers are impressively efficient, and thus able to weather periods of low prices as their competitors go bust. Thanks largely to a decades-long building boom in China, demand rose steadily, lifting the price per tonne to $187 in early 2011.
But as China’s economy slowed, and its government tried to boost services at the expense of investment in infrastructure and housing, the iron-ore price began a dizzying descent, to a low of $39 a tonne. And the Pillar region in Western Australia is blessed with concentrated ore, which yields more iron per tonne smelted.
Australia ’s two biggest mining firms, BHP and Rio Tinto, have compounded these advantages with striking innovations. A decade ago, there was nothing especially high-tech about the pair’s operations: iron-rich rocks were blasted apart with dynamite, loaded onto trucks, crushed and shipped by train to distant ports.
In July Rio Tinto tested an autonomous train over two-and-a-half kilometers long, composed of 240 freight cars and three locomotives, which it calls the world’s biggest robot. Data gathered by the drills about the rocks they are passing through, meanwhile, can be used to improve the placement of dynamite, monitor the hardness and concentration of the ore, and stagger the waiting trucks accordingly.
In investor presentations there is as much talk of data analytics and the internet of things as there is of ore grades and smelting capacity. In a sense, this impressive search for technological efficiencies is the flip side of a common criticism of Australia : that it is an expensive place to do business.
The country’s remoteness and its small population make all kinds of things pricey, from computers to food to energy. When the Korea Zinc Company sent Run Choir to run its loss-making refinery in Townsville five years ago, he says, “the thought of shutting it down was on everybody’s mind”.
Power costs were high, as were wages: a typical worker earns A$120,000 a year, Mr Choir says. When wholesale prices are high, he stops zinc production and sells the power to the national grid.