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Regulation is stifling Australia’s artisanal gemstone miners

An avalanche of bureaucracy and rising costs are burying small-scale mining businesses and crushing a vibrant industry’s potential, writes Lilo Stadler.

Australia’s gemstone mining industry – ranging from our unique opal to parti-colour sapphire, chrysoprase and emerald – is largely made up of small-scale miners, many of which are either sole traders or family businesses.

Sadly, their job is becoming more and more difficult because of the government.

Both levels of government – state and federal – treat small mining operations like the ‘big boys’ of oil, gas and minerals; they have the same expectations of them and bury them under endless regulations.

It’s unfair and it’s wrong, as it has major consequences not only for the miners themselves but also for the rest of the supply chain.

In the course of my business, I’ve encountered many miners who have developed an ‘us and them’ attitude; they are hostile to and suspicious of any extra paperwork or conditions the wholesaler might legally require, thus making our job more onerous too.

They are drowning in regulations already, and I feel sorry for them because it’s an awful position in which to be.

When it comes to the mining paperwork itself, I’ve seen first-hand how difficult it can be to understand and complete.

My son has a university education and is a miner himself, and he is reluctant to give help or advice to others because of the complexities involved.

How are people supposed to deal with government bodies who are making their lives a misery, whilst paying through the nose for the privilege?

“Many mining operations – particularly those mining for opals – are sole traders or family businesses; this type of regulation is a burden and it’s unnecessary.”

The over-regulation is appalling and over the past 20 years that has quadrupled; the cost for miners to register a claim has risen four or five times in 10 years.

That is extraordinary.

In NSW, the cost of a standard mineral claim starts at more than $1,000, renewals start at more than $350, and opal prospecting licences are charged on top of that – a minimum of $589.

For larger claims of two hectares, the fees can be as high as $6,300.

As I said previously, many mining operations – particularly those mining for opals – are sole traders or family businesses; this type of regulation is a burden and it’s unnecessary.

You can spend hours simply trying to read the paperwork, let alone fill it out.

The NSW Opal and Gemstone Mining Guide alone is more than 230 pages long.

In Queensland, you may need environmental authorities and the Land Court involved to have a mining claim approved.

How can the ordinary person with a small claim, or a person who speaks English as a second language, be expected to handle that?

Even worse, the regulations change state-to-state, so if you are operating in more than one state you are expected to abide by separate regulations, paperwork, and fee structures.

Is it possible to solve this problem?

Unfortunately, as an industry, we have very little say in the political process.

Broadly, there are very few industry associations with the money or staff to lobby politicians or promote these issues through the media.

Large oil or gas mining companies have teams of staff and separate budgets dedicated to this type of thing, but artisanal mining doesn’t have the same resources.

Even if you were to speak to a politician about these problems, they would get a glazed look in their eye!

Opal is our national gemstone and should be treated as such, yet politicians seem to disregard it – and the people who produce it.

When was the last time you saw an Australian politician wearing an opal?

But they should care; our opals are a reliable, high-value export commodity and are much sought-after overseas, with markets willing to pay a premium for our product.

Ditto Australian sapphires which have also become incredibly popular in recent years, both with local consumers and overseas.

If politicians truly care about the industry they should show a will to guarantee that it thrives now and into the future.

That means ensuring artisanal gemstone mining is considered a special category and is, therefore, regulated separately and appropriately.

 

Name: Lilo Stadler
Business: Bolda
Position: Director
Location: Noosa Heads, Queensland
Years in the industry: 45

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