Panel discussion on the $16 billion merger of Saracen Minerals and Northern Star Resources. Source: Twitter (@diggersndealers).
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Conventional folklore would have you believe it started in 1992 with Geoffrey Stokes, but the genesis of Diggers and Dealers can be traced back as far as 1983, to a lunch at the Windsor Hotel in Perth with Peter Briggs and Dr Ron Wise.

From right out the gate, strange rumblings of a certain sort of theme began to take shape. “The first time we banned women, because we wanted to make it more fun by putting on some raunchy girls,” Briggs once said. His wife, Robin, eventually caught wind of the plan and crashed the affair with the wife of another guest, but nevertheless it set the stage for a long-standing tradition of debauchery.

Fast-forward to ’92 when Stokes, the then-owner of Kalgoorlie’s Palace Hotel, commandeered the Diggers and Dealers name and officially registered it as a verified convention. According to local Kalgoorlie legend Ron Manners, that first conference at the Palace saw attendance of only ten or so delegates, each of which “gave a presentation while the other nine threw things at the speaker.”

In the 28 years since, Diggers and Dealers has hooked every sub-breed of shoulder-slapping mining executive, every hi-vis-clad contractor, every slick-haired broker and every die-hard investor, from as near as the Pink House and as far as the UK. Each year they flood Kalgoorlie on private jets and in rickety convoys to strike deals, talk shop, shake hands and claim their spot as part of the action—Gold Bulls on Parade.

In 2006, the forum’s chairman at the time Brian Hurley likened it to a sort of industry pilgrimage: “it’s like a religious retreat, you’re totally immersed in it for three days, the boss can’t say come into the office, you’re there in Kalgoorlie, you’re part of it.”

But this “total immersion” would often manifest itself as less of a reputable get-together among mining peers and more of a lad’s weekend away from the old ball and chain. Of course, business was done and connections were made, but it was also a chance for the heavyweights to flex their influence while the up-and-comers sought to make a name for themselves, usually at the local bars and in closed-door “meetings” back at the hotel.

Notable among these titans, with a prolific slot in a long list of previous speakers, is Canadian billionaire and founder of Ivanhoe Mines, Robert Friedland. A former friend of Steve Jobs, he was (and I’m not kidding) busted in 1970 with $100,000 worth of LSD. His apple orchard commune, All One Farm, where his followers (still not kidding) worked for free, is also credited as the namesake of the two-trillion-dollar tech behemoth Apple Inc.

Friedland’s hour-long speech in 2008, which he rattled off with no notes, is widely reported to have mesmerised a full-house audience as he heralded the Oyu Tolgoi copper-gold project in Mongolia as the next big thing. Further eye-witness accounts suggest he’d barely stepped off stage before ducking out the back door and straight onto a Melbourne-bound jet, concluding what would be a major talking point for years to come.

As with all things, though, time eventually catches up. What was once a working party in the wild west has become more restrained in recent years, driven largely by increasing calls for a greater level of professionalism.

Among a host of criticisms, the presence of skimpies at local pubs—a long-standing staple of Kalgoorlie life—has regularly drawn the ire of outsiders. Their siren-like appeal to weary tradesmen after a long day’s work is one thing, but—come Diggers and Dealers—a historic inability for delegates to maintain their composure in the face of an artfully enhanced bosom or two has led many major sponsors to question their involvement.

In 2018, professional services firm EY elected to move their usual function from the aforementioned Palace Hotel to the Kalgoorlie Country Club, “a venue that is better suited to the corporate nature of the event for our clients and our people,” a spokeswoman said.

McKinsey & Co is another supporter to have previously distanced itself. John Lyndon, a Senior Partner at the management consulting firm, said in 2016 that he would never attend Diggers and Dealers, and that “we as leaders just have to tell everyone it’s unacceptable.”

Even at this year’s event, Fortescue Metals Group chief executive Elizabeth Gaines had no qualms about raising the issue of gender imbalance. “You’ve got to have venues that are far more appropriate … and actually reflective of society as a whole. Not objectification of one part of society, and the other part of society looking on,” she said.

Gaines also took aim at the organisers of Diggers and Dealers last year, noting that there were more male speakers named Peter than there were women speakers all together.

Yet another symptom of unbridled atavism is the forum’s utter failure to adopt any of the advantages a technologically literate culture like Australia has to offer. Sure, Diggers and Dealers has its roots firmly set in Kalgoorlie, but the five-and-a-half-hour drive from Perth combined with criminally expensive flights has led to a cataclysmic decline in the attendance of retail investors. While a live streaming service will be offered this year, one would have thought the decision could have been made before it was necessitated by a crippling viral pandemic.

That said, with video conferencing now firmly a part of 2020 life, it’s still not without its perils.

Fellow convention Mines and Money saw fit to hold a networking event over video-calling platform Zoom in early April this year which, thanks to an abhorrent lack of cyber-security, led to an overwhelming presence of hand-drawn penises and pornography links. Mike Hill, the forum’s Head of Mining, was forced to issue an apology the next day regarding the “unwanted participants distributing inappropriate content and messages.

The inescapable fact is that Diggers and Dealers, while cherished in an industry that effectively built Western Australia, is a dinosaur on the same level as Paddy Hannan himself. The adapt-or-die philosophy that underpins everything in a post-technological, post-politically correct society has garnered little attention from the organisers, and it’s beginning to show. Year after year, the same old companies present under the same old format—one that bears many of the same characteristics as that lunch back in 1983.

It seems that the innovative thinking held so dearly by the thousands of delegates that will attend this year’s Diggers and Dealers has failed to land—or even take off—when it comes to the conference itself. Whether it’s a missed memo from the boardroom or an idea cast aside as too ambitious, things have most assuredly been overlooked.

What this means for the future of an event that’s played such a monumental domestic role is anyone’s guess, but without some sort of evolution, there may be no more digging and no more dealing in the mecca of Australia’s mining industry.

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