More than luck – the foundations of Australia’s future mineral discoveries

By Dr Geoffrey Batt, Minerals Research Institute of Western Australia

After entering the national lexicon in 1964 as the title of Donald Horne’s intellectual treatise, ‘The Lucky Country’ label has been widely and enthusiastically adopted by Australians from all walks of life as an affectionate framing of our national experience. A land blessed by nature and history, and a land of opportunity – we’ve golden soil and wealth for toil, after all, with the built-in security that comes from being girt by sea.

It’s worth remembering that the term ‘The Lucky Country’ wasn’t meant as one of endearment. Donald Horne’s intention, rather, was an indictment – a warning that we rest too easily on our historical good fortune.

The nature of mineral exploration serves as a ready illustration of this challenge to the nation. In terms of raw endowment – as home to 31 per cent of iron ore, 23 per cent of nickel, 29 per cent of lithium and 22 per cent of gold global resources, as well as strategically significant reserves of a host of critical minerals recognised as the keys to enabling a future of low-carbon energy production – Australia’s fundamental good fortune is hard to overlook. And these are only the Economic Demonstrated Resources documented to date – with as much as 80 per cent of Australia’s land area remaining comprehensively unexplored for its mineral potential (but that is a discussion for another day).

On a superficial level, this endowment – and its progressive unveiling by generations of geologists and miners – comes ready-made to reinforce the seductive narrative of the lucky strike. Baked into the nation’s flaky golden crust by geological processes in an ancient past that predates Australia’s existence as an independent landmass; and brought within reach of discovery through grinding tectonic movement and the slow, steady actions of wind and rain through generations without number – every mineral deposit that might one day perchance be developed and mined already lies ready for discovery, immobile, and locked away in the darkness. One day it is hidden from view and unknown, and the next, it is brought to light by the assay of a promising sample or completion of a discovery hole where paydirt suddenly appears in the drill tray.

Every mine has such a discovery story – but the true value it offers as an example is not the heroic final act, but rather the understanding of what it takes to be in the right place and with the right tools to benefit when luck comes your way.

In 1894, Laurie Sinclair – together with his brother, George, and prospecting partner, Jack Allsopp – registered the first claim in what is today recognised as the Norseman gold district in Western Australia. The oft retold story of their historical discovery relates that it was Laurie’s horse – the prosaically named Hardy Norseman – whose hooves kicked up the initial gold nugget, revealing the rich quartz reefs of the region. Whether a true tale or nothing more than a fireside yarn, the more substantive reality we might take from the Norseman story – the more powerful lesson that continues to resonate for exploration in the modern era – is that whatever the immediate circumstances of the find were, it was made because three experienced prospectors understood the potential of the ground and had focused their efforts to establish the opportunity for discovery.

Without Allsopp and the Sinclair brothers recognising the promise of the region in the reports of previous explorers, and investing their time, sweat and hard-earned prospecting experience into investigating, there is no stumbling Norseman to bring the golden discovery to light.

The nation’s mineral wealth contributed 21 per cent of Australia’s gross domestic product growth over the past 10 years, and 32 per cent ($41 billion) of all company tax paid in the nation in 2022. While understandably built on foundations of the fundamental natural bounty awaiting discovery beneath our landscape, many other regions of the world share similarly fertile geological history and architecture. What takes this fortunate character, and delivers a consistently productive and profitable minerals industry, is the collaborative nexus of an energetic and innovative exploration industry, world-leading research capability, and informed and proactive governments.

Our true wealth then comes from being a clever country, not a lucky one, and the secret to maintaining the success of the minerals industry dynamo at the heart of the Australian economy lies in investment in innovation to enable the systematic work of explorers to bring our fortunate endowment into the light.

An example of this innovation is the innovation delivered by Australia’s MinEx CRC. Supported by $120 million in funding from a consortium of industry, and state and federal government partners, the MinEx CRC is the world’s largest collaborative research centre, targeting the challenges of future mineral exploration. Working to a 10-year mission, this centre is delivering new technologies and fundamental data to reduce exploration risk, and to support the nation’s miners in targeting the right ground with the right tools – to guide and refine the search for new mineralisation in the undercover domain.

These efforts are further enabled by the work of experienced and talented scientists in our well-supported government agencies – such as Geoscience Australia and the geological surveys of our states and territories – acquiring, interpreting and publishing regional datasets to deliver a richly textured and freely available understanding of our nation’s geological framework and mineral potential.

The ultimate act of discovering an ore body – a drillhole placed to intersect the focused knot of mineralisation hidden beneath the surface and bring it into the dust-rimmed hands of the geologists above – may be an expression of good fortune in its most glorious form, but in the absence of the lazy narrative device of stumbling across nuggets in the dust (and in the well-explored mineral landscape of Australia, those days are, for the most part, well and truly past), this luck doesn’t fall to the naive and unprepared.

The hard grind and careful acquisition of understanding is every bit as significant – and should be as celebrated – as the final lucky strike. Plenty of media interest around Chalice Mining’s Tier-1 Julimar discovery in 2021 focused on the fact that the very first hole drilled struck exciting intersections of nickel, copper, palladium and platinum mineralisation from just 48 metres below the surface.

What was sometimes lost in the telling of this fantastic tale of heroic discovery, though, was Chalice’s ground selection, as well as how the planning and resourcing of the successful exploration program was informed by the technical and strategic experience of a team of talented geologists and exploration managers. The planning and resourcing of the successful exploration was also based on interpretation of precompetitive data and analysis that was compiled by Geoscience Australia and the Geological Survey of Western Australia over many years.

The opportunity for Australia’s continued mineral exploration success in the exciting decades ahead lies at the intersection of these paths – as anticipated by 20th-century US businessman and philanthropist F. L. Emerson when he said, ‘I’m a great believer in luck. The harder I work, the more of it I seem to have.’

We already know that nature has dealt Australia a fortunate hand in the nation’s fundamental geological architecture. Converting that endowment into the future wealth and success of our minerals sector – and maintaining the key contribution this sector makes to the national economy – now lies in the investment of time, energy and attention; and the commitment of a talented, creative and well-trained workforce in creating the technology and acquiring the data that will put our explorers in the right place to keep getting ‘lucky’. 

Dr Geoffrey Batt is a Research Portfolio Manager with the Minerals Research Institute of Western Australia – a state government body working to catalyse and support impactful minerals research for the benefit of Western Australia. Batt leads the institute’s focus on Exploration Amplification, working with leading scientists and research groups to address the challenges and opportunities of future mineral exploration.

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