Digital Issue 7

Obituary: Peter Atkinson – 1941-2020

  • By Richard Barker MAusIMM

Peter Atkinson – geologist, mining entrepreneur, industry advocate, cycling enthusiast and wine connoisseur – passed away on 3 September 2020 in Queenstown, New Zealand. 

After graduating from the University of Western Australia with a BSc in geology in the 1960s, Peter joined a small, Perth-based privately funded company that was exploring for coal and mineral sands, soon becoming managing director.

Peter (right) with Rudi Bauer of Quartz Reef winery and Jeff Hedenquist. Queenstown AusIMM NZ Branch conference 2009 – post conference winery field trip organised by Peter. (Photo: Tony Christie).

The late 1960s nickel mining boom led to a massive increase in exploration activity, putting a severe strain on the 1904 Mining Act. It required frenetic claim pegging activity leading to frequent conflict. The review of the Mining Act proposed changes that favoured large companies, making it very difficult for small companies to operate. In 1980, dissent led to a march by prospectors and small company staff on the State Parliament. Fellow protestors and small company geologists Peter Ingram and Barry Fehlberg recall, ‘Peter Atkinson was very heavily involved in organising that march. Impressive as it was, it appeared to have little impact on the Government and a more formal approach was deemed necessary.’

Peter hosted a meeting with four other company representatives at his Perth office to develop a plan. They resolved to form a lobby group AMEC (Association of Mining and Exploration Companies) to distinguish the group from individual prospectors and the large companies represented by the Chamber of Mines. Peter became the inaugural president. With a surge in company listings and a rising gold price the organisation soon had a large membership base. Barry Fehlberg remembers, ‘Peter was fun to work with and he gave it his all to get AMEC recognised as a lobby force to represent the voice of small companies.’

The Association was successful, contributing to making the new legislation recognise the interests of small exploration and mining companies. Peter resigned as president after two years, AMEC awarding him life membership for his work. Since then, AMEC has grown to represent 275 member companies and is now active throughout Australia.

In the early 1980s, Peter decided to move to New Zealand and set about acquiring a group of licences over epithermal gold-silver prospects in the Coromandel Peninsula, which encompasses much of the Hauraki Goldfield. He incorporated Heritage Mining in 1985, and in 1987 listed it on the NZX and ASX. The company changed its name to Heritage Gold in 1997, and then to New Talisman Gold Mines (NTGM) in 2012.

Resource journalist Ross Louthean recalls: ‘On his arrival in NZ after Western Australia, the public perception for exploration and mining was a contrasting low in NZ. Peter spent a lot of time talking to journalists and getting them to understand the industry was not only important for New Zealand and its economy, but that mining produced so many of the important elements for construction, for medicine and even space-age travel.’

Murray Stevens, currently a director of NTGM and former Exploration Manager of Heritage Mining when the company was getting established says of Atkinson: ‘Peter above all else was a genuine mentor and friend for over 30 years. He provided employment opportunities to many young mining professionals, a number of whom have gone on to become industry leaders. He was also a great advocate of university research into the mineral deposits of the Coromandel and supported student research projects.’

From the outset, Peter was well aware that mining in Coromandel was going to be controversial, leading to moves by central and local government to restrict exploration and mining activities. He joined the then NZ Mineral Exploration Association and became its president, devoting a great deal of time and energy getting it set up with an office in Wellington with a full-time executive manager, being influential in recruiting Robyn Ross followed by John Pfahlert and Doug Gordon as CEOs. It changed its name to the NZ Minerals Industry Association in 1994 as the industry expanded with new gold mines and export coal increasing its value from less than $500 million in 1990 to more than $2 billion 20 years later. 

Tony Christie, a geologist with GNS Science and active member of the NZMEA and NZMIA councils, worked with the Association for many years. ‘Peter was passionate about the industry, and had a good sense of humour too. He ran very efficient meetings; he was a really good chairperson. Because of NZMIA’s small budget, much of the work needed to be done by members. Peter had an amazing ability to get members to volunteer their services.’

Despite a shortage of funds, the Association commissioned new economic research on New Zealand’s mineral potential. It developed research-based strategies that influenced minerals research funding and persuaded the then National opposition to include making more of NZ’s mineral potential as a plank in its economic plan as a government when elected in 2008. The NZMIA ran a wide range of other programs, ranging from secondary school education to public awareness of the value of the sector as well as numerous submissions on policies that affected the industry. Peter was willing to advocate for positions that the members wished to promote when he didn’t support them himself.

He took an interest in health and safety via a steering group, which over time led to the formation of MinEx, the National Health and Safety Council for the NZ mining and quarry industry, which continues to operate.

Following the establishment of a competing organisation, Straterra, in 2008, NZMIA eventually was absorbed by it a few years later.

Peter and his wife Heather moved to Queenstown in the South Island in 2000 and there he set up a cycling group – the Queenstown Pedallers. In 2017, the group had more than 500 members when for his efforts he received a Paul Harris award, Rotary’s highest community service award.

He had previously set up a similar cycling group in Auckland, the Manukau Veterans Cycle Club that is still going nearly 30 years later. 

The Queenstown ‘Mountain Scene’ reported that the Pedallers arose after Atkinson was put in touch with a woman whose partner had just died.

‘She needed something to distract her so I took her for a ride. She was probably the first pedaller, and then she had a big range of friends and they all joined.’

Atkinson modestly says his Paul Harris Fellowship should really go to his whole group.

‘It doesn’t matter what I’ve done. The reality is, without the Pedallers I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you. I’d just be out there riding on my own, still, as I was 15-16 years ago.’

Tony Christie recalls in addition to cycling, Peter was a wine buff. He had an impressive wine cellar and could talk very knowledgeably on wines, particularly recommending some good labels and vintages. Tony and others often followed his advice on purchases.

Peter Robert Atkinson is survived by his wife, Heather, of more than 30 years, and his children, Juliana, George, Josephine and Melanie who are all in Perth.

He was a Member then Fellow of the AusIMM for 56 years until his resignation in April 2020.

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