The former Liberal Party leader John Hewson went missing in action on Q&A last week. After members of the panel (with the notable exception of Jacki Weaver) had mocked Gina Rinehart or criticised her family relationships or bagged the practices of her mining company, presenter Tony Jones turned to Hewson and suggested that he might like to “”stick up for her””.

The offer was declined. Initially Hewson said he could see what Rinehart was “”trying to do in building this mine”” but he did not “”excuse the way she”s doing it””. This was a reference to the proposal that Hancock Prospecting should be allowed to engage up to 1715 foreign workers to help construct the Roy Hill iron ore project in the Pilbara.

When Jones expressed surprise at this response Hewson referred to Rinehart”s (alleged) greed “”in relation to her children”” and added: “”I don”t personally understand it; I think you have a responsibility in this country to put a bit back beyond what you”ve taken out.””

By Wednesday, however, Hewson had a change of mind. Writing on the ABC”s The Drum opinion site, he commented that “”we should recognise that our society needs … genuine entrepreneurs”” like Rinehart, Clive Palmer, Twiggy Forrest and Nathan Tinkler. On the issue of employing foreign workers on some mining projects, Hewson declared that “”the economics of this is virtually unquestionable””.

Why the change? The answer appears to lie in the dynamic of the moment. Q&A is usually filmed at the ABC”s Sydney headquarters in inner-city Ultimo. Last week”s panel consisted primarily of artistic types who apparently do not like Rinehart and who underestimate the key role of mining in the Australian economy. The audience went with the prevailing view of the panel.

Sure, according to Q&A, the audience was made up of 46 per cent Coalition, 30 per cent Labor and 17 per cent Greens supporters. However, political allegiance is self-declared. If you are a Green Left Weekly type who wants to get into the Q&A audience, it helps to remove your Che Guevara T-shirt and sandals, put on sensible shoes and a shirt and claim to be a member of the Tony Abbott fan club.

During my first appearance on Q&A early last year, I found a majority of the audience to be hostile to business in general and mining in particular. In such an environment, it”s easy for someone like Hewson to go with the intellectual fashion of the night and join in the anti-Rinehart/anti-foreign workers chorus.

The indifference and sometimes hostility to mining is a worrying aspect of contemporary Australia. The industry enjoys broad support within the Abbott-led Coalition with some exceptions among National Party MPs. It also has the vocal support of some key ministers of the Labor government, including Martin Ferguson, Gary Gray, Craig Emerson and Bill Shorten.

However, since the beginning of the year, Wayne Swan has been attacking Australian entrepreneurs such as Rinehart, Palmer, and Forrest, but not the BHP Billiton/Rio Tinto/Xstrata big three. Then, at the Minerals Council dinner in Canberra last Wednesday, the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, gave the impression of talking down to her audience – telling them that “”you don”t own the minerals””.

They already knew this. Moreover, the big three miners have supported Labor”s minerals resource rent tax – although you would scarcely know this if you had watched only the highlights of the Prime Minister”s address.

Last week, Senator Doug Cameron – he of the heavy Scottish accent – complained that “”Chinese workers”” would (allegedly) take Australian jobs. If our predecessors had opposed foreign workers coming to what were then isolated mining sites, there would have been no gold rush in the mid-19th century.

The professional classes which seem to be over-represented in the Q&A audience often have no real experience in business and seem unaware that the mining industry pays substantial company tax and royalties, with the minerals tax to come. This revenue helps support the lifestyle of professionals on the public payroll whether as public sector employees or as beneficiaries of retirement benefits.

Many in this group vote for the Greens – whose former leader Bob Brown called last June for the replacement of the coal industry. Coal is one of Australia”s big export earners. Where do the likes of Brown think the money comes from that supports the lifestyle of many Greens, including the good senator himself?

In the early 1950s there was a degree of hostility to export-earning rural industries. Fortunately, at the time, senior government ministers did not join in the chorus. Right now the mining industry is a major factor in Australia avoiding recession, so far at least. Even so, Hewson was incapable of defending Rinehart and the employment of foreign workers during a live TV program. It was not a good sign – even though he repented.

Gerard Henderson is executive director of The Sydney Institute.