29/05/2007 - 22:00

Boom's upside has downside

29/05/2007 - 22:00


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No ships. No workers. No class.

Where has Briefcase been since last week? The Pilbara, obviously. A place that generates more of Australia’s wealth than anywhere else, but which is a curious mix of negatives, some of them actually positives. And before you think the sun fried someone’s brain, an explanation is due.

Ships, or the lack of them, is one of the lasting impressions taken away by a careful observer of what’s happening in, and around, Port Hedland.

If there really is a resources boom, why were there only four ships riding at anchor last week waiting their turn to load iron ore at the assorted facilities operated by BHP Billiton?

The answer to the riddle of the ships lies in the fact that Port Hedland actually works. And it does that because it is largely the private port of a single company.

The government chaps who operate the Port Hedland Port Authority will dispute that statement, because in truth the port is government controlled, and there are general-purpose wharves to handle copper, zinc, manganese and cattle exports – to mention a few alternatives.


But, the truth and reality can sometimes be a little different, and in that remark lies a very sobering warning for Western Australia.

Port Hedland is the ‘money end’ of the BHP Billiton iron ore production process. The movement of rail cars, ore to stockpiles, and then onto ships at the wharf, is all a carefully controlled concerto.

Everything moves in harmony.

There are no embarrassing queues of ships, as there are at congested coal ports on the east coast, where competing producers struggle for loading slots and countless millions of dollars are lost to the national exchequer – not to mention the bottom lines of the frustrated coal miners.

At WA’s northern ports there is order, where in the east there is chaos. Why then, and this is the core question posed by Briefcase this week, is the Australian government, through its assorted competition regulators, wanting to foist on us an obviously failed system?

The chaps in grey cardigans, with their plastic lunch boxes who work at the National Competition Council, argue that they have truth and justice on their side. They say throwing open privately run railways and ports is good for the economy.

Reality, however, is different.

BHP Billiton, and its nemesis, Rio Tinto, undoubtedly operate a neat little closed shop in the Pilbara through their railway and port systems.

But, and this is the killer application that people like our beloved state reasurer, Eric Ripper, ought to get through their scones before they join the mob wanting to break up the existing rail and port ownership and operating structures – it works.

And, if it’s working, why does anyone want to fix it.


Not working, and this if where Briefcase will drift fearlessly into a terrible topic, is a hard core class of unemployed in and around the shopping centres of Port Hedland.

As a negative, with no compensating positive as seen with the ships, the second worst aspect of life in the Pilbara is the sight of idle men (and women) hanging around shops and pubs in a town which is allegedly short of working people.

Many of them are Aboriginal – and for mentioning this simple, inescapable fact which can be observed by exercising the muscles in your eye lids, Briefcase expects to howled down as an arrogant racist, with fascist tendencies.


In life, you reach a certain age when you adopt a ‘damn the torpedoes’ approach, and that’s precisely where Briefcase is heading.

The bleeding heart brigade can complain all they like but there is absolutely no escaping the observable fact that most of the unemployed people in the Pilbara, epicentre of a worldwide resources boom, are Aboriginal.

Why is this so? That’s the real question.

Rather than slinging abuse at anyone who dares point out the bleeding obvious in a modern dare version of the emperor with no clothes – or in this case Aboriginals with no jobs – just think for a second about why is this so.

Is it the fault of the mining companies? Is it the fault of the infrastructure development companies? Is it the fault of government? Is it the fault of the charitable foundations that try to help?

The answer, of course, is that it’s the fault of a system that has encouraged separateness. A belief among Aborigines that they are somehow different to the rest of Australia. That because they were here first they require different treatment.

Decades ago there was, unquestionably, prejudice against Aborigines. Today, there is not, or far less. So why are so few of Australia’s first nation joining in the resources boom? Why do we need to import burger flippers from the Philippines and pastry cooks from Vietnam?

If there is a disgrace in Australia today it will not be solved by symbolic sorry days, it will only come via the acceptance of an invitation to take advantage of what Australia now has to offer, an invitation that’s open to people of every race – if they want it.


You might have noticed the Aboriginal employment question is rated as the second worst aspect of life in the Pilbara, a statement which begs the question of what’s the worst?

The answer is CUBs.

No, not the cubs found with a pack of lions. Or the cubs found at a jamboree of boy scouts – but the CUBs found in, and around Port Hedland.

For the uninformed, CUBs is the acronym for ‘Cashed-Up Bogans’ – who are only different from the regular breed in that they are flush with funds, courtesy of the boom.

All that’s needed is the ability to drive a truck (half an hour’s education), a forklift (one hour) or a semi-trailer (two hours).

After five minutes in the same room as a herd of CUBs, Briefcase wished he had a 'beam me up Scottie' magic device because these CUBs do nothing to lift the quality aspect of life in the Pilbara in a resources boom.


"Most fools think they are only ignorant." Benjamin Franklin, 1733


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