08/08/2012 - 10:36

Change the only constant in state of flux

08/08/2012 - 10:36


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It’s all-go up north as the resources boom drives growth, but how’s the rest of the state travelling?

It’s all-go up north as the resources boom drives growth, but how’s the rest of the state travelling?

LIKE so many of my one-time and long-time mates I was a Bob Dylan fan, with ‘The Times They Are a-Changin’ a favourite.

I recently heard this classic recording on radio and, as often happens with such songs, it sparked thoughts of the here, then, and now.

When I disembarked at Fremantle’s Victoria Quay as a four year old, Perth’s population was about 350,000; today it exceeds 1.75 million.

Most suburbs hugged the sandy northern shore of what we call the Swan River, which I later learned in geography classes is actually an estuary.

The metropolitan area extended from Fremantle to just beyond what’s now called Midland, then known as Midland Junction since it was precisely that – a major junction, from where a British privately owned railway line went northwards to Geraldton, while a Western Australian government-owned western railway network began by passing through the Darling Scarp.

At that time only marginally fewer people lived in the Geraldton-Esperance-Augusta, or farmlands, triangle.

Within it sat the wheat and sheep belt, extending from around Geraldton towards the southern coast to the east of Albany; plus timber cutting and dairying country, around Manjimup-Pemberton and Margaret River-Nannup regions, respectively.

The only mining was in the legendary Goldfields, east of the ‘triangle’ – Bullfinch-Kalgoorlie-Coolgardie-Norseman and Southern Cross – plus Collie, whose crucial output drove the nearby coal-fired and metropolitan power stations (one at East Perth, just north of today’s swanky residential enclave overlooking Claisebrook Cove, another south of Fremantle).

Few suburbs could then be classified as ‘swanky’, although Dalkeith-Peppermint Grove, plus West Perth, as I recall, were in the prestige category.

West Perth, with parts of Subiaco, is now an extension of the CBD, because our unimaginative politicians wouldn’t sink the 19th century railway yard around the Horseshoe Bridge that runs through the city’s heart, thereby permanently blocking northward expansion.

That makes Perth’s CBD a strange narrow east-west ribbon-like creature, running from Thomas Street in Subiaco all the way to the Causeway along just four roadways – St Georges Terrace, Hay, Murray, and Wellington streets.

Incidentally, short-sighted (or is it blind?) Premier Colin Barnett is compounding this historic blunder by expropriating and excavating public parkland on the CBD foreshore – Esplanade Park – to sell-off to big developers for nine more high-rise concrete/glass towers.

Instead, all foreshore land from west of the hideous Perth Convention and Exhibition Centre to the Causeway should be transformed into a New York-style Central Park.

The premier, however, is yearning for a concrete-glassy Dubai-on-Swan quarter, with the major east-west arterial thoroughfare of Riverside Drive to be cut-off, thereby ensuring traffic gridlock, including along South Perth-Como’s Labouchere and Mill Point roads, especially at peak hours.

Back in the 1950s Perth’s inner suburbs – Subiaco, North Perth, Leederville, Shenton Park, Graylands, and Victoria Park across the Causeway – had modest residences.

South Perth-Como was harder to reach before the Narrows Bridge opened in 1959, although having ferries certainly helped.

All these suburbs plus Northbridge and Leederville are now very much inner-city locales.

Now, as then, WA relies on imported manufactured goods, including processed foods. Just so much of WA life is eastwards oriented.

I recently telephoned, on a Sunday, one of Perth’s commercial TV stations and was answered by a receptionist in Melbourne.

After getting over that surprise I asked to speak to the Perth newsroom’s chief-of-staff.

Instead the line went dead, so I called another station. This time the receptionist was in Brisbane but knew how to transfer calls so I reached the local news room.

Coincidentally, about a fortnight later, while undertaking a two-day forklift operator’s training course (I’m having two months in Poland where a relative processes, warehouses and distributes ceramic products) I met a former employee of one of the TV stations.

She said all three on Tuart Hill’s eastern slope now have skeleton staffs, and the land they’re situated upon is, or soon will be, earmarked for subdivision into residential lots.

Perth’s TV viewers will thus become almost totally dependent upon east coast broadcasting.

There’s our TV era gone.

Right again Bob  – ‘The Times They Are a-Changin’.

But the changin’ extends elsewhere, far and wide.

Whenever I travel into the Wheatbelt – which is, admittedly, not as often as some years ago – towns, including the one I grew up in, aren’t what they were.

Aging pubs are nearly always empty, schools have been shut down, post offices closed, lots of homes from the 1950s and ’60s (and earlier) lie uninhabited, and there are ever-fewer shops, apart from a sometimes-operating service station.

WA’s wheat-sheep belt within that Geraldton-Esperance-Augusta triangle has undergone a dramatic population slump. The age of WA’s average farmer, I’m told, now easily exceeds 60 years. I wonder who’ll replace them in coming years? Probably no-one.

Perhaps this once-productive region’s broad acres will revert to scrubland.

This means that what Prime Minister Julia Gillard calls Australia’s ‘Asian century’ won’t include the export of grains and meat, or at least not as much as could be supplied, unless foreigners acquire the land.

WA today has fewer than 5,000 farmers delivering grain to CBH silos, down from nearly 15,000 in 1970.

The times are, indeed, a-changin’.

What was once known as the north-west, now only called the Pilbara, was primarily cattle station country, with large segments also used for sheep grazing.

Very few European Western Australians, apart from station-owners, lived beyond Geraldton.

Several tiny isolated ports between Fremantle and Darwin serviced the pastoral industry. 

How things have changed.

Today, Perth is the north-west’s main dormitory hub for Australia’s highest income earners, many of whom are fly-in, fly-out workers at huge port and mining, or is it really quarrying, centres.

Not only is the north-west really FIFO-land, its temporary or short-term residents head Australia’s income scales.

The top three postcodes with highest proportions of households earning over $4,000/week are Dampier (22.3 per cent), Karratha (18.9), and Port Hedland (17.6), with nearby Finucane eighth (16.0).

WA’s only other postcode in Australia’s top 10 locales is City Beach (16.1).

And another four north-west centres show high average earnings – Onslow/Cane, $2,000; Newman $,1915, Fortescue and Tom Price, $1,824.

The only other with these, but outside the north-west, is Bullfinch, at $1,885.

In other words the Goldfields region – a major economic driver from 1893 until the early 1960s – is  being re-invigorated by out-of-the-way Bullfinch.

I’ll quiz Norman Moore on this when we next meet, not because he’s mines and petroleum minister, but because he grew up in Bullfinch, where gold was found well after the Kalgoorlie-Coolgardie region.

It certainly seems that, in Bullfinch at least, times haven’t been entirely changin’, or not to the same extent as elsewhere across WA.


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