04/02/2009 - 22:00

Dangers of social engineering exposed

04/02/2009 - 22:00


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BHP Billiton’s Ravensthorpe closure again raises the issue of a fly-in, fly-out workforce

Dangers of social engineering exposed

WHEN you enter Hopetoun on the south coast of Western Australia, the first thing you notice is a huge vehicle-washing facility, which looks capable of cleaning several large trucks at one time.

It was an odd sight when I passed it on a family holiday, less than a week before BHP Billiton announced the closure of its Ravensthorpe nickel project, and the loss of 1,800 jobs by June.

I was stunned at the size of the washing station, which seemed out of place in such a remote place. Maybe in Kewdale or Malaga, maybe even Bunbury or Port Hedland, but not out in the middle of nowhere.

Apart from that, it was hard to see real signs of the population growth at Hopetoun or nearby Ravensthorpe, the main town closest the mine.

From recollection, there was a new two-storey building behind the Hopetoun general store and a brand new school. But many of the new houses I noticed exist in many seaside towns in the south, places where local farmers build for their holidays and retirement.

But - and bearing in mind this was before the mine closure and the fact that I was using my holiday time to take a quiet peek at the area from a business writer's perspective - there was little to suggest either town was experiencing a mining boom.

At 6pm on Sunday, Hopetoun was just like any other country town. The local eateries were shut, save the pub. Firing a gun down the main street would not have harmed anyone.

For a visitor looking for a sense of excitement, it was certainly lacking.

Perhaps, contrary to later reports, the population knew what was about to happen and had already bunkered down. It certainly seemed like they had.

While the impending impact may not have been obvious to me, what has happened at Hopetoun and nearby Ravensthorpe is a disappointment.

It goes to show that social engineering is a risky business.

Mining companies have increasingly preferred fly-in, fly-out operations as the simplest way to manage their workforces at remote sites. This is criticised by many, but equally loved by a large number of individuals who choose such a way of life.

The Ravensthorpe nickel project's proximity to the coast and the area's hospitable climate, when compared to the Pilbara, led the government and BHP to encourage settlement at nearby towns to create a domestic workforce.

There's no doubt that's cheaper and may come with less social risks than having a workforce based in Perth. And in a climate of skills shortages, reducing the options of workers by relocating them seemed like a smart idea too.

What seemed like a good idea has backfired. Regrettably, mining companies in the future will think twice about making such moves due to the consequences we have seen.


SO, what to do now?

Nearly 2,000 workers are hard to redeploy in a region such as WA's remote south coast, but it's not all bleak.

Firstly, in the short-term, there is a serious construction effort needed in the nearby Fitzgerald River National Park, which could really help open up one of the gems of the state's tourism offerings to more than a few hardened long-distance travellers.

In addition, Albany may soon have mining of its own if the ownership changes at iron ore hopeful Grange Resources helps push that project along.

There are also options in other industrial sectors such as the proposed pulp mill at Albany. Of course Albany is a long way from Hopetoun as the crow flies, let alone by road.

So looking at the roads in the area is a logical approach to provide short-term opportunities for the local inhabitants.

Premier Colin Barnett has already said he will seal the woefully inadequate roads that link Hopetoun and Bremer Bay. That's a start, I guess.

The Fitzgerald is a stunning park but its roads and facilities are appalling. I was travelling by two-wheel drive, so I understand not all of the park was meant to be accessible to me, but even roads marked as open to vehicles like mine were hard work. Clearly, some of the park's roads are used by the locals as a shortcut to the main highway. That has left them in average condition.

Worse were the roads to the most scenic areas. These left us driving at a crawl to avoid the most bone-jarring ride. I was regretting not having a four-wheel drive until I discovered two of the key 4WD drive tracks - including one to access the mouth of the Fitzgerald - were closed to traffic.

While there's been some bad weather down there in recent months, it was hard to comprehend why such important routes were out of bounds. Just bad luck if you'd planned your holiday around that destination, I guess.

Campsites were also closed near Hopetoun. I recall it was due to fire damage, though there was little sign of very recent bushfires.

Altogether it was very disappointing and spookily reminiscent of a recent article I read about Kakadu. Entitled 'Kakadon't', the story in The Australian last month suggested the once almighty tourism icon was being deliberately run down because the conservationists and indigenous controllers preferred not to have those pesky people wrecking everything.

In my view, closing off nature doesn't build people's respect for it. The Fitzgerald could do with a proper road traversing it (rather than just sealing the current, longer, route) and equally well-kept routes to its key sights - that in itself is a serious construction job worthy of recession resistant infrastructure spending in the regions.

Naturally, even if we are inviting more cars and people, we want to keep a balance; so manage the park differently and charge higher fees accordingly.

But please don't disappoint people who've travelled hundreds of kilometres or even from overseas to see something special.

By contrast, the Cape Le Grand National Park east of Esperance was excellently managed, handling what seemed to be considerable traffic with ease. If such an approach could be taken along the south coast, the population would have a more secure alternative industry to help them thrive and diversify.



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