30/04/2009 - 00:00

Pilbara city poses question of statehood

30/04/2009 - 00:00


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Could a major metropolitan centre in the Pilbara be a precursor to statehood for the region?

Over the past couple of weeks I've had the pleasure of travelling along much of Western Australia's dramatic and remote coastline between Perth and Broome.

Sparked by some Danish friends who wanted to travel the region, I managed to go to some places I'd never reached before, as well as reacquaint myself with some familiar sights.

Travelling with people from elsewhere can also have its benefits. They get an amateur tour guide (another one of my untrained self-proclaimed occupations) and I get pleasantly surprised by places I might otherwise have passed by.

Another benefit is the innocent observation of the newly arrived.

For instance, we had deviated off the main road to look at Port Samson, notably the ore loading facility nearby because they had not seen one - or a mine - despite our discussion about how much the region contributes to the Australian economy and our national well being.

As we drove back down from the short peninsula, one of our foreign travelling companions asked the obvious question.

"Where are all the people?" she asked. "With so much happening here, why isn't there a big city here."

Having only days earlier written a big story on the concept of Pilbara City, a metropolis of as many as one million people which businessman Ken Perry has envisioned, it was a timely question.

It is also one that I have had cause to ponder for the last couple of weeks.

Well, it may be heresy in WA to suggest this, but after my recent visit not only do I think building a really big north west city is sensible, but I also wonder if it ought to be the capital of a new state which administers the region.

Firstly, why do we need the city?

Many of the reasons for building Pilbara City were outlined in my recent article, but it is worth going over them again, briefly.

The Pilbara and neighbouring Kimberley are more than Australia's major petroleum and minerals centre; they have vast tracts of land that could be used for agricultural, tourism and habitation purposes.

The need for expertise to develop the region is an issue. Few people want to live in a sparsely populated place with few of the amenities of a large city.

Certainly, for many existing residents of the region, centres like Karratha, Newman, Port Hedland and Broome provide sufficient entertainment, shopping, health and education options. But they may not always represent what is needed to meet the north's existing requirements.

Also, there is a long-term imperative to populate our north before some global issue such as climate change, overpopulation or regional power plays causes another nation or group to eye the potential of our vast empty north.

Furthermore, the north has specific issues, such as oil and gas production, large-scale iron mining, pastoral landcare, environment, climate and a big indigenous population that may be better managed locally.

Which neatly brings me to the question of statehood.

I know this is all very hard to accept by those who don't like to take their hands off the reins and prefer management and power to be retained in Perth. There's no doubt that much of the WA capital's wealth and prestige comes from having administrative control of the north west.

But, we all know what it's like to be bossed and bullied by far off leadership. Just look at how we in the west view decision-making from Canberra.

And there's Australia's own history. A century ago, I'm sure there were those in London who preferred to keep the old colonies on a tight lead rather than allow a new self-determining nation to be born.

Yet, in hindsight, it is obvious we were better able to manage ourselves. Belatedly, and at great cost to Australian lives, we even realised we could run our army better than the British.

There's no doubt in my mind that a self-administered region of the north west would have greater incentive to develop both a big regional city as well as additional hard and soft infrastructure around the region.

There is already a view that the Kimberley ought to be part of the Northern Territory, but I feel a Kimberley-Pilbara region makes more sense than giving control to Darwin, which is almost as far from Broome as Perth is.

Personally, I can't see the downside. Perth's long-term cultural focus has, until recently, been the South West, Wheatbelt, Goldfields and, to a lesser extent, the pastoral lands of the Mid West. It's only been in the past 40 years that iron ore and gas have really drawn our attention to the north.

From a financial perspective, there is little gained these days from royalties on developments. These are mainly netted off against lower Commonwealth grants associated with the GST. Perhaps we'd lose a little payroll tax?

In some ways we may be better off. The political clout of the north west, culminating in the Royalties for Regions policy, means that Perth's coffers are now being drained.

From a historical perspective, there's little to show that cutting administrative ties lessens other relationships, such as trade. British investment in Australia, for instance, remains high.

Pilbara City and the north west would still need Perth, with its expertise, understanding and wealth.


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