June 2009

The Nation Reviewed

Cold comfort

By Nick Bryant
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Shirt by fluorescent-orange shirt, the quilt will take shape: a gaudy patchwork emblazoned with the logo of the world's biggest mining company, BHP Billiton, and embroidered with the names of its one-time employees who now have lost their jobs. Shirts are being collected at the rate of four or five a day; were every retrenched worker to donate his or her uniform the quilt could comfortably cover the local cricket oval. The idea, then, is to stitch together just the collars and pockets, many of which have been handed over with small mementos left inside. Slipped into one is a collection of glossy photographs, smile-filled snapshots of expectation-filled times. In another a disgruntled former employee has left a one-word message, aimed presumably at the company: "Bastards." Some shirts are still in their wrapping, since some of the recent arrivals never got the chance to wear them.

At 7.30 am on Wednesday, 21 January 2009, employees and contractors at the newly opened Ravensthorpe nickel mine gathered for what they were told would be a "safety meeting", the cruellest of fictions. A BHP functionary stepped forward, tapped the microphone to make sure it was working, and started to deliver an announcement. Then, haltingly, he began again, since contractors at the back of the room could not properly hear him. In the cold grammar of a prepared company statement, the man announced the closure of the mine. With that, he pointed to a pile of cardboard boxes and said that the contractors should pack up their belongings and leave. Coaches had been laid on to take them to the local airport. They could be back in Perth by lunchtime. "To just pull the pin without any remorse or regret was really pretty average," says Peter Uhe, a contractor who was at the meeting, having relocated from Perth with his family. "They say they're committed to Australia, but that's bullshit."

The mine's expected lifespan had been at least 25 years, but it was shut down after eight months of operations. More than 1800 miners and contractors lost their jobs at the mine, with BHP blaming the collapse of global nickel prices, which have fallen from $50,000 a tonne in 2007 to just a fifth of that now. The mining giant spoke of the "diminished prospects of profitability" in a project that had reportedly cost over $2.7 billion in development money alone. Now the mine sits idle, a skeletal structure with a skeletal staff. There is no more powerful symbol of the end of Australia's resources boom.

"Work in the mine, live by the sea," was the snappy slogan that drew hundreds of miners and their families to the coastal community of Hopetoun on the wind-buffeted southern shoreline of Western Australia, 50 kilometres from the mine. But now the convoys of container trucks are heading in the opposite direction, as redundant miners hurriedly pack up and flee. In the past three months, some 1000 people have left.

Like the miners who flocked here, Hopetoun bought the BHP dream, and the town is dotted with landmarks to commemorate its happy transformation. There is a plush new school. An airport with regular flights to and from Perth. A newly constructed sewage plant, a police station and two slender wind turbines, which sit atop a nearby hill. The heritage-listed local pub, the 107-year-old Port Hotel, has had a makeover and boasts a bistro-style restaurant with an international menu. Perfect, then, for Hopetoun's itinerant workforce, lured to this remote corner of Australia from New Zealand, Chile, Argentina, the Philippines, Burma, Canada, America, Britain and Germany. Across from the hotel is a gourmet-sandwich shop, selling organic fruit juices and exquisite lamingtons. ‘Shipwreck' is its unfortunate name.

Then there are Hopetoun's newly built cul-de-sacs, lined with luxury bungalows. Property prices have plummeted by up to half and the neighbourhood reeks of negative equity. Many of the homes have ‘For Sale' signs driven into the grass verges outside, but nobody wants to buy. Some of the homes are half-finished; there is no commercial sense in completing them. In this age of toxic assets, Hopetoun is ringed by toxic suburbs.

On the road out of town, Rick Besso, a local businessman, gives me a tour of what looks like a model village of freshly painted clapboard homes, erected by BHP Billiton for its incoming workforce. There is a swimming pool, barbecue pits, a tennis court and a café selling strong coffee: many of the accoutrements of the Australian good life. Soon, Wavecrest Village will be dismantled, and its transportable homes relocated to other mining towns. "The community is just going to empty itself out," says Besso. "People are desperate, people are concerned, people are frightened. There's been nothing mapped out for them. This community three months ago had a beautiful future. Today it has nothing."

Former symbols of growth and transformation have become reminders of Hopetoun's brisk decay. Take that brand-new primary school, which started the academic year with more than 200 pupils but will end it with fewer than 50. Or consider the plight of local businesses, which have seen turnovers plummet by over 70% but are still saddled with boom-time rents. The future of the local airport is also in doubt, with flights to and from Perth guaranteed only until the end of June, when the contract between the airline and BHP will expire.

Fifty kilometres inland, the little town of Ravensthorpe also finds itself in the clutch of circumstance. Halfway up the main street is the town's new pharmacy, set up by Ibrahim Alabsawi, an Iraqi-born pharmacist who came here from Perth. When the shop opened, its shelves were loaded with products suited to the needs of a fast-paced mining community: elbow and knee supports, soothing muscle creams and a range of blister plasters. But stocks are dwindling, the shelves are half-empty and Ibrahim can see little point in replenishing them. "We thought we had hit the jackpot," he says, "but now we're finding it hard to make ends meet."

Hopetoun and Ravensthorpe have been through the cycle of boom and bust before, when the goldmines closed down early last century. This time, though, there is little to fall back on; the local economy has been entirely reconfigured to meet the needs of the mine. Some former residents, especially the old and low-income earners, were forced out of town as property prices and rents tripled. Local farmers sold land to the mine, weakening the agricultural sector. "What industry there was prior to BHP has been totally removed," says Rick Besso. There has been talk of opening up a new flight academy to train Chinese pilots, constructing a biofuel power station or, less ambitiously, of building a breakwater to create a marina. "We're looking at every bloody thing," says Rick, although nothing has yet come close to fruition.

During her three-year tenure, Shire President Brenda Tilbrook has presided over Australia's fastest growing and, now, what in all likelihood is its most rapidly shrinking rural community. At the start of January, she was a self-confessed "true believer" and remained loyal to BHP even as journalists confronted her with well-sourced rumours that the mine was about to close. "They said it was a media beat-up," she says, "and that the meeting was to discuss safety." Now she is one of the company's most vehement critics. "They have a moral responsibility to our community, but they don't really face up to that. They are BHP, the biggest mining company in the world, and they're very powerful. It's a real David versus Goliath." Certainly, she knows how to craft a tidy soundbite, and is now turning the media training she received from BHP back on the company.

Hopetoun and Ravensthorpe are in danger of becoming ghost towns, as what were supposed to be the brightest chapters in their civic histories have stopped abruptly in mid-sentence. As they contract, just about the only thing that's growing is the quilt - not that it offers much comfort.

Nick Bryant

Nick Bryant is the BBC’s New York and United Nations correspondent. He is also the author of The Rise and Fall of Australia: How a great nation lost its way.


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