Our pleas fell on deaf ears

Lang Hancock, “Our pleas fell on deaf ears,”
Sunday Independent, October 27, 1974, p. 17.

Some 30-odd years ago, Frank Thompson, Bill Leslie and I started journeying to Canberra as a committee to tell the Menzies Government:

  • that our Pilbara was fantastically rich in minerals;
  • that it needed untold millions of pounds in capital to develop it; and
  • that we had a scheme to attract this capital at no cost to the taxpayer.

These pilgrimages fell on deaf ears because firstly, our proposals did not involve the building up of any Government departments so that the “fat cats” of that time would not have become even fatter if our scheme was implemented, and because no Government of either political party is really interested in doing anything positive about developing the North, much as they realise the propaganda value of giving lip service to such an idea.

When viewed in cold, hard, political terms, it is asking a lot of either political party to spend money in the Pilbara when it is realised that it is included in the biggest electorate in the world, and despite the fact that it is the richest part of Australia, it returns only one member to our Commonwealth Parliament.

Come hell or high water, it is a safe Labor seat, so much so that it is of no interest to the Liberals because they know they can’t win it, and no interest to the Labor Party because they know they can’t lose it.

In view of this, therefore, one must ask why there was such a blare of publicity focused on the 450-page load of impracticality comprised in the Government’s Pilbara Study. Firstly, it has very little to do with the Pilbara region, and would be more correctly labelled the “Dixon Island Study.”

Huge cost

At a cost of some half a million dollars in money and about a third of a century in time after our pilgrimages to Canberra commenced, it says:

  • that the Pilbara is fantastically rich in minerals;
  • that it needs untold millions of dollars in capital to develop it (approximately $9000 million, in fact);
  • but unlike our proposals, it provides no scheme how these billions of dollars of risk capital are to be inveigled into the Pilbara.

In launching the original Government “Pilbara Concept” on which the study was based, the Minister emphasised “abundant, low cost fuel is the missing ingredient required to launch the Pilbara into a new era of prosperity and development.” According to him, the price at which major industrialisation would be possible was 4 mils. The Pilbara Study Group indicates that the best price fuel would be available would be four times this figure. Exit industrialisation.

To be fair to the Pilbara Study Group, the selection of Dixon Island as a port site was not left to them. They were given no choice in the matter, nor were they permitted to get to first base because the ocean bottom extending from Dixon Island was not drilled and cored.

No guarantee

In other words, because of geological evidence pointing to basalt extending out under the seas, there is no guarantee that a port at Dixon can ever be built economically to take the iron ore ships of the future — say 300,000 to 500,000 tons.

What, then, is the merit in this report? It doesn’t cover the Pilbara, it doesn’t provide evidence on which contracting firms can tender, it doesn’t take into consideration the needs of projects upon which some $11 million in private money has been spent in the Pilbara (not at Dixon) to the point of proving viability, nor does it follow the orthodox practice of allowing say 0.5 per cent of the envisaged total capital being spent on a feasibility study to do it properly.

To do this, the study would cost some $45 million, instead of which it was set down to cost $250,000 with an apparent over-run to double this figure. The evidence would therefore tend to suggest that in practical terms, it was regrettably nothing more than a waste of time, money and effort.

This study has brought the Government immunity from action until the present time, and will bring them immunity probably for another couple of years while the Government studies the study, then for a further period of years while the Government of the day sets up further studies based on the study of the study — as in the Sydney eastern suburbs railway, first studied in the 1890s, and only now being built.

Time wasting

Instead of wasting time and money on a Pilbara Study which can serve no practical purpose, the Government would surely have done better if it carried out its intention as stated in the following words:

“Labor believes that the development of the whole of North Australia is both necessary and urgent.” To which they add as part of their platform: “The provision of the realistic low rates of interest (2-3 per cent pa) for long term development loans.” And again: “Labor will initiate income tax free provisions along the lines adopted in New Guinea and other developing countries.”

Added to which, their policy states that: “Labor will stimulate the growth of nuclear technology particulars by the earliest possible Commonwealth initiative to establish nuclear power station[s].” And … “to achieve desalination of sea, surface and sub-surface water by solar and nuclear energy.”

A further plank in their platform refers to Australia’s “mineral resources, with emphasis on the need for the discovery of new deposits.”

Then, then, leads to the question. If a Labor Government won’t do anything in the Pilbara, what about the Liberals when they get in? The choice seems to be between the Labor Party, who have a definite programme and won’t exercise it, and the Opposition, who haven’t got a programme at all, though it must be said that of the comments that have been published to date relating to the Pilbara study, those of Mr Anthony would suggest that he is the only one who hasn’t had the wool pulled over his eyes.

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