Friday, 19 February 2016

We used to build ships in Whyalla

but we don't any more. Now they are trying to save the steel works in the same place.
When I was in the primary school I can remember having to learn about "ship building in Whyalla"  and the steel works. We spent two years living in a very remote part of the state and made a number of trips through Whyalla to get to our tiny destination. 
It was a day long journey and we would sometimes stop in Whyalla for petrol. 
Whyalla was where the sealed road ended or began depending on the direction you were travelling in. I can remember the approach. It never rained. The sky was always blue and slightly hazy over the shipyards and the steel works. They rose out of the rusty desert like steel ants. They seemed indestructible. Yes, we were going to go on making steel and building ships forever. (It was the same with sheep. We were going to live off the sheep's back too.)
It didn't happen of course. Whyalla was in decline by the time I left primary school. It was slow at first but then became more rapid. By the time I left school the Japanese had taken over as shipbuilders to the world. Somehow the steelworks survived. They made better steel than some of the steel being brought in from Asia.It was expensive but some people needed it. It is what should have been used for the new hospital in the CBD but the government has chosen cheaper steel from Asia which won't last more than fifty years. 
Now the state government, which has not used the steel, is demanding a bail out for the steel works. They want to "save" three thousand jobs and the flow on to all the other jobs. They say it will be cheaper than having all those people out of work. I don't doubt that is correct. Having almost an entire community out of work would cause massive social problems. 
Whyalla is still the third largest town in the state - after the capital and Mount Gambier in the south. It is bigger than Port Augusta and Port Pirie - the other two towns at the top of the nearby Spencer Gulf. They are also in decline although there are attempts at projects like a tomato farm using treated sea water and solar power.
I wonder what will happen to these places.
Will we "invest" more than a billion in trying to save something that, like the car industry, might not be able to be saved? Will the money just keep the town staggering along for a few more years?
My parents were never likely to be sent there as teachers. (Teachers working for the Education Department could be sent anywhere the department chose to send them.) The Education Department had other plans for my father. 
I sometimes wonder what it would have been like to live in a place like that.  It was different. Everything was run according to union rules. You could sense it when you entered the town. You were strangers. You didn't belong there. People were polite but you knew they didn't expect you to stay.
I haven't been back there since my childhood. I am not likely to go. I can imagine a certain emptiness creeping in from the desert. I can imagine the sense of being slowly suffocated by the loss of jobs. Will there be someone strong enough to fight that?

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