EDITORIAL: Post-BHP for better or worse
ASK a hundred Novocastrians whether the city is better without its steelworks and you’ll probably get a hundred different slants on the two simple answers.
That’s because it’s so obviously better in some ways, and yet so much poorer in others.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott ignited the debate by referring to the city’s post-steelworks experience in the wake of recent car industry closure announcements.
Mr Abbott suggested that regions now hurting will, like Newcastle, see a bright side in time.
What makes the topic so pertinent, at present, is the apparent rapidity with which Australia is shedding jobs from its crippled manufacturing sector.
Coupled with the impact of the unrestrained recent resources boom, the international currency wars that followed the global financial crisis have left Australian manufacturing floundering.
The nation’s manufacturing sector now represents only about 7per cent of gross domestic product, the lowest level since colonial times and reputedly the lowest of any OECD country.
Perhaps post-industrial Newcastle has lessons for the rest of the country. If so, perceptions of whether the city is ‘‘better’’ or ‘‘worse’’ in the wake of the steelworks closure will be relevant.
Those who say things are better can point to cleaner air and a tidier, greener city, as well as the new confidence that came with the realisation that the steelworks closure was not a death-knell, as many had feared.
Those who say things are worse have some sobering points in their favour, however. The main one is jobs. The steelworks, at its peak, provided work for more than 10,000 people, not to mention all the indirect jobs it supported.
These were relatively well-paid jobs to suit all levels of expertise and education, from metallurgists to unskilled labourers, from accountants to boilermakers.
BHP trained generations of skilled workers. The thousands of paypackets it furnished were spread across the Hunter, supporting all manner of small and medium businesses.
Yes, Newcastle is in good shape in 2014, almost 100 years since its steelworks opened and 15 years since it closed.
But it would be dishonest to ignore the enormous and far-reaching loss of wealth, expertise and opportunity that accompanied the closure of that signature industry.
Perhaps other parts of Australia will say the same thing in future, when they look back on the events now darkening their own horizons.