PLAYFORD LEGACY POTENTIALLY IN TATTERS AS OUTBACK COMMUNITY NEGOTIATES A FUTURE

Sir Thomas Playford at GMH plant 1960, made possible by his Leigh Creek Coal vision.

Sir Thomas Playford at GMH plant 1960, made possible by his Leigh Creek Coal vision.

OPINION
NIGEL CARNEY
Student of Law and SA Researcher
Flinders Ranges SA

The Leigh Creek and surrounding communities are relying on corporate decency, common sense and long awaited action by the government in the wake of the Alinta Energy decision to quit its mining and electricity generation business in South Australia.

The communities are asking for government and corporate action now to ensure a vibrant future for the region which has been the economic backbone of the state, returning billions of dollars of revenue over seven decades of operation.

For Sir Thomas Playford, the passing of the 1947 Leigh Creek Coal Act and the establishment of the Leigh Creek Coal field and Port Augusta Power station was a hard fought triumph for himself and the ordinary working people of South Australia. Serving twenty seven years as Premier, Playford realised a plan that would enable him to inject much needed funds into public housing and infrastructure programs and business, witnessing a period of relative economic prosperity for the state. ETSA was now the people’s utility and the Premier should be remembered as a great politician for putting the people of the state first.

In 1999 the situation changed dramatically with the controversial decision to privatise the public assets in favour of corporate operation of the coal generation and distribution roles, carried out well by ETSA prior to this. In this incredibly brief period of fifteen years, the scenario has changed swiftly as one foreign company after another has raided the State’s treasure chest leaving us now in a seemingly perilous position that no doubt would have the late great Premier turning in his grave.

While consumer electricity charges have soared to record levels during this period, so too have the profits of these companies. An unprecedented flood of wealth out of the state and into the hands of foreign equity companies including CKI Holding (distribution) and more relevant to the plight of the outback, Alinta Energy (generation). While the Alinta website says “Alinta Energy is an Australian energy company with interests in power station assets”, the public should be aware of the following. Alinta Energy is the birth child of the failed Babcock & Brown, which picked up the morsels of Alinta, creating what we now know as Alinta Energy. In a final twist (2010) Texas Pacific Group (TPG), now owner of much Australian wealth including the Myer Retail chain acquired Alinta Energy.

South Australians may well ask why Playford’s vision has been trashed as we look more closely at the various deals struck by SA politicians of both creeds.

While TPG picked up the pieces of Alinta Energy for the bargain price of $640 million, it is now looking to realise its greater plan of selling the fattened cow for the princely sum of between $4 and $5 billion. This is on top of the enormous profits realised by the company in the few shorts years of ownership.

As the outback workers who provided the wealth with sweat and toil consider their future, the US Company executives have taken advantage of free loans to purchase shares in preparation for a whopping $60 million bonus as TPG prepares to pull Alinta Energy out of Australia to fish for greater profits in the Indian and Chinese Markets.

While the Flinders communities are proactive in preparing for a future post coal, leveraging the resources available, the deafening silence from the government is of increasing concern as the risks of government inaction start to become obvious.

Local member Dan Van Holst Pellekaan is well aware of the perilous position the communities are placed in and in his last release ‘100 Days of Inaction in the North’ calls on the responsible Minister Kyam Maher to step up to the mark and respond to the situation facing the communities. Given the immense wealth taken from the region Honourable Member Pellekaan is correct in scoffing at the laughable assistance offered to date and asks for proportionate funding in line with the $60m package provided to North Adelaide following the closure of Holden.

From the billions taken, is it too much to ask the government and the corporations to show corporate decency as they espouse on their websites in returning a decent chunk of wealth back to the region from whence such immense wealth originated? Sir Thomas Playford would no doubt answer ‘no’ to such a fundamental question of social justice and equity. Perhaps the Alinta Executive bonus in light of the facts could and should be relinquished as an act of public faith to ensure the ongoing viability and prosperity of the outback towns now pondering the future.

Ingenuous public consultation with the outback communities has become folk legend and now the communities are demanding transparency and total inclusion in construction of a recovery package tailored to their long term needs and in full consideration of the historic and beneficial role they have played in the state.

When the money is presented, the community visions will create the jobs and revenue talked about and transform the hub of the Northern Flinders into a prize tourist destination and an ongoing base for new and emerging business, including the Leigh Creek Energy Project now preparing for Syngas and fertilizer production. As local town services have functioned well under the ETSA management model, so too could such a company take over such a role in preference to alternatives put which generate little confidence in the region.

Historic Copley train station - freight and passenger services are a key part of regions recovery

Historic Copley train station – freight and passenger services are a key part of regions recovery

While conversion of the coal line train to a passenger service is an obvious and exciting step that would bolster the local economy and create jobs, it’s of concern that our government is not taking the lead and making such simple and obvious recovery plans happen.

To quote an old Whitlam campaign slogan, ‘It’s Time’ for the government and companies they have partnered with to wake up to their responsibilities to the electorate and make these positive changes happen.

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