Simon Biggs on Wed, 30 May 2001 12:06:57 +0200 (CEST)

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Re: <nettime> Re: Public Electricity Production

Ben Moretti wrote:
>"Playford used three public utilities - the Housing Trust, the Electricity
>Trust, and the Engineering and Water Supply Department - as the key
>development agencies of the State to provide support, at modest cost, for
>industrial growth."
I was born and raised in and around Adelaide, South Australia, during
Playford's "reign". His was a patrician, morally conservative and
economically imperio-capitalistic model that rode on the back of late
imperial Britian and fed by the USA via the fears arising from the cold
war. It was also corrupt after decades of power.

Arguing that South Australia's wealth was built through a kind of New Deal
program centred on housing construction and the centralisation of the means
of production (putting various private utility companies into public trust)
is to miss the point.

South Australia's primary source of wealth during the 50's and 60's was in
the process of shifting from the agricultural (grain, wool and beef) to a
diversified economy based on new agricultural products (wine, intensive
fruit production in the irrigated - and now polluted - Murray Riverlands
region) and, at the time it was felt more importantly, the emerging steel
and coal industries. Ben Moretti's piece argued, correctly, that the Leigh
Creek coal fields (amongst the largest in the world) became the property of
the SA Electricity Trust, however whilst much of the power generated was
used for the growing cities of the State the key factor in this was the
establishment of the steel industry in the three cities of Port Augusta,
Whyalla and Port Pirie. Each of these cities was given a role, by the
state, in the industry as a whole (Port Augusta the role of transport and
logistics, Port Pirie that of steel production and Whyalla of
manufacturing). This is a great example of socio-economic engineering,
almost Soviet in its scope, as the whole thing was developed by government
rather than allowed to develop of its own accord. Of course the 50's and
60's are notable in that a number of industrial economies were doing this
sort of thing (notably the UK) but if you have ever been to any of these
three cities you are immediately struck by how surreal it is that anything
could be in these environs at all, short of a few sad sheep living on what
little vegetation naturally occurs. Nothing was going to naturally develop

The mass immigration of the period was thus not called for to fuel a
housing boom but rather to establish a skilled and semi-skilled workforce
for these new industrial centres that no "local" would choose to live or
work in. South Australia is one of the least populated areas on the planet
("the driest state of the driest country", was what was drilled into us at
school) so any increase in population would have to be achieved by
immigration. In the north of the state you had the "three cities", whilst
in the south, around Adelaide, satelite cities (Salisbury, Elizabeth and
Christie's beach) were established, each around a new industry (Salisbury
around the military research centre there whilst the latter two around
General Motors).

At the time Australia operated a white's only immigration policy (basically
you had to be of European extraction, although those of a mediterranean
tint were treated as if they were "black" by most of the "whites") so the
bulk of the immigration came from the north of England, Scotland, Ireland,
Italy and Greece as well as from Eastern European regions such as Poland
and the Baltics, Bohemia and the Balkans. Many of these immigrants came not
only for the work but also to escape the horrors of the war and the
political divisions that had followed it, thus helping to shape Australia's
current socio-political climate (another story).

Salisbury, mentioned above, was an important centre as this was the site of
Australia's main military research centre. Its specialisms were missiles
and electronic warfare. Its testing range was at Woomera, in the north (not
far from Leigh Creek) where various systems were tested to destruction -
not just Australian systems but, more importantly, joint projects with the
USA and the UK concerned with sea to air, ground to air and air to ground
systems, as well as a civil space program (Blue Streak - but that's another
story). A lot of this research was very advanced, very secret and very
expensive. This research was not small time. The Woomera area had become
one of the main testing sites of the cold war and was as important to the
US, for instance, as it was to Australia. It should also be remembered that
the UK 1950's nuclear testing program was undertaken in this area (at
Maralinga) and that many of the same people and organisations were involved
in both. It was a bit of a messy business, actually...not least that they
"forgot" to evacuate the regions aborigines prior to letting off the bombs
- oops!

So, any evaluation of Playford and the economic character of the period has
to be undertaken against this backdrop of a developing industrial-military
complex of public and private companies and organisations that were
international in their scope and imperialist in the way the capital flowed.
South Australia was just a pawn in all this, and one that was left with a
third of its area polluted with nuclear fall-out (even Adelaide, both sides
of my birth, was innundated by clouds of fallout) and much of its natural
reserves dug up and sold off cheap. It is a familiar neo-imperialist tale,
I fear, saddened by the fact that those that most efficiently and happily
asset-stripped and polluted the region were "locals". It is in fact a story
we all know so well which we hear recounted from so many emerging economic
regions around the world - except that at the time we Australian's thought
we were amongst the world's chosen, a country of immense wealth and
opportunity, on a par with the UK and US. The shock that we were not, and
that we did not even have a modicum of control, through our institutions,
over where the country might go, deeply disenfranchising and sobering.

In the late 60's South Australia, till then one of the most conservative
states of a very conservative country, elected one Don Dunstan as its
(Labor) Premier. This was really something given that he was half
Polynesian (so far as your average Australian was concerned this meant he
was black) and semi-openly gay. This event ushered in a new social period
not only for South Australia but for the country as a whole, as the social
policies that Dunstan established were so successful (workers rights,
womens rights, decriminilisation, gay rights, ecological programs, creation
of reserves and state parks and, perhaps most importantly, the first
Aboriginal land rights legislation). When Australia eventually elected a
Labor national government in the early 70's these policies became the
keystone of a new social concensus in the country which withstood much
heavy battering under Fraser and latterly, rather less successfully, under
the Thatcherite Howard regime. A further sense of loss dominates one's

After the dry and constrained decades of Playford the sense of release and
creativity that Dunstan's election brought with it was overpowering.
Although I was only a teenager at the time I remember very very well the
excitement of the period, as a visceral memory. Ultimately those events
shaped my political outlook and that of a generation.

Simon Biggs
The Great Wall of China at

Research Professor
Art and Design Research Centre
School of Cultural Studies
Sheffield Hallam University
Sheffield, UK

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