AS we rolled into Port Augusta, Allan, the travelling salesman who was driving, told me that South Australians call the town Port Agutter. “No one cares about anything much up here,” he said. A police car was stopped up ahead. “That’ll be an issue with the tinted ones.”
Until then, we’d had a pleasant yarn. When we got closer, we saw a young Indigenous man sitting on the footpath.
The council’s slogan is “the crossroads of Australia”. I suppose Allan would snigger at that. In part, it’s a service town – nearly a third of employees are in community or admin work. One in five of the town’s residents are Indigenous. It’s a hub for the state’s northern regions.
Mainly, though, it’s a struggling industrial town. Cargo trains line its eastern flank, and coal power plants lie south and north. The lung cancer rate is twice the expected national average.
Nevertheless, at the top of Spencer Gulf, the foreshore is pretty. I drove to Perth in the heat of summer ten years ago and one of the images that remains in my mind is watching young Indigenous kids backflipping into the sparkling water from a small jetty there.
This time, my experience countered Allan’s cynicism. In fact, I lingered a day longer, because I’d been told there’d be a stall outside Woolies, set up by Repower Port Augusta.
In the library, I briefly met Daniel Spencer, a worker with the Australian Youth Climate Coalition who’d been living there for a few months, helping with the local community group’s campaign. We didn’t talk long – he was heading off to meet with a local elder.
The Repower campaign unites some unlikely allies: the local council, the business coalition and the National Union of Workers, as well as environmentalists near and far. They all want to replace the two coal power plants with solar thermal ones, if for different reasons. The locals want jobs, and solar thermal promises more ongoing employment than the other alternative, gas.
For the time being, neither plant is operating, although the generator, Alinta, plants to fire up one for the summertime peak season. But it, too, is interested in solar thermal, albeit on a smaller scale.
A poll taken by Repower last month recorded votes from one-third of the town’s residents, and 99 out of every 100 ticked the box for renewables. This Sunday, September 16, there’ll be a rally signalling the start of the Walk for Solar. About 100 students are marching from there to Adelaide – 325 kilometres in two weeks – arriving for another rally in the big smoke, where they’re calling for an end to the coal smoke altogether.
So, with all this in mind, I thought I’d stick around. But the stall didn’t happen. Overnight, the federal government announced it had stopped negotiations for payouts to close the country’s least efficient plants, Port Augusta’s among them. They’ll receive compensation to keep running, instead. Dan jumped on a bus to Adelaide to attend a protest, and figure out what next.
In the absence of the stall, I got the best image I could. Just put your thumb over the ‘Ty’.
My experience in Port Augusta also countered Allan’s racism. Heading north, I got a lift from Robbie and Jimmy Barnes, an Arabunna man and his son, who were driving to Roxby Downs, where Jimmy was about to do a stint as a trades assistant.
Robbie had lived and worked there for a spell, decades ago. He’d worked all over as a boiler-maker. Early in the drive, there was a moment of silence. He shifted stiffly in his seat and looked at me in the rearview. “C’mon Mick, give us some yarnin’. Tell us a story about what it’s like in Melbourne!”
I went blank, but it didn’t matter. Robbie filled the space. He was talker of the first order. He spoke about growing up on Davenport Reserve north of town, the places they’d walked and camped, and how many goals he kicked from the forward flank. He grouched about young men drinking and fighting, about his diabetes and failing eyesight, and about the black cloud from Maralinga that killed his wife’s mother and many of her people.
As we drove on, Jimmy began to talk more too. He said there were too many suicides in town. But he thought that the programs run by a group of local Indigenous men called Males in Black (PDF, see page 12) made a difference, if only they could run them more often.
They dropped me off in Pimba, inviting me to visit them when I came to Port Augusta next time. “Just ask for the Barnes Boys,” Robbie said, with a wry smile. “We’re more famous than the Kelly Gang.”