Australia

Voices from Gove: Can a mining town survive a shutdown?

Rio Tinto refinery, Gove

The loss of 1,100 jobs would be a devastating blow to any community. But for one remote Australian town of 4,000 people, the news was catastrophic.

On 29 November last year, Australian mining giant Rio Tinto announced it was mothballing alumina production at its refinery in Gove, Arnhem Land, directly making nearly one third of the town's population redundant.

Low prices and the strength of the Australian dollar had finally crippled the loss-making plant after 40 years, rendering it commercially unviable to continue refinery operations in the remote Northern Territory township. The bauxite mine would remain active and continue to employ a few hundred staff.

Gove was purpose-built in the 1970s by former mine owner Nabalco and offered workers an appealing, coastal, family-friendly alternative to fly-in fly-out camps.

Rio Tinto has vowed not to abandon the community and has set up the East Arnhem Region Community Development Fund to help find long-term solutions for local businesses and support any growth initiatives.

To make things yet more complex, both town and mine were built on Aboriginal land for which the mining company holds a Special Purpose Lease from local Yolngu Traditional Owners. Rio Tinto has offered money for programmes to benefit the health and wellbeing of indigenous people in the area.

Despite its origins, this town has developed an apparent desire to chart its own course. But can a community in such dire straits survive? Nearly a year on from the announcement, we hear from those who still call Gove, or Nhulunbuy, home.

Rick Mooney: made redundant after 20 years working at the refinery

"Obviously it was a surprise because Rio had previously announced that the operation was, in their words, full steam ahead. We were given the assurance there was no problem. The response was mostly silent shock.

The refinery has its fingers extended right into the community. Everything is connected to it, the police, the school, and every social and sporting club. By the very nature of it they have exerted enormous control over the community.

And in my view it has been extremely disappointing, a disgrace even, to see the lack of support they have offered during this transitional period. They had an obligation to support the community during this phase.

It wasn't hard to decide to stay. My wife has a job she loves outside the mining industry, our son loves it. We've always seen our future here; we would have stayed whatever happens.

I think there will end up being more people who are here because they want to be; people who are interested in living in Arnhem Land rather than just being here for the money. If this town can ever get out of the shadow of the mining company totally that would be the ideal outcome, in my view."

Rob Stewart: Rio Tinto employee and president of Gove FM radio station

"Out of my working group of 14 there was only myself and one other who managed to stay on. It was a big relief, but it was a mixed blessing. When the bulk of your workmates were down in the dumps because they didn't get one of the jobs going you didn't want to boast.

I can't see the impact in town numbers-wise, just in attitude. There's a lot of negativity around.

Here at the radio station we were very nervous. The atmosphere was that all the local businesses were going to go bust and leave town, and we rely on sponsorship to function. But a year on we are still stable. We've also secured additional funding from Rio Tinto's development fund to take a mobile radio studio out into the nearby indigenous communities so we can train up local kids.

The biggest downside for me has been losing so many mates. But I've always been a glass half-full kind of guy and I can't see any reason why the whole town needs to expire. We have to accept the cash cow isn't there to be milked anymore.

And there were a lot of people here with big boats and new four wheel drives who didn't think about their future. But in my view, it wasn't up to Rio to tell people how to take care of their future."

Michael Sandford - assistant principal at Nhulunbuy Primary School for the past 12 years

We started this year with 570 students, which would have placed us as one of the larger primary schools across the whole of the Northern Territory. We expect to begin the school year in January somewhere around 380.

We used to have 22 classes, we're now down to 19 and we expect to start next year with 14. A drop of eight classes means a drop of eight teachers.

Also, about 90% of our support staff were Rio spouses, or contractors who worked for Rio. So we're battling with that too and they are very hard to replace.

I was pretty disappointed when I first heard the news. But this is a mining town and these sorts of things regularly happen in mining towns. It had been rumoured to be on the cards for a while before it actually happened, so it wasn't a big surprise. It was just disappointing.

People are far more pessimistic than they used to be now. There used to be a very good sense of community and that's dissipated a bit with lots of people going. Lots of the volunteers who ran the clubs in town, surf club, BMX club, tennis and golf and so on, have left. Hopefully some of those things will stay.

I'm not going anywhere; I just go with the flow.

John Tourish: owner of the Walkabout Lodge

Walkabout opened here in September 1970, it's 44 years old. This hotel was built when the town of Nhulunbuy was initially built and it's been part of the community ever since.

Its offering probably hasn't changed that much since 1970. The thing with mining town hotels was that no-one ever invested any money into them. No-one had invested in this place for the 30 years prior to my arrival.

The closure hasn't impacted our business though. Business has been quite sustainable and strong, and we've actually had positive growth this year since the announcement. But that's because some of the other businesses in town aren't handling it so well. Some are winding up, or have changed their hours.

I've been part of the Gove Taskforce, and I've sat with the Northern Territory government, federal government and Rio Tinto for nearly a year now working through this. We might have a small hiatus, there will be a bit of a lull in population, but realistically we are going to end up at about 2,300 to 2,500 people in town. Up until 1992 the town was always 2,500 people, so what we've lost is the boom.

Since 1992 we've had huge growth in indigenous health and education services. We've had demands from people here in town for better education services. Those employees will replace the refinery workers.

They might not earn as much money, but at the end of the day they will be mums and dads with kids, and it will still be a kid-friendly family town in probably one of the most beautiful locations in Australia."

Lilibeth Regan: resident of Gove for 17 years and owner of the Kamayan Cafe for 11 years

My husband worked at the refinery for 16 years. Now he has to reapply for his job and it's not very good money for him because all the pay has dropped.

He turned down the redundancy. That was big money to say no to but he is willing to take a pay drop so we can stay for my career. He likes it here; he likes the people. The thing that annoys him the most is how many of his friends have left.

That's the worst thing, the number of people who are leaving. Every week more and more regular customers come in to say bye, they want food to take-away because they are packing up. It's sad because they love Gove and this is their home.

The business has stayed pretty constant though. Actually, I feel I've been busier in the last year than I was before.

Now Rio have realised that the number of people is coming down so they must subsidise the rental rates and power for the businesses that are still here, so we might actually make some money this year. If that's going to happen long term, we'll be okay. We don't know how long it will go on for... if my husband has a job here I'm lucky because we can rely on that. If he doesn't and we have to pay for our accommodation and the numbers drop down, I don't think we can afford that. "

Lynne Walker: resident for 25 years and Labor MP for Nhulunbuy since 2008

In other communities in Australia where we've seen a downturn - particularly in the manufacturing sector - the federal government has always been in that space with packages to assist people to retrain, and businesses to recover. They have been absolutely non-existent here from the federal government.

The NT government has done its best to provide consultancy support to local businesses to try and work with Rio Tinto to assess how the community will move forward, but it's very tough if you are a local business owner. No-one will buy your business, and there's no consultancy plan in the world that can find a new customer base.

I think one of the reasons is because we are in an incredibly remote North East Arnhem Land. And the second factor is that the federal government claims it's a special purpose lease - it's a mining town, so it's Rio's responsibility and not theirs.

I think things are going to get even worse before they get better, but we will come out the other end. Nhulunbuy is not going to disappear; it's too much of an important community and regional service hub in the Northern Territories.

I'd also be looking from a commitment from Rio Tinto. They are the operators of this town. Market conditions have changed but they cannot walk away from this place. They cannot walk away from the Traditional Owners who have offered up their land and resources all these years.

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