Newman FIFO fight splits coalition
■ Nationals leader Terry Redman has accused Colin Barnett of undermining regional development and “screwing” the Pilbara town of Newman in a significant fracturing of the Liberal-Nationals alliance Government.
A furious Mr Redman believes the Premier has ignored the Government’s Pilbara Cities policy by agreeing to extend for 10 years, with a further 15 years of options, a 1600-bed workers’ camp owned by BHP Billiton on the northern fringe of Newman.
Mr Redman says extending the Kurra camp prevents fly-in, fly-out workers from integrating with the Newman community and says it is a blow to the Government’s objectives to grow WA’s north.
Mr Redman said it would not be permitted in WA’s South West and, as Minister for Lands, he was refusing to sign the lease that would give effect to the extension that the Premier had agreed with BHP Billiton under a State Agreement.
“This is a really, really big issue for my (Nationals) team,” Mr Redman said. “I see it as a serious fracturing in the alliance relationship.
“And if we continue to make these decisions, we are undermining in my view the very good work we’ve done in WA through Royalties for Regions. If this (decision) carries out, Newman is screwed. “This is totally wrong.” Mr Barnett declined to comment last weekend.
The Shire of East Pilbara believes there are up to 300 vacant BHP Billiton-owned houses and apartments in Newman.
Mr Redman’s office believes there are about 4100 short-stay accommodation units in the town between mining company-owned work camps and ordinary motel and hotel accommodation.
Newman’s population is about 6000.
The town’s average weekly rent has fallen from a peak of $2200 in 2013 to less than $600 since the middle of this year.
Advertised rental homes have soared from fewer than a dozen to almost 200 over the same period.
In addition, 60 Landcorp housing lots are available and a developer plans to build up to 60 more.
BHP Billiton first applied to have its lease extended by writing to the Department of Lands, for which Mr Redman has ministerial responsibility. But it withdrew the application and instead sought permission under a State Agreement directly with Mr Barnett.
Mr Redman as Lands Minister must technically sign off on the lease, which expires on December 31, but has so far refused to do so.
He acknowledged that a refusal to sign the lease could leave the State exposed to legal action from BHP under the State Agreement.
“This is the wrong decision,” Mr Redman said.
“I believe the Premier has got the legal cover to make a harder call, and he’s certainly got the political influence to make a harder call.
“The (Premier’s) call on this is inconsistent with regional development objectives, it’s inconsistent with the Pilbara Cities vision which we laid out as a Government and which he was part of the announcement of.
“We are trying to grow and develop regional WA.
“It would not be acceptable to have a work camp next to any of our bigger regional communities, particularly in the South West. Why should it be acceptable for Newman? Why is Newman any different?
“Why is a State Agreement written in the 1960s delivering this outcome?”
Mr Redman said BHP Billiton wanted to “control its workforce behind a barbed-wire fence” and while it might be efficient for the company, it delivered nothing to the local community.
Nicole Ashby, founder and director of support group FIFO Families, said integrating workers into towns where possible was far preferable to housing them in camps.
“It is absolutely a good idea to integrate people,” she said.
“You feel you are part of the community, especially in a place like Newman which is a small community where there’s an opportunity to connect with others through sporting groups or even spending money in the local economy.”
East Pilbara Shire president Lynne Craigie said the council had supported Kurra when there was a lack of alter native accommodation during the boom, but now that the pressure had eased it agreed that the workers’ camp should be scaled back to 600 beds.
“We are not suggesting BHP should run their business in a way that just props up local accommodation providers, but we would like to see them utilise their own empty houses or redevelop accommodation units in town,” she said.
A BHP Billiton spokesman said it believed the Government had approved the lease extension and the company was “committed to providing quality accommodation for both our residential and FIFO employees”.
“By maintaining a range of accommodation options we are better able to give our workforce a choice to meet their individual needs,” he said.
“We are not prepared to mandate that our FIFO workforce become residentially based, but we will continue to encourage a strong residential presence in Newman.”