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Senator Ian Campbell

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Extracts from a Speech by Senator IAN CAMPBELL

to the Senate on Monday 18 November 2002

Regarding the 50th Anniversary of the Pilbara Iron Ore Industry.

About 50 years ago a storm blew through the Pilbara region of Western Australia—in fact, around the Hamersley Range National Park. That particular storm had an incredible influence on the history of Western Australia and ultimately on the economic wealth of Australia. It forced a small aeroplane, known as an Auster, and anyone who wants to see what this aircraft looks like can travel to Kalgoorlie and see the plane, down below the cloud line and into those famous gorges throughout the Hamersley Ranges. Flying that little plane was Lang Hancock. This week we will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the discovery of the greatest iron ore province in the world by someone who is a legend, and who was a legend in their own lifetime. A man with limited education, a pastoralist with no training in geology, discovered one of the greatest resources and brought to fruition its development. It had the effect of changing Western Australia from a mendicant state, a state with a very little capacity, into a powerhouse state within the Australian economy that now creates over 30 per cent of the export wealth of this nation.

Lang Hancock wrote some years later: I was flying down south with my wife, Hope, and we left a little bit later than usual, and by the time we got over the Hamersley Ranges the clouds had formed and the ceiling got lower and lower. I got into the Turner River, knowing full well that if I followed it through I would come out into the Ashburton. On going through the gorge in the Turner, I noticed that the walls looked to me to be solid iron and was particularly alerted by the rusty looking colour of it. It showed to me to be an oxidised iron.

This was the beginning of a quite extraordinary story, and I think it is entirely appropriate tonight that not only the Senate but all Australians note that this week is the 50th anniversary of a man who created an economic miracle for Western Australia and Australia.

By the end of the fifties it had been established that the Pilbara was rich in iron ore; however, there were a number of bureaucratic hurdles. These hurdles and the ensuing political fights would test Lang Hancock throughout his life, almost to his dying days. One hurdle was the Commonwealth government embargo on exports which, after many years of vigorous and relentless lobbying by Lang, was raised. Another hurdle was the state government bans on pegging. Much of this is already history, and history shows us that Lang realised how he could overcome some of the state hurdles to the development. He pulled together some very powerful international backers and, with the backing of Rio Tinto, which went on to form Conzinc Rio Tinto Australia or Rio, as we know it now, and which in turn created Hamersley Iron, the Hamersley Mine at Mount Tom Price was commissioned in 1962.

Within five years a further four iron ore mines were created, and the towns of Mount Tom Price, Newman, Paraburdoo, Pannawonica, the port at Port Hedland, Karratha and Dampier were created—effectively developing an area that prior to that had been predominantly developed for pastoral leases and other purposes.

The history of Lang Hancock is not only about developing the iron ore provinces— although they were absolutely crucial to the development of the powerhouse economy of Western Australia. I am sure all Western Australians would ask themselves just how far the development would have gone in the Pilbara region if it had not been for Lang Hancock and his partner, Peter Wright. Would we have had the North West Shelf development? Would we have had places like Dampier and others being developed there? Would we have had the highway networks and the railway networks? To a large extent, the answer is either no or other developments would have been somewhat delayed as a result.

The mines have earned hundreds of billions of dollars worth of export earnings and royalties for the state—last year, I am told, it was $286 million. They have not only brought significant social benefits but also the development of fantastic technological advances to Western Australia and Australia as a whole.

I had the great privilege of taking Australia’s Treasurer, Peter Costello, to the Pilbara in an RAAF Falcon jet in July of this year. We both reminisced about the flights we had taken there with Lang Hancock when we were young men. He made a habit of taking politicians, journalists and civil servants on trips to his beloved Pilbara to try to convince the southerners and the easterners just how important these discoveries were and that, if only the bureaucrats and the politicians would realise that if they would just get out of his way and let him build his railway and let him get on with building his ports, all of Australia’s economic woes could be changed.

I owe a great debt of gratitude to Lang Hancock. I must have been about the age of 21 or 22 when he took me up there. He certainly opened my eyes to that region of the state and to the great possibilities of its mining development. Since then, I have visited there more times than I can count. I have very fond and clear memories of sitting in the backyard of Lang’s property at Wittenoom and watching a movie that I think he has shown all of us— it must have been a pretty worn out old tape by the time I got to see it. I shared four days with Ken McCamey and Lang on that visit.

A lot has happened in Western Australia since then, and it is sad to say that I think a lot of people’s memory of him has been tarnished. I want to put on the record that I think a number of the controversies that have surrounded him after his death will diminish in time and that people will remember the enormous contribution that Lang and Peter Wright made to the development of Western Australia.

Lang Hancock was a remarkable character. He worked very long, hard and courageous hours. He supported his family and many others. He once spent seven months of a year in the saddle herding sheep and hunting dingos. It was a lonely existence in the very remote parts of the north-west. He was a passionate pilot and learned the basic skills in very short lessons. In the opinion of his lifetime friend and cousin—a mutual friend because I had the privilege of knowing this man too—Air Vice Marshal Sir Valston Hancock said that Lang was probably the finest bush pilot in the country. After having established himself as a bush pilot, he established his own facilities to service his plane. There were no aircraft maintenance facilities in the Pilbara at the time. He built his own workshop and obtained the relevant qualifications to service his own planes. At the age of 65, he went on to become a qualified pilot of a Falcon jet. Those of us who have flown in Falcons would know that that is no mean feat for a person of 30 or 40 years of age. It shows the dedication and the devotion of the man to have pursued that at the age of 65. Quite simply, Lang Hancock was a remarkable character. Having signed the royalty agreements with Rio and with Hamersley Iron, he could have taken the soft option and retired at a very young age anywhere in the world as a multi-multimillionaire. He chose not to. His dream was to develop his own mine and a railway across Australia to link the coalmines of Queensland with the iron ore mines of Western Australia and to develop downstream processing.

That dream is now carried on by his daughter, his grand-daughter and his grandson. I wish them well in their quest, but the important thing tonight is that the Senate remember Lang Hancock and his fantastic contribution to the great state of Western Australia and to the Commonwealth of Australia.


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