By Stephen FayMarch 30, 2012
Lord McAlpine, whose tourism vision created a new Broome before his financial downfall, returns to find division over Woodside’s plan to process gas in the wildernerness that prompted his own development.
Lord Alistair McAlpine is no ordinary collector. He acquires with passion and disposes, when required, with a profit or a shrug. Legendary collections of Sidney Nolan paintings, of police truncheons, rare species of hens and snowdrops have come and gone. But his most ambitious collection of all was nothing less than Australia. He acquired first-settler furniture and Aboriginal art and artefacts, but the prize of his Australian collection was a run-down old pearling town on the edge of the Kimberley.
His first visit to Broome was a day trip to in 1979 to buy seashells, and he was entranced by what he found; golden sands, bright blue sea, red earth and purple sunsets, the scent of frangipani. He liked the architecture and the people. He was soon convinced Broome had all the attributes of a tourist resort that would be compelling to an international as well as an Australian audience.
Speaking in Broome recently, he said modestly that he thought Broome was a marginally better place in which to live by the time he left. He had revolutionised tourism and played a part in transforming South Sea pearls into a desirable fashion item. But Broome, like many of his collections, has gone; he was forced to sell off his assets there 20 years ago. When he returned late in March it was to be honoured by the town for his decisive role in its recent history. Lord McAlpine of West Green can now add the Freedom of the Shire of Broome to his list of honours.
The local worthies who had raised the funds to bring McAlpine to Australia to honour him were hoping that his presence would persuade the media to spread some good news about the town. Broome needs it, badly. Both tourism and pearls are prominent among the victims of the global recession.
The crucial issue facing Broome, however, is about the resource boom, which is scheduled to spread north from the Pilbara to Broome and the Kimberley. Planned for a site 60 kilometres north of Broome is a AUD35 billion gas terminal. It would allow Broome a share in Western Australia's astonishing prosperity and create new jobs in a declining economy. But Broome is not convinced that it wants to be part of it. Many want Broome to remain Broome. McAlpine's presence in the town again would be a welcome reminder of good times, and he would surely have some trenchant ideas about the future.
McAlpine received the Freedom of the Shire of Broome honour on March 19, on a balmy Broome night in the garden of the Pearl Luggers on Dampier Terrace. Plans from his most ambitious projects were screened onto the sail of one of the luggers exhibited in dry-dock. They showed fine buildings that were moved and restored, such as Matso's Brewery, and his most daring projects of all - a large and expensive resort on Cable Beach and a sprawling zoo behind it. Graeme Campbell, Broome's shire president, told the audience that McAlpine had paid taxes on 88 properties in Broome; moreover, he had paid them promptly. McAlpine himself remarked that if he had known it was that many, he would have been terrified.
Locals talk of BM, meaning Before McAlpine, and AM, After McAlpine. The Catholic bishop of Broome, Bishop Christopher Saunders, is an acute observer of change in this flagrantly informal society (women do not kiss the bishop's ring, they kiss his cheeks). He says: "Alistair changed the complexion of the place and gave it a vista it has never had before." Not everyone agreed; initially there was vigorous opposition to McAlpine's plans. The editor of the local papers criticised McAlpine's motives so fiercely that a libel action was begun. The celebrated Broome singer Stephen Pigram commemorated his arrival with a song, Dear Alistair, which contained some unwelcoming lines: "Well, I hear you're blown out by my beauty/ Streaks of white, fiery reds and blues./ My innocence is all that I can cling to/ I got no price. I'm not for sale to you."
McAlpine was correct about the town's tourism potential, especially after he bought a dowdy caravan park on the magnificent sweep of Cable Beach and constructed a costly and agreeable resort, using the vernacular architectural style of Broome for the cottages; he decorated the whole site with cheerful red and green lattice work, and littered the place with paintings from his collection of Nolans. Throw in a range of statuary from South Asia, and Broome had a resort that was remarkable by any standards.
Not far away, McAlpine started a zoo in which visitors looked down on the animals in their pens from raised wooden walkways. The zoo specialised in threatened African species and rare and exotic birds. Hotels already operating in Broome were forced to raise their game, and run-down pearling masters' houses, built round a high-ceiled four-room square surrounded by deep verandas, became desirable residences. Inevitably, house prices soared.
McAlpine was also part-owner of a pearl farm up the coast, and South Sea pearls soon established a reputation for quality and lustre. To begin with, Bill Reed of Linneys displayed his stock of lustrous pearls loose on the top of barrels in his storefront; before long, they were being sold on Broome's main shopping streets in stores that would seem familiar to high-end shoppers in Rome or New York.
Only a few years earlier Broome had been a destination for "mugwumps" - men and women from the south who could, until a stop was put to it, collect their social welfare payments in Broome, live a frugal life among the sand dunes and make no contribution to the local economy. After McAlpine had been a presence in Broome for a decade, the ambiance had changed utterly. The dunes were populated by comfortably off couples and their children. Broome was living up to McAlpine's expectations of it. He was even credited with a truly visionary act of town planning which banned buildings higher than a palm tree, or two stories at the most. In fact this enlightened legislation was passed by the gang who ran Broome BM because they did not want their town to become like Queensland's Gold Coast. McAlpine was an enthusiastic supporter of the rule, determined to keep Cable Beach a pristine environment for his club.
The opening of the Cable Beach Club in August 1989 made a great splash; all the waiters, for example, were flown in from Harry's Bar in London. They had landed at Broome's small airport, then dripping with bougainvillea, so close to town that when the late flight from Perth flew in over the legendary Sun Picture House (it boasts that it is "the world's oldest operating picture garden") spectators sometimes had to lip-read — they still do. McAlpine was certain that a new international airport was required if Broome was to flourish. He envisaged nonstop flights from London and Frankfurt, disembarking passengers who could recover from their jet lag at the Cable Beach Club before flying on to other Australian destinations. He acquired a cattle station of three-quarters of a million acres not far from Broome as the site for the new airport, and a well-attended public meeting in Broome voted overwhelmingly in favour. The bad news for McAlpine was that Carmel Lawrence, the Labor premier of Western Australia was profoundly suspicious of his motives. She was perfectly certain that she owed no favours to a Pom, a Thatcherite, and a peer.
But the fates were less kind to McAlpine than even Lawrence was. Within a fortnight of the Cable Beach Club's opening, the airline pilots struck. A dispute that was expected to last a few days dragged on for three months. Visitors simply forgot about Broome, and the club was not able to take advantage of the launch publicity. The strike was followed by a recession in which banks that had splashed money about as if tomorrow would never come, suddenly rediscovered prudence.
The impact on McAlpine's finances was catastrophic. The family firm of builders in London insisted that all the Australian properties be sold. The club — along with its dozen or so Nolans — went, along with all the Perth office buildings. McAlpine had spent AUD20million of his own money on the zoo, but that had to close and the property was sub-divided for housing.
He is not given to self-pity or regret, but the retreat from Broome hurt him deeply and cost him dearly. His presence is now remembered by the name of the hotel that occupies the house in which he lived - McAlpine House. He went back to Europe, started to collect Venice instead, and began an entirely new career as a writer of books and columns. One of the books, The Servant, based on his experience of working for Margaret Thatcher, is considered a small classic of devious political literature.
The pilots few again, the Australian economy recovered and in the 1990s Broome started to fulfil its potential. Hotels expanded, South Sea pearls were most desirable and there was no shortage of jobs for professional people such as teachers and health workers. The cost of living, already high in the Kimberley, was made more tolerable by a Broome allowance of AUD8,000 for public servants, though booming property prices made it difficult for young teachers, for example, to buy a house and bring up a family in Broome. By the millennium Broome's recovery was complete. Graeme Campbell, the shire president, identifies the good years as 2000 to 2008, when the world recession blew away Broome's sense of frontier optimism.
The town still creates a fine impression on a visitor. The streets are clean, there, is none of the detritus of urban life — no traffic lights, few streets signs and no flashing advertisements. But the mood is darker.
Pearls were among the first to suffer from global recession. By 2012 sales had fallen between 60 and 70 per cent. Some pearl farms simply closed down; bigger producers brought fewer pearls to market. Job numbers in an industry which had employed 800 in good times were halved.
The tourist trade, which already lives with a season curtailed to seven months because of the Wet, suffered substantial falls in bookings. Hoteliers complain that they suffer from higher wage bills than elsewhere, tiresome labour regulations and expensive flights from Perth. But the greatest insult is the general knowledge that a family from the east coast can have a holiday in Bali or Thailand for not much more than a single airfare to Broome.
For the first time, property developers were allowed to argue that high land prices justified three-storey developments. That is a dangerous precedent, the thin end of the wedge, that could threaten the visual character of the town. A ban on selling booze to Aboriginal people brought unwelcome publicity; there was a well-publicised murder near the airport; and, most damaging of all, squads of riot police had been flown from Perth to cope with demonstrators persistently opposing the construction the vastly expensive terminal at James Price Point, 60 kilometres north of Broome, which will turn gas from the Browse Basin into liquid natural gas.
The great mining boom in the Pilbara and exploration for oil and gas off the northeast coast has mostly bypassed Broome. Supply ships plying to and from the exploratory wells used the town's deep-water port, and whole hotels are being considered as dormitories for miners in the Pilbara, who fly in and fly out (and are known as FIFOs). But drama began when Broome was selected as the site of one of the West's biggest resource developments: the oil and gas company Woodside, along with influential partners such as BP, Shell and Chevron, have committed to the AUD35 billion terminal to process gas and condense it so that it can be shipped overseas. As many as 8,000 construction workers would be involved, and a few hundred permanent new jobs created.
On the face of it, Broome's policy towards the development might appear a no-brainer. After all, it is not living too well by relying on tourism, pearls and public service. But in fact, the town is divided by it, sometimes bitterly. The town council is split, with five against and four in favour, on condition that the social audit that is being done is approved. (For example, Broome resists the notion that it could house the thousands of construction workers.) The Chamber of Commerce, which you might expect to be a gung-ho supporter, is fairly evenly divided. Martin Prichard, of Environs Kimberley, reflects the attitude of the Greens when he says that Woodside's gas terminal is the thin end of another wedge: once built, what follows would be the industrialisation of one of the world's greatest wilderness areas.
The most influential voice, however, belongs to the Aboriginal tribes that own James Price Point. One of the particular qualities of Broome is a consequence of the White Australia policy in 1901, when the pearling masters persuaded the government to admit Japanese divers and Koepanger crews. The condition was that no women could accompany them, and the inevitable result was mixed Asian and Aboriginal families. The bishop describes them as "Broomoriginals", and they are a significant, articulate and argumentative presence in the debate about the terminal. The bishop hastily withdraws the phrase "civil war", but he reports bitter splits within families. He estimates that his flock is 60 per cent against the terminal and 40 per cent in favour.
Title to the land at James Price Point belongs to the Jabir Jabir tribe, and Woodside already has signed an agreement with the Kimberley Land Council to pay AUD1.5 billion over 40 years for use of the land. However, a second tribe, the Goolarabaloo, contests the agreement. Howard Pedersen, an historian who works with prominent indigenous leaders, regrets that it is a binary argument, for or against. He would prefer to locate the terminal elsewhere, while retaining the supply ships in Broome. Pressed on how this might happen, Pedersen argues that the pressure of opposition in the area might persuade Woodside's partners to withdraw the proposal. Opposition also unites the greens and some businessmen, for the idea is to let Broome go on being Broome, missing out on the windfall wealth of the resources industries but retaining its soul by resisting change. In contrast Woodside's leaders evidently believe that what is good for them must be good for Broome.
McAlpine's opinion was eagerly sought, and the chance to test it came on his last evening in Broome when he put aside his jacket and tie to appear at a public meeting held in the library. An audience of 135 responded cheerfully to McAlpine's whimsy. (he told them the best thing about the House of Lords is the crumpets at tea time.) But he dodged a leading question about the terminal with a whiff of populism. "These are decisions," he said, "that have to be taken by people from Broome and the Kimberley. You have to come to your own conclusion, not to have it dictated by people in Sydney or Canada."
The sentiment was well received, though not everyone was persuaded of its practicality. A recent immigrant from Afghanistan named Ali, a FIFO working in a diamond mine in the north, said: "The town is against it, but our voices are less than corporation voices." McAlpine's principal message was directed at the combatants: "Don't let it make you so angry that you can't come to terms with the loser. When you're not speaking to each other, you come up with a sick society."
But McAlpine did not hedge throughout his trip. He spoke frankly during an interview with Flip Prior of The West Australian. "The whole point of Australia," he said, "is to develop it with industry so that people can be born in Broome, educated in Broome, and get a proper job that pays decent money in Broome. That was always my vision." It has not been realised yet.
Later, sitting comfortably in the Cable Beach Club which he liked well on his return, McAlpine spoke even more firmly in support of the gas terminal, observing that opposition to the development reminded him of the criticism he had attracted himself when he tried to industrialise the tourist industry. And he forecast an apocalyptic outcome if the gas terminal goes elsewhere in West Australia while Broome remains in thrall to declining pearl and tourist trades. Jobs will go, he said. People will leave; children will have no future and eventually Broome will go the way other towns in West Australia that failed to keep pace with change.
It is not the conclusion you expect to hear from the man whose personal discovery of Broome gave it purpose and brought it into the mainstream of Australian tourism. It sounds more like the man who ran a construction business with an eye to the future. Without a future in resource development, Broome, declares Lord Alistair McAlpine, eventually will become a ghost town. It sounds like the end of a fine romance.