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Working for the man - NQ town where the boss owns all the houses, and most of the roads


The Cape York mining outpost of Weipa is one of only five remaining towns where the mining company “owns” the settlement. It’s an old-school arrangement which many locals now think has had its day, writes Marty Silk

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Visitors to Weipa are welcomed to the far-north Queensland town by a highway lined with stringybarks, each covered in bauxite dust splattered like dried blood.

The gates to the coastal mining outpost are formed by two level crossings through which mammoth haul trucks rumble on their rounds of Australia’s largest bauxite operation.

Before reaching suburbia, the road into town winds past Lorim Point port – where a rust-coloured shiploader can be seen pouring the aluminium ore into a bulk carrier.

These ships will eventually travel through the Gulf of Carpentaria and on to distant aluminium smelters.

There’s no doubt Weipa is a mining town.

With a population of more than 4000, Weipa is the largest of Australia’s five remaining company-owned towns.

Mining giant Rio Tinto Alcan owns most of the houses, as well as the roads, parks, ovals, pool, the tip, even the library.
It provides water and electricity, while the state government runs the schools, police and health services.

While the model may have worked when Weipa was established in 1957, some people say it’s past its used-by date.
There’s a chronic housing shortage, the town can’t access government funding for infrastructure and it’s rapidly running out of land.

There is a push for the semi-elected Weipa Town Authority to become a fully fledged local government, which some believe could solve a range of problems.

One of the most pressing is Weipa’s ballooning population, which is fast turning a chronic housing shortage into a critical problem.

In late July, a note stuck on the window of Western Cape Real Estate, Weipa’s only agent, read: “Sorry, no rentals.”

Town authority chair Michael Rowland says Weipa has grown beyond expectations since the state government first allowed Rio Tinto to establish the settlement.

“You’ve got businesses, a regional airport, regional hospitals, schooling, you’ve got an RAAF base just outside of town – I don’t think they ever foresaw that,” he says.

Locals joke that Weipa has four seasons: you call this winter; mango madness; monsoon; and tourists.

Weipa town authority chair Michael Rowland poses for a photo in Weipa, in far North Queensland, Monday, July 18, 2022. (AAP Image/Jono Searle)

About 40,000 holidaymakers visited in 2021 to enjoy the warm weather and excellent fishing, to spot wildlife among the rivers or kick back watching the sun sink into the ocean. Rowland says tourist numbers are forecast to rise 10 per cent annually as the government seals the road into town.

The tourists vie with dozens of workers and contractors for the town’s 184 rooms at three hotels and the 167 sites at the campground.

Weipa Pottery Club president Leesa Klein says the rising tourist numbers could put pressure on local stores.
The club’s modest shop in the suburb of Rocky Point is one of the town’s few attractions, along with tours of the mine and the natural environment.

“I don’t know if we’d be able to handle restocking if we had too many people buying stuff,” she says.
Woolworths already runs out of various essential items during tourist season, and locals avoid the three local restaurants between 5pm and 7pm, even on weeknights.

Yet the town authority lacks the funding to build or upgrade tourist infrastructure.

Each year it submits its proposed budget to Rio Tinto, competing with dozens of rival proposals from the company’s international subsidiaries.

Rowland understands that allocating funds to pave a suburban road in Weipa isn’t the most attractive proposal for shareholders.

The town authority’s full budget isn’t guaranteed, and most of 2021’s $8 million grant was swallowed by ongoing maintenance costs.

But the town can’t access state or federal funding because of its status outside the local government framework.
That has led to bizarre situations, such as locals being locked out of Weipa’s new cyclone shelter for a year before the state and town authority worked out who would pay the maintenance bill.

Rio Tinto Alcan Weipa general manager Shona Markham is noncommittal when asked about normalising the town’s status.
“Weipa’s a town that’s obviously critically important to us, and we’re deeply connected to it, and we want what’s best for Weipa because we want what’s best for our team, our community,” she tells AAP.
“We care quite deeply.”

State laws limit all development to within a small 12sq km peninsula and land is running out, leaving nowhere to build housing and no property to offer investors, who could help diversify the local economy.

Weipa was recently considered for a biofuel project, but the lack of land deterred backers, who chose Gove in the Northern Territory instead.

Rowland says aside from its tourism promise, Weipa also has enormous potential as a deep-water port.

“We don’t want to be a mining town, we want to be a town with a mine,” he says.

He is eyeing opportunities for diversification after bauxite reserves are exhausted at the original East Weipa mine in 2024.
Rio Tinto will regenerate the land before handing it back to the state, signing a memorandum on the handover with traditional owners in late July.

The town authority and nearby Napranum Aboriginal Shire are both keen to use the former mine site for housing and industrial development, but it’s unclear how that might happen.

Without adequate long-term funding or land, Weipa may not be a viable community once Rio Tinto’s remaining two bauxite mines dry up.

Rowland says talks about changing the governance of Weipa took place under former minister Stirling Hinchliffe, but they stalled when he changed portfolios in 2020.

Local Government Minister Steven Miles, who is also deputy premier, says he hasn’t had any talks with the Weipa Town Authority about a transition, although he was open to talks if traditional owners and Rio Tinto were included.

“Obviously if the community, or the authority, or Rio Tinto wanted to commence those discussions they could ask to meet with me,” Miles told a budget estimates hearing earlier last week.

Rowland said if the town fades away it will impact the wider region, including Napranum and other Indigenous councils such as Mapoon and Aurukun.

“The Queensland government’s vision for this region hasn’t really kept up with the changes that have happened,” he says.
“When I ask about the long-term strategic thinking around what it’s going to do, I’m met with blank stares.”

This AAP article was made possible by support from the Meta Australian News Fund and The Walkley Foundation.


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