The Save Aramoana sign, as it was in 2005. Photo by Stephen Jaquiery.
As the debate over the proposed waterfront hotel
continues, Allan Dick draws comparisons with an earlier
controversy which divided Dunedin, the Aramoana smelter.
Recently, as I drove over Mt Cargill from Waitati down into
Port Chalmers, I saw the words ''Save Aramoana'' daubed on
the side of an old farm building. I know the farm building is
old - it has to be, because the Aramoana smelter debate
occupied us all in 1980 and 1981. A long time ago.
For those not old enough to remember anything about that
debate, let me remind you. At the time, Dunedin was going
through a troubled period - the greatest guessing game in the
media was ''which company is going to close or shift its
operations out of Dunedin next?''
This was also the time of Rob Muldoon and Bill Birch's
''Think Big'' strategies. The Clyde dam project had been
pretty much mothballed because national growth was so slow,
there was no real need for the extra power. Among the Think
Big projects envisaged by the government was a second
aluminium smelter, joining that at Tiwai Point.
Fletchers went into a joint venture with the Swiss company
Alusuisse and began looking about for a suitable site for the
smelter, as work on the Clyde dam was cranked up again.
Because there were going to be plenty of economic benefits
from a smelter, there was enthusiastic negotiating from
various regions for it.
Finally, the Fletcher-Alusuisse consortium narrowed the
choice down to a second site near Invercargill or Aramaona.
But while there were many benefits from having a smelter on
your backdoor step, there would also be downsides.
The debate in Dunedin raged and like the recent and ongoing
stadium row, split the community down the middle. The heat
was exacerbated by the division over whether the Clyde dam
was a wise thing or not and astride it all, on a national
level, was the Springbok tour.
These were heady times to be both a citizen and in the media.
I was the news editor and talkback host at Radio Otago at the
time and while I managed the news in a strictly neutral way,
my personal stand was Dunedin was in such dire straits it
needed the smelter. It was almost station policy, really.
The atmosphere in Dunedin was such I managed to get equal
billing with the then mayor Cliff Skeggs on anti-smelter
graffiti around town.
After months of tension-filled analysis of the rival sites,
Aramoana was chosen, but then negotiations began with the
government over the price of electricity - a back-to-front
process, you might think.
About this time I took a six week holiday and went to Europe,
fitting in a self-funded, side-trip to Switzerland to take a
look at the operations of an Alusiusse smelter, slap bang in
the middle of a heavily populated valley.
While I was there, the Alusuisse board decided the government
wasn't giving them electricity cheaply enough and left the
Fletchers cast about for a new partner but it all came to
nothing and so Aramoana was left to the seabirds and slipped
from the headlines, until David Gray.
That was all so long ago.
It is fitting that the ''Save Aramoana'' graffiti on the farm
building has survived as long as it has, and as I drove I was
reminded of the angst the smelter debate had created in
Dunedin, particularly when, in the distance, I could clearly
see the proposed site of the smelter.
I stopped the car and paused for a few minutes imagining what
the tranquil, lovely scene I was looking at would be like
today if the smelter had gone ahead. There would have been a
great, ugly blot of heavy industry there, right where cruise
ships carefully thread their way into Otago Harbour and where
tourist boats take people to see albatrosses and other
wildlife. It would have been a really great look! And, of
course, given the vagaries and unpredictability of the global
aluminium industry, what assurance is there that the smelter
would still have been operating today? It might just be a
grey, ugly, crumbling ruin.
Back then, Dunedin's future was far more parlous than it is
today. Back then Dunedin was a tightly corseted place -
heavens, cafes didn't exist and nobody was allowed to have
tables and chairs on the footpaths outside restaurants and
tourism was only a dream in the minds of two or three people.
Dunedin was doom and gloom and the smelter was seen, by many,
to be needed, otherwise it would become a ghost town.
Dunedin survived and today it is a prettier, far more vibrant
place and is well and truly on the tourist map.
All of which begs the question: does the city need a huge
hotel and apartment block on the harbour foreshore to attract
more tourists? Or would the long-delayed and much
talked-about conversion of the old Chief Post Office be a
Of course it would be, but the project on the table is not
the conversion of the CPO and the developer is entitled to
try and spend his money where he wants. I live in Oamaru
these days, so you could say the whole thing is none of my
business, but I find the comparison between the proposed
hotel and the Aramoana smelter quite compelling.
- Allan Dick, former talkback host and motoring
writer, has returned to Otago after living in Auckland for 25