The unfinished story of Elizabeth


Good Times, Hard Times: The Past and the Future in Elizabeth
By Mark Peel
Melbourne University Press, 1995, 301 pp., $24.95 (pb)
Reviewed by Phil Shannon
Elizabeth — built in the 1950s on the northern outskirts of Adelaide as the "City of Tomorrow" — was, during my time there in the 1970s, far from the economic progress and social harmony of its conception.
The mountain of need, which some organising work for the Unemployed Workers' Union and the Communist Party attempted to scale, was testimony to the hard times that the first of the postwar recessions in 1974-75 had brought to the city.
To teach overcrowded classes at Elizabeth High School was to witness the despair of a young generation with prospects of life on the dole and confrontations with authority figures of all kinds, grey pressures besieging the kids' capacity for human respect, friendship, solidarity and love. The highlight of the week for many was the two hours of footy on Saturday by the Central Districts Football Club.
Mark Peel's story of Elizabeth is an attempt to describe and explain the rise and fall of the workers' city, from pioneering industrial town, savaged by recession and restructuring, to its later reputation as the northern badlands replete with chronic unemployment, single mums, crime waves, vandalism and delinquency.
Elizabeth was meant to be the jewel in Liberal Premier Playford's strategy of using public planning and state subsidy to turn a state, dependent on the vicissitudes of the agricultural economy, into an industrial powerhouse. The Playford Plan was an attempt by the state to woo multinational capital from Melbourne and Sydney to Adelaide with tax breaks, cheap labour and other incentives.
Town planning was a prominent strategy in creating a climate of social and industrial stability attractive to investment. The South Australian Housing Trust (SAHT) was the housing arm of Playford's low wages, low costs industrialisation policy. It kept housing costs low to ease wages pressure. GMH was one of the vehicles, metals and whitegoods corporations to leap at the chance for increased profits in the new city at Elizabeth planned by the SAHT.
The British migrants who were brought out on assisted passage to provide the Elizabethan work force had two decades of relative prosperity; the dream of a fruitful capitalism able to provide financial and housing security gleamed promisingly. Until, that is, the boom-bust cycle of capitalism reasserted itself after the long, and exceptional, postwar economic boom ran out of puff in the mid-'70s. Recession settled in like a dense fog in 1974-75 and has never lifted.
Each recession — the mid-'70s, the early '80s, the early '90s — battered Elizabeth. Each recovery passed it by. Adult unemployment peaked at 25% in 1992, whilst youth unemployment soared to 50%.
GMH and the other major employers were never "loyal", as the town planners had hoped, to the people of Elizabeth. The companies' loyalty was to "the Elizabeth of the profit margin and the bottom line". Many factories closed down, or were moved elsewhere. All companies used the recessions as an opening for restructuring, using multi-skilling, for example, as a means to implement job cuts and speed-ups.
Workers were asked to "participate in the intensification of the labour process" to preserve a dwindling number of jobs. Union leaderships caved in to this devil's pact and became partners in managing redundancies.
Many workers, however, showed more fight. GMH workers had a reputation for militancy. Management's arrogant hustle for greater productivity, which led to such degradations as the timing of employees' toilet breaks, provoked frequent industrial guerilla warfare.
Production-line workers, especially the 10% of the GMH work force who were women, showed as much vigour in the fight against their own timid state and national union bureaucracies as against GMH management. GMH workers' "refusal to give deference to people simply because they happen to be bosses" was a feature of the GMH work force's union culture.
As economic degeneration spread, however, Elizabeth's tradition of union solidarity could not prevent a fracturing of the working-class community. The close-knit city of old began to turn in on itself, blaming the single mothers, Aborigines, the homeless and other welfare "no-hopers", increasingly housed in Elizabeth by the SAHT, for transforming the workers' city into a welfare "ghetto".
The downward spiral of social haemorrhaging, however, has been countered by much local activism over health, transport, housing and education. A campaign by parents, teachers and students, for example, recently won, from a state budget they were told had no spare money, $14.5 million for more teachers and building repairs.
Despite starting life as a PhD thesis, Peel's book is mostly quite readable and fired by an unromantic but sympathetic solidarity with Elizabeth's working class. The grey landscape of a depressed outer suburb vulnerable to capitalist whims and government economic policy, which in its paternalist Playford or economic rationalist guise is designed to slake the (insatiable) thirst of capital for the easy buck, is not only Elizabeth's — it is also Melbourne's Broadmeadows or Dandenong, Sydney's Liverpool and other working class "struggletowns".
But, as Peel also points out, the town planners' Elizabeth and the bosses' Elizabeth has always been challenged by the workers' Elizabeth. The Elizabeth story is not over yet.