Australian labor head dreams of a new Beersheba in outback

Paul Howes proposes Israel’s experience in developing the arid Negev should be applied to vast Pilbara and Kimberley regions.

August 10, 2010 04:44
3 minute read.
THE SHAW RIVER in Pilbara.

Outback 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Australia should adopt Israel’s policy of settling its desert and build planned cities in the outback based on the Israeli model of Beersheba, an Australian labor leader proposed over the weekend.

Paul Howes, the national secretary of the Australian Workers Union, one of the country’s biggest and oldest labor groups, said in a speech to the Israeli-Australian Chambers of Commerce in Sydney last weekend that Israel’s experience in developing the arid Negev should be applied to Western Australia’s vast Pilbara and Kimberley regions.

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“[We] have the model of what was done by Israel in the Negev Desert and the city of Beersheba,” Howes said.

“They have shown how the desert can bloom in skilled, scientific hands. An apparently desert region can create hundreds of new, good-quality job opportunities, based on cutting-edge technologies underpinning export enterprises.

Not exactly a land of milk and honey, but the Negev has shown itself to be a subtle arsenal of exploitable, healthy organisms – if you know where to look.”

In a telephone interview with The Jerusalem Post on Monday, the leader of the 130,000-member-union elaborated on his proposal, explaining the potential benefits for his country.

“We need to make the desert bloom, and Israel is the best example of any nation around the world that has successfully done that,” Howes said. “There’s currently a major debate in Australia about the decentralization of population and a major shortage of workers, particularly in the northwest of Australia.”

In recent years the Pilbara and Kimberley regions have experienced an economic boom thanks to the huge demand for their mineral wealth by the growing economies of the Far East.

However, Pilbara and Kimberley still have very few permanent residents. Most workers fly in and out of the remote, semi-arid area, where water is scarce and temperatures are high all year round.

Howes said his idea to encourage development in Western Australia was inspired by a proposal by Russianborn socialist Isaac Steinberg (1888-1957) to settle persecuted European Jews in the area in lieu of the Land of Israel.

Steinberg, who was briefly a commissar in Vladimir Lenin’s government before his socialist faction fell out of favor with the Bolsheviks, lobbied the Australian government in the build-up to World War II to allow Jewish refugees to build a homeland in the empty region.

His plan gained some local support, especially among union circles, but was opposed by mainstream media and officially rejected by Canberra in 1944.

“It’s interesting that there was that plan in the ’20s and ’30s to establish a Jewish settlement in Australia and the amount of support there was during that time for it,” Howes said. “The war put the plans on hold, but there’s a lot to be learned.”

Howes said he remained enthusiastic about the benefits of the Israeli model, despite being aware of its mixed results in the Negev.

While some Israeli cities have flourished, others haven’t done as well. The Negev city of Yeroham, for instance, has struggled to attract business and still suffers from chronic unemployment.

“It’s always good to learn from mistakes,” Howes said.

“The big difference between the Negev and our Australian desert is that it is incredibly wealthy and has one-third of the world’s ore and uranium reserves.”

Howes said he would suggest his proposal to the next Australian government, after the federal elections are held on August 21.

He is scheduled to tour Israel in December as a guest of the Histadrut Labor Federation.

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